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Curricular Complexity as a Metric to Forecast Issues with Transferring into a Redesigned Engineering Curriculum

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2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual On line

Publication Date

June 22, 2020

Start Date

June 22, 2020

End Date

June 26, 2021

Conference Session

2-Year College Division: Transferring and Smoothing Transitions

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Two-Year College

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David Reeping Virginia Tech Orcid 16x16

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Dr. David Reeping is a Postdoctoral Associate in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Virginia Tech. He earned his Ph.D. in Engineering Education from Virginia Tech and was a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow. He received his B.S. in Engineering Education with a Mathematics minor from Ohio Northern University. His main research interests include transfer student information asymmetries, threshold concepts in electrical and computer engineering, agent-based modeling of educational systems, and advancing quantitative and fully integrated mixed methods.

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Dustin currently serves as the Graduate Research Assistant for the Virginia Tech Network for Engineering Transfer Students (VT-NETS) Program with the Engineering Education Department at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. His research focuses primarily on access issues for underrepresented/minority and low income students to bachelor degrees through community college pathways, curricular complexity for transfer pathways into engineering, higher education policy as barriers to access, and assessment and evaluation in a higher education context. Dustin is currently pursuing completion of a PhD in Higher Education with an emphasis in Research, Policy, and Finance. Prior to starting the PhD program, Dustin has worked in a variety of roles in admissions, recruitment and outreach for an array of public and private universities, community colleges, and for the department of higher education in Colorado. Beyond academia Dustin enjoys spending time outdoors hiking, mountain biking, skiing and playing sports with his wife, son, and dog.

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Lisa D. McNair Virginia Tech

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Lisa D. McNair a Professor of Engineering Education at Virginia Tech and Director of the Center for Educational Networks and Impacts (CENI) at the Institute for Creativity, Arts and Technology (ICAT). She develops integrative education projects that transverse perspectives within and beyond the university. Her currently funded NSF projects include revolutionizing the VT ECE department, identifying practices in intentionally inclusive Maker spaces, and exploring professional identity development in Civil Engineering students with disabilities. Her work in CENI focuses on building networks between the University and multiple community sectors and supporting engagement in science, engineering, arts, and design. ORCID:

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Thomas Martin Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

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Tom Martin is a Professor in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Virginia Tech, with courtesy appointments in Computer Science and the School of Architecture + Design. He is the co-director of the Virginia Tech E-textiles Lab and the associate director of the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology. He received his Ph.D. in
Electrical and Computer Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University and his B.S. in Electrical Engineering from the University of Cincinnati. His research and teaching interests include wearable computing, electronic textiles, and interdisciplinary design teams for pervasive computing.
In 2006 he was selected for the National Science Foundation's Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) for his research in e-textile-based wearable computing.

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The Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at a large mid-Atlantic institution has recently revised its entire sophomore year curriculum as part of a Revolutionizing Engineering Departments grant. The goal of the project is to welcome a broader range of students into the department, expand student curricular choices, and widen the number of possible careers graduates embark upon. The changes brought about a set of seven interconnected courses unique to the institution that all students enrolled in the department must pass in order to advance into their specializations. Although the change was made with the best of intentions to unify what was a fragmented department across disciplinary lines and expose students to essential knowledge cutting across electrical and computer engineering, a paradox in the goal of broadening participation emerged. How do these shifts affect the transfer population? The new courses have no direct one-to-one mapping to the previous curriculum, so transferring the old versions from a community college partner in the state will, at best, require transferring sets of courses.

Accordingly, our objective was to assess the extent to which engineering transfer students could be affected by the lack of applicable credit to the new courses by using Heilman et al.’s structural complexity measure, which was calculated from a graph of prerequisite structures. Generally, higher complexity scores are negatively correlated with completion rates. We consolidated plan of study checksheets for electrical and computer engineering programs from twelve community colleges whose students are currently enrolled in the department. Each consolidated plan of study combined the list of required courses for students to obtain an Associate of Science degree in Engineering with required courses to complete either a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering or in Computer Engineering. The structural complexity for first-time-in-college (FTIC) and transfer plans of study (n = 48) were then calculated and compared across the two majors in the department before and after the change.

We found that the structural complexity of the entire program has increased substantially from 324 to 543 (+219) in Electrical Engineering and 612 to 726 (+114) in Computer Engineering for FTIC students. The pathways for transfer student into Electrical Engineering increased in structural complexity by an average of +240 and for Computer Engineering by an average of +300, indicating potential trouble in completion rates. One course, Digital Systems, was identified to be the most crucial course in the sophomore year as the prerequisite structure prevents students from making any progress if they do not earn a satisfactory grade. Transfer students can be disproportionately affected by such structures, especially for students missing prerequisites like Differential Equations or the Introduction to Engineering course required of all engineering students, leaving them even further behind than before.

The method of analyses was useful in quantitatively articulating concerns regarding curricular structure for transfer students and prompted the department to consider methods of integrating transfer students into the new curriculum. We offer suggestions for implementing such analyses to forecast potential issues brought about by curricular change.

Reeping, D., & Grote, D., & McNair, L. D., & Martin, T. (2020, June), Curricular Complexity as a Metric to Forecast Issues with Transferring into a Redesigned Engineering Curriculum Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--34363

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