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Curricular Choice and Technical – Non-Technical Balance in Environmental Engineering Degree Programs

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

June 29, 2016





Conference Session

Environmental Engineering Division: Engagement, Experiential Learning, and Balance

Tagged Division

Environmental Engineering

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Paper Authors


Angela R. Bielefeldt University of Colorado - Boulder

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Angela Bielefeldt is a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder in the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Architectural Engineering (CEAE). She serves as the ABET assessment coordinator for the department. Professor Bielefeldt is the faculty director of the Sustainable By Design Residential Academic Program, a living-learning community where interdisciplinary students learn about and practice sustainability. Bielefeldt is also a licensed P.E. Professor Bielefeldt's research interests in engineering education include service-learning, sustainable engineering, social responsibility, ethics, and diversity.

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Marissa H. Forbes University of Colorado - Boulder

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Marissa H. Forbes is a research associate at the University of Colorado Boulder and lead editor of the TeachEngineering digital library. She previously taught middle school science and engineering and wrote K-12 STEM curricula while an NSF GK-12 graduate engineering fellow at CU. With a master’s degree in civil engineering she went on to teach physics for the Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST), where she also created and taught a year-long, design-based DSST engineering course for seniors. Forbes earned her PhD in civil engineering, with an engineering education research focus.

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Jacquelyn F. Sullivan University of Colorado - Boulder

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Jacquelyn Sullivan is founding co-director of the General Engineering Plus degree program in the University of Colorado Boulder’s College of Engineering and Applied Science. She spearheaded design and launch of the Engineering GoldShirt Program to provide a unique access pathway to engineering for high potential, next tier students not admitted through the standard admissions process and the CU teach Engineering Program - creating a pathway to secondary math and science teacher licensure through engineering. Sullivan was conferred as an ASEE Fellow in 2011 and was awarded NAE’s 2008 Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering and Technology Education.

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Self-determination theory indicates that choice is an important component of motivation and satisfaction. Further, calls for holistically trained engineers demand that students gain knowledge in humanities and social science topics. This research explored top-ranked environmental engineering bachelor’s degree programs with regards to: (1) opportunities for students to make choices in their courses (such as free electives and technical electives); and (2) the balance of required technical and non-technical courses in the curriculum. These metrics were compared with chemical and civil engineering degrees, as well as mathematics, chemistry, and physics degrees. The curricular requirements were determined using the 2013-2014 online university catalogs, including counting and characterizing degree program credit hours as either technical coursework (engineering, math, and natural science), non-technical coursework, or free electives. Among the 19 environmental engineering degree programs explored in this study, free electives ranged from 0 to 22% of the curriculum, with a median of 0%. The total amount of the curriculum that allowed any level of choice ranged from 14 to 80%, with a median of 44%. This shows a high degree of variability among top-rated environmental engineering programs in the amount of course choices that students can make. By comparison, the median for all engineering programs at top-ranked institutions was 3% free electives and 40% any type of choice. The percentage of technical courses in the environmental engineering curricula ranged from 56 to 86%, with a median of 78%. The median across all engineering programs was very similar at 76% technical. The percentage of non-technical courses in the environmental engineering curricula ranged from 13 to 36%, with a median of 20%; similar to the median of 21% across all engineering programs. Degrees in math, chemistry, and physics had higher percentages of free electives (median 18-19%) and total choice (65-81%), and lower technical requirements (median 47-54%), as compared to engineering degrees. The results demonstrate that environmental engineering students have comparatively less choice and curricular balance that peers in natural science and math. However, there are accredited and highly ranked environmental engineering programs that allow both choice and greater curricular balance. These programs serve as examples to others who may want to design programs that allow students to exercise their innate need for autonomy and also balance their educational experience.

Bielefeldt, A. R., & Forbes, M. H., & Sullivan, J. F. (2016, June), Curricular Choice and Technical – Non-Technical Balance in Environmental Engineering Degree Programs Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.26622

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