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Using Benchmarking Methods to Inform Curriculum Changes in Mechanical Engineering Programs

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2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


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Publication Date

June 22, 2020

Start Date

June 22, 2020

End Date

June 26, 2021

Conference Session

Mechanical Engineering Technical Session: Assessment and Accreditation: Making the Grade!

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Mechanical Engineering

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Paper Authors


John Whitefoot University of Pittsburgh

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Dr. Whitefoot’s research interests include engineering education, energy system optimization, transportation policy, and transportation/energy integration. As a teaching professor within the MEMS department, his roles include course development, classroom instruction, and research on engineering education, with a focus on thermofluidic and experimental methods courses. Dr. Whitefoot has worked extensively in the automotive industry. Prior to his appointment in the Swanson School of Engineering, he was with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the Department of Transportation in Washington, DC, performing technical policy analysis for vehicle fuel economy regulations.

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Mark David Bedillion Carnegie Mellon University Orcid 16x16

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Dr. Bedillion received the BS degree in 1998, the MS degree in 2001, and the PhD degree in 2005, all from the mechanical engineering department of Carnegie Mellon University. After a seven year career in the hard disk drive industry, Dr. Bedillion was on the faculty of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology for over 5 years before joining Carnegie Mellon as a Teaching Faculty in 2016. Dr. Bedillion's research interests include distributed manipulation, control applications in data storage, control applications in manufacturing, and STEM education.

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Engineering curriculum development often occurs in a single course or a series of courses, for instance where new material or tools are implemented (e.g., the inclusion of CAD/CAE tools throughout design courses). However, the entire curriculum for a degree should be periodically reviewed to investigate holistic characteristics and inform broader curriculum changes. This paper seeks to use benchmarking of other institutions as an initial step to inform whole curriculum development for a Mechanical Engineering degree. This benchmarking will be used as an initial tool to investigate changes in the Mechanical Engineering curricula at The University of Pittsburgh (Pitt) and Carnegie Mellon University (CMU).

Ten institutions, including Pitt and CMU, were selected for this study, with a goal of including both public and private institutions as well as a range of department sizes. The most recent Mechanical Engineering degree requirements were compared course-by-course to quantify broad trends in numbers of credits required in various areas and also find specific differences in particular requirements. The required courses were separated into three broad areas: Math & Science, Engineering, and Other; and the number of credits in each area were tallied and compared. Engineering was further subdivided into Mechanical and non-Mechanical courses for a more detailed comparison. Finally, Engineering courses were organized into subject areas (e.g., Mechanics / Dynamics, Thermo-Fluids, Dynamic Systems & Controls, etc.) and the requirements in each area were compared to understand differences in emphases between institutions.

The broad benchmarking results show that all institutions have similar numbers of Math & Science credit requirements (30 – 36) as well as a similar number of total required credits (128 – 129). The number of Engineering credits ranges from 51 to 79, with an average of 65.4 credits. The number of specifically Mechanical Engineering credits required ranges from 45 – 67, with an average of 51.4. The remainder of the credits in Other ranged from 19 – 45, with an average of 29.6.

Outcomes from this study show that Pitt’s program requires approximately 10 more Engineering credits than the average with a corresponding low number of General Education credits, and is thus a comparatively inflexible program. Additionally, Pitt requires more specific mechanical engineering courses, such as a second Thermodynamics and a second Fluid Mechanics course. CMU’s curriculum falls within the middle of the range for comparable institutions in requirements and flexibility. These findings will be used by the faculty of these departments as an initial step in deciding future curriculum changes. For example, Pitt may decide to make some required courses technical electives, in line with ASME Vision 2030’s suggestion for increased curricular flexibility. Likewise, CMU may decide to increase the flexibility of its curriculum even further noting that other curricula (e.g., the MIT 2A curriculum) have substantially greater flexibility. This method is transparent and adaptable by other universities as a first-step in analyzing their own curricula.

Challenges and limitations of this approach include the somewhat arbitrary separation of engineering courses into Mechanical or non-Mechanical and the difficulty of categorizing courses based on course descriptions alone. Furthermore, the selection of only a small number of institutions for benchmarking may not be representative of broader trends, and it is impossible to discern trends over time by only looking at current degree requirements.

Whitefoot, J., & Bedillion, M. D. (2020, June), Using Benchmarking Methods to Inform Curriculum Changes in Mechanical Engineering Programs Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--35452

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