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Scientific Foundations of Engineering: A New Curricular Model for Engineering Education

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2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 14, 2015

Start Date

June 14, 2015

End Date

June 17, 2015





Conference Session

Engineering Physics & Physics Division Technical Session 1

Tagged Division

Engineering Physics & Physics

Page Count


Page Numbers

26.1357.1 - 26.1357.12



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Paper Authors


Stephen W. McKnight Northeastern University

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Stephen W. McKnight received a B. A. in Physics from Oberlin College in 1969 and a Ph. D. in Solid State Physics from U. Maryland-College Park in 1977. After completing a National Research Council Fellowship at the Naval Research Lab, he joined the faculty in the Physics Department at Northeastern University in 1980. In 1985, he took an appointment in the Center for Electromagnetics Research, an NSF-sponsored Industry/University Collaborative Research Center. In 1987 he was appointed Associate Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Northeastern and in 2001 was promoted to Full Professor. Since 2000 he has been the Education Thrust Leader for the Center for Subsurface Sensing and Imaging Systems, an NSF Engineering Research Center headquartered at Northeastern, and since 2010 he has served the same role for the Department of Homeland Security ALERT research center at Northeastern. He has published over 40 refereed journal publications on microwave, far-infrared, and optical materials and devices, served five terms on the Northeastern University Faculty Senate Agenda Committee including two terms as the elected Secretary of the Faculty Senate, and wrote the department’s self-study report and coordinated the site visit preparations for the Electrical and Computer Engineering ABET accreditation in 2001. In 2004-2005 Prof. McKnight served as Interim Chair of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department.

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Christos Zahopoulos Northeastern University

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Christos Zahopoulos is Associate Professor at Northeastern University, with a joint appointment in the College of Engineering and the Department of Education. He also is the Founder and Executive Director of Northeastern University's Center for STEM Education ( For more than 20 years, Professor Christos Zahopoulos has been actively involved in STEM Education at the local, state and national levels, playing a key role in initiating and implementing numerous STEM Education programs and partnerships, which have received close to $30 million in grants and gifts. He serves in numerous STEM Education Boards, including the Governor’s STEM Advisory Council. Professor Zahopoulos received his Ph.D. degree in Physics from Northeastern University and was a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Division of Applied Sciences at Harvard University.

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Scientific Foundations of Engineering: A New Curricular Model for Engineering EducationTradition physics undergraduate education has used a “spiral curriculum” method: mechanics,statistical and thermal physics, electromagnetics, and quantum physics are introduced in afreshman-level survey course; each of these subjects is covered again at a higher level insophomore and junior level courses; and selected topics are revisited in senior-level “specialtopic” or advanced study courses. This model allows for deepening understanding of each topicand the application of more sophisticated mathematical methods – such as complex analysis,differential equations, integral transforms, matrix methods, and linear algebra – as the students’mathematics preparation progresses. In addition, the connections between each subfield ofphysics become apparent from the early survey courses and from the application of similaradvanced mathematical techniques at each level of coverage.In contrast, most engineering students take all of their basic physics and chemistry duringfreshman year in survey courses which are commonly perceived to be unpopular hurdles into thestudy of engineering. After this early cursory exposure to the science, engineering studentsspend the rest of their undergraduate education focusing on the details of electrical, mechanical,civil, or chemical engineering in which applications take precedence over scientific foundationsto the extent that electrical engineers, for example, typically assume that Kirchhoff’s voltage lawis always true despite its obvious violation of Faraday’s law of induced EMF. The danger of thispremature specialization of engineering education becomes apparent when engineers from onediscipline work in teams with engineers from other disciplines and find they have no commonunderstanding of problems outside of their own engineering discipline.The authors will describe their experience in teaching an advanced survey course on the physicalscience foundations of engineering to graduate engineering students in an engineering leadershipprogram, and make a case for such a course in junior or senior-year engineering curricula. Sinceavailable physics texts are not well-designed for the target audience of advanced engineeringstudents, the authors have written a draft text Scientific Foundations of Engineering, which hasbeen accepted for publication early next year by Cambridge University Press. Advancedengineering students have often used sophisticated mathematical techniques in their disciplinarytraining to treat phenomena such as harmonic oscillator resonances in mechanical systems andelectromagnetic response of materials. In our course, and in our pending book, such similarphenomena that cross disciplines are treated in a unified manner, showing the conceptualconnection between them. A large section of the course and book involve an introduction toquantum physics, a topic missing from most engineering curricula despite the critical role ofsemiconductor band theory, for example, in all modern electronics. Both the class and the texthave been informed by our experience that engineers respond well to theory illustrated byexamples – particularly examples with an engineering flavor.

McKnight, S. W., & Zahopoulos, C. (2015, June), Scientific Foundations of Engineering: A New Curricular Model for Engineering Education Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.24694

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