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Drivers and Impacts of a ‘Clean Slate’ Foundational Engineering Curriculum Redesign at a Large Southwestern University

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2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual Conference

Publication Date

July 26, 2021

Start Date

July 26, 2021

End Date

July 19, 2022

Conference Session

First-Year Programs: First-Year Experiences

Tagged Division

First-Year Programs

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Randy Hugh Brooks Texas A&M University Orcid 16x16

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After 23 years in Telecom building LD, internet, and email platforms and networks, I observed that the front line personnel that I was hiring didn’t have what I considered to be skills that they should be bringing to the table. I began investigating why, and that led me to high school.

Alas, I began my journey in Education in 2010 inhabiting the classrooms of Lovejoy High School, where my two daughters attended. I redubbed my PreCalculus course as Problem-Solving with Brooks and was also afforded the opportunity to lead an impactul Project Lead the Way (PLTW) Principles of Engineering (PoE) course, a project-based learning survey of the engineering discipline.

Since the Summer of 2015 I have been privileged to work with the Texas A and M Sketch Recognition Lab (TAMU SRL) to evaluate a couple of online tutorial tools (Intelligent Tutoring Systems (ITS)) currently under development, Mechanix and Sketchtivity, that provide immediate constructive feedback to the students and student-level metrics to the instructors. I presented on this work at the state and national PLTW Conventions and at CPTTE in 2016.

I also spent 5 semesters beginning the Fall of 2015 taking online courses learning how to construct and deliver online courses. This resulted in a MSEd from Purdue University in Learning Design and Technology (LDT).

This widely varied background prepared me well for my next big adventure. Beginning in August 2018 I became the Texas A and M Professor of Practice for the Texas A and M Engineering Academy at Blinn College in Brenham. Texas A and M Engineering Academies are an innovative approach to providing the planet with more Aggie Engineers.

I am focused on enhancing the high school through first-year college experience and am an engaged member of the Texas A and M IEEI (Institute for Engineering Education and Innovation).

My foundations were set by an upbringing on the family ranch near Joshua, Texas and 4 memorable years at Texas A and M where I met my wife, I led Bugle Rank #7 in the Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band (Class of ’86 Whoop!), and dove into Telecom Engineering. Once in Telecom, my learning continued at MCI, Vartec, and Charter.

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This complete evidence-based practice paper will address the research question: “What is the perceived impact, and identified drivers from myriad perspectives, of a ‘clean slate’ foundational engineering curriculum redesign?”

Following two years of parsing student performance results, instructor surveys, employer/recruiter feedback, and student evaluations, a new first-year and second-year engineering student curriculum was created with skillset and content-knowledge objectives attuned to the future that lay ahead for engineering students.

The engineering leadership team chose to address the need for change using a deliberate “re-building strategy” (Kolmos et al., 2015). This choice involved invoking “a process oriented approach to the remaking of a curriculum…, involving external stakeholders. This applies sound systems engineering principles to the engineering curriculum itself.” (Kolmos et al., 2015)

This qualitative study explores multiple student and instructor perspectives regarding the impact of the wholesale curriculum redesign and highlights the ongoing enhancements which are occurring. The study concludes with exploration of a framework for addressing and managing the need to maintain an evolving curriculum going forward.

The study will include a comprehensive discussion of the challenges driving the need for a rebuild. These items will be clearly delineated to include an exploration of the varied solutions considered.

“The re-building strategy…is a fundamental change of academic view linking academia with societal context and needs…by emphasizing a shared set of values, identity and commitment. It is about educating engineers who will become change agents after graduation, with an understanding of stakeholder needs and the wider societal impact of engineered systems within the innovation process.” (Kolmos et al., 2015) Although the need to re-build the curriculum was identified based on deficiencies, the desire to produce graduates equipped to impact society, or change agents, became the vision.

The previous first-year and second-year engineering courses at the large southwestern university were fully replaced by a feedback-driven reconstruct that immediately immerses incoming freshmen in a course focused on computer program design, algorithmic thinking and problem-solving, using Python, with a weekly peppering of digital explorations of various engineering disciplines. Many of the lab assignments for this course involve developing code to address challenges encountered in their concurrent calculus course. All engineering students begin as general engineering students and follow the same course progression for their first three semesters before continuing into more specialized courses. The student may apply for acceptance to a specific major following a successful second semester, yet they will continue with the third course in the common sequence whether or not they are accepted into a major.

Many students select engineering following counselor guidance referencing significant math and science capabilities, but the students often do not fully understand the myriad opportunities and rigorous cognitive demands that populate their chosen path. The discovery of this student naivety was the driving force behind development of weekly online self-paced multimedia explorations to introduce the incoming freshmen to the many engineering options. Though currently organized by major, there is consideration of an adjustment to present whole industries each week while highlighting the variability of engineering majors working in those industries.

During the second and third semesters, the students move into a cross-curricular mode wherein the engineering course lecture and lab mirrors the concurrent physics course concepts such that lab activities are a practical, tangible demonstration of the physics concepts addressed in the classroom lessons. The engineering lecture is then a mixture of concept extensions and further application of the physics lessons as well as an opportunity to incorporate engineering ethics studies into the core engineering courses.

As further support of the tenets of the approach strategy, “The development of the new first-year engineering program at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth began with a review of the education literature. The literature is consistent, and often overwhelming, in the following conclusions:  Active and collaborative learning techniques can result in higher performance and longer information retention compared to the traditional methods.  Integrating math, science, and engineering courses is an effective means to teaching students to deal successfully with cross-disciplinary problems.” (Pendergrass et al., 2001)

The research data sources pointed increasingly towards the need to develop student programming and collaboration skills quickly to better prepare for the data processing and analysis demands of their upcoming courses.

This study will explore the details of the rebuild and present impact feedback from many stakeholders. The purpose of the study is to provide guidance for colleges assessing options for a first-year curriculum refresh.

Brooks, R. H. (2021, July), Drivers and Impacts of a ‘Clean Slate’ Foundational Engineering Curriculum Redesign at a Large Southwestern University Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference.

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