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Review of a First-Year Engineering Design Course

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2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Indianapolis, Indiana

Publication Date

June 15, 2014

Start Date

June 15, 2014

End Date

June 18, 2014



Conference Session

FPD 6: Course Content and Educational Strategies

Tagged Division

First-Year Programs

Page Count


Page Numbers

24.1054.1 - 24.1054.29



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Paper Authors


Lydia Prendergast Rutgers, School of Engineering

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Assistant Dean for Academic Affairs and Engineering Education

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Eugenia Etkina Rutgers University

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I am a professor of science education at the Graduate School of Education, Rutgers University.

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First-Year Engineering Reform: Overview and Methods A dynamic first-year engineering experience is crucial in maintaining and encouragingexcitement, retention, success, and satisfaction in and about the field of engineering. Accordingto ABET’s EC2000 future engineers should learn the foundations of engineering design, whilecultivating professional skills as team work, leadership, and communication before they enter theworkforce. In accordance with ABET’s EC2000, dynamic first-year experiences should speak tothe acquisition and use of traditional skills, as well as in the professional development skills.Dynamic educational experiences are typically steeped in active learning. Active learning hasfoundational roots in cognitive science and in the physiological processes of the brain. There areseveral methods of active learning reform that can be used in the first year. This paper reviewsthe factors affecting retention and satisfaction in engineering, the foundations of active learning,and active learning reform methodologies. Lastly, this study highlights the combination of activelearning reform chosen for a first-year introduction to engineering course at a mid-sizedengineering institution in the Northeast. The purpose of this study is to answer the researchquestion: What is the relationship of the chosen reform measures to retention, success, andsatisfaction in engineering?Factors affecting persistence in engineering: There are several factors that affect retention,success, and satisfaction in engineering. These factors include but are not limited to: self-efficacy, race, gender, faculty interaction, high school preparedness, curricular rigor, academicperformance, and interest in other majors. Developing a dynamic experience in the first yearengineering curriculum can be used to counteract the effects of several of these issues bycultivating strong analytical and professional skills that are needed to succeed in a rigorousengineering curriculum. To create a dynamic learning experience, the student must be activelyinvolved in as many aspects of the learning process as possible. Educational experiences such asthis are created with active learning methodologies.Active Leaning: Active learning is an instructional style where the student is actively engaged inconstructing her/his own knowledge in an environment created by the instructor as opposed topassively listening to the instructor transmitting the new knowledge. Cognitive science arguesthat people learn by fitting new information into existing cognitive structures in an activelearning environment. In this regard, two renowned psychologists and cognitivists, Piaget andVygotsky (Beveridge, 1997; Vygotsky 1997), have developed different theories concerninglearning. Both Vygotsky’s and Piaget’s theories, while differing, work harmoniously to helpcreate an effective learning strategy. Effective learning begins with an active or socialenvironment, scaffolded for age-appropriateness, facilitated by a more knowledgeable person,and used in conjunction with the individual construction of a scientific concept. There are severalinstructional approaches in science education based on both the work of Piaget and Vygotskythat engineering educators can use to transform existing curricula and create new curricula,courses and lessons (Etkina & Van Heuvelen, 2001).Reforms in Engineering Education: Teaching and learning methods need to evolve to meet theneeds of today’s students. Deductive teaching methods like lecturing (or chalk and talk), routineproblem solving, etc. have been in place for centuries, and have been shown to be ineffective inhelping students learn (Tinto, 1993; Felder, Felder & Dietz, 1998; Hoit & Ohland, 1998; Oh,2010, Hake 1998). Conversely, inductive or reformed pedagogies are likely to be more effective.Reforming engineering education in the first year can start from creating or revamping a singlecornerstone course to including the entire first year curriculum. Such strategies as guided inquirylearning, problem-based learning, project-based learning, case-based teaching, and cooperativelearning aid in the increase in retention by providing students with the academic and professionalskills required to be successful in engineering (Burton, 1999). Choosing appropriate reform measures must be done with careful thought and logisticalplanning. At a mid-sized engineering school in the north-east, the reform measure chosen is acornerstone first-year project-based design course. In order to provide students with a lastingdynamic hands-on experience, the curriculum includes discipline-based projects, scaffolded withactive learning techniques. The projects are structured such that the students will need to utilizeconceptual research, engineering design, testing, analysis, cycle revision, communication, andteamwork. These elements of engineering design, projects, communication, and group-workusing active learning pedagogies address the concerns related to retention, academic success,satisfaction, and the needs of the engineering workforce.Methods: The new course was offered beginning Fall 2009. By the end of Spring 2012, 190students had completed the course. During Spring 2012, the effectiveness of the course wasassessed by using three methods of analysis: retention, cumulative GPA, and student opinions(via interviews) for students who took the reformed course versus students who took thetraditional course.Findings: This new project based course for first-year students was created based on principlesof STEM education research in order to meet the needs of a 21st century engineering curriculum(Ercolano, 1996; Hall, Cronk, Brackin, Barker, Crittenden, 2008; Tinto, 1993). The course hasproven to be a positive addition to the educational experience for undergraduate engineeringstudents. Three-year retention rose 19%; cumulative gpa rose by 3 tenths; and students reportedhigher satisfaction with their experiences. The findings support that that the new course fills agap in helping produce successful engineers.

Prendergast, L., & Etkina, E. (2014, June), Review of a First-Year Engineering Design Course Paper presented at 2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Indianapolis, Indiana. 10.18260/1-2--22987

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