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Getting The "Big Picture" In Engineering: Using Narratives And Conceptual Maps

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2003 Annual Conference


Nashville, Tennessee

Publication Date

June 22, 2003

Start Date

June 22, 2003

End Date

June 25, 2003



Conference Session

Learning and Teaching Issues

Page Count


Page Numbers

8.596.1 - 8.596.24



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Paper Authors

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Glenn Ellis

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Alan Rudnitsky

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Borjana Mikic

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Session 2531

Getting the “big picture” in engineering: Using narratives and conceptual maps

Glenn W. Ellis, Borjana Mikic and Alan N. Rudnitsky Smith College, Northampton, MA


The Picker Engineering Program at Smith College is the first undergraduate program leading to a degree in engineering at a woman’s liberal arts college. The foundation and rationale for the program conceives of engineering as connecting basic scientific and mathematical principles in the service of humanity. Thus imagined, engineering finds itself well situated at a liberal arts college. Moreover women have not been adequately represented in the field of engineering and the program at Smith College will help remedy this. The engineering program’s goal is to educate engineers who are adaptable to the rapidly changing demands of society; preparing them to lead society toward an equitable and sustainable future.1 The engineering faculty members realize that establishing this program and achieving these ambitious goals will require substantial innovations in pedagogy and curriculum. This paper describes some of the pedagogical approaches that are being put into place. The creation of this pedagogy is a work in progress.

All the pedagogical innovations share several goals and chief among these is that the learning be meaningful rather than rote. Too often engineering education has been organized around the teaching and learning of procedures to be applied to solving particular classes of problems. The pedagogy practiced in engineering courses typically takes a “bottom-up” approach, adding incremental bits and pieces as students tackle increasingly difficult problems. The hope is that students will eventually get the big picture. The all-too-frequent reality, however, is that students cannot transfer knowledge. This becomes evident when they are unable to solve problems even slightly different from those used for practice and instruction. The lack of transfer is even more apparent across courses. This narrowness of learning and lack of transfer is a widely recognized problem in engineering education and is eloquently expressed by Schneck (2001):

The exponential surge of material that must now be covered in engineering curricula, its rapid obsolescence, and the general trend toward more holistic attitudes in 21st century education, all require that the engineer of the future be a product of a program of integrated learning – one that teaches students to use unified, deductive approaches to the creative formulation and solution to engineering problems. Moreover, successful engineering programs in the 21st century university will be those that address the current void between product-oriented, skills training, and process-oriented, holistic training. That is, as engineering educators we spend considerable time teaching skills – “how to” techniques for applying the laws of physics; “cook-book” approaches for formulating and

Proceedings of the 2003 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition Copyright  2003, American Society for Engineering Education

Ellis, G., & Rudnitsky, A., & Mikic, B. (2003, June), Getting The "Big Picture" In Engineering: Using Narratives And Conceptual Maps Paper presented at 2003 Annual Conference, Nashville, Tennessee. 10.18260/1-2--11502

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