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Why Should They Care? Meeting the Challenges of Teaching Non-engineers to Engineer

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2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


San Antonio, Texas

Publication Date

June 10, 2012

Start Date

June 10, 2012

End Date

June 13, 2012



Conference Session

Recruitment, Retention, and First-year Programs in ECE

Tagged Division

Electrical and Computer

Page Count


Page Numbers

25.1478.1 - 25.1478.14



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Paper Authors


Constance D. Hendrix U.S. Air Force Academy

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Constance D. Hendrix, M.S.E.E., M.B.A., is currently assigned to U.S. Air Force Academy as an Assistant Professor and Course Director for the core class Principles of Air Force Electronic Systems. Email:

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Marcus L. Roberts U.S. Air Force Academy

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Marcus L. Roberts, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Email:

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William J. Eccles Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology

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Jeffrey Butler U.S. Air Force Academy


Randall Deppensmith U.S. Air Force Academy

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Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering

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Why Should They Care? Meeting the Challenges of Teaching Non-Engineers to EngineerTo prepare students for today’s globally-interconnected, technology-reliant world, it is absolutelyvital that they possess sound technological skills when they graduate. This need is even moreparamount when the students immediately enter the United States military upon graduation. Atthe United States Air Force Academy, students are required to take several core engineeringcourses, regardless of their major, to graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree. An earlierASEE paper [AC 2010-758] explored the basic pedagogy developed by the Air ForceAcademy’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering to overcome the inherentchallenges of teaching non-engineers to engineer. This paper will explore the success of thoseefforts based on tangible feedback and assessment data. Furthermore, the paper will specificallyaddress a monumental challenge beyond educating the students: motivating them to care.Various approaches will be discussed and solutions graded on their success or failure.The feedback and assessment data presented in the paper depict a measure of success in teachingnon-engineers to engineer. Many students see value in the course, but either dislike learningabout technology or become discouraged due to subpar analytical skills. Some traditionalengineering skills we strive to instill and hone include: problem solving, detailed technical work,and critical thinking. Yet, beyond the classroom technical performance, a recurring crack existsin the execution of this course. Like any 12-step recovery program, we first recognize that wehave a motivation problem.On the first day of class, students are generally polled, “If this class was optional, would you takeit?” The taciturn response is not surprising, and it is coupled with fear and hesitation. Initially,non-engineering students do not understand why they must learn engineering concepts,especially if it unrelated to their major. Why should they care? For many students, the course isanother box checked for graduation; yet for all students, the lessons learned in the class willbenefit them in their military careers and beyond. Many students will have military jobs that willbe unrelated to their major. Furthermore, students that possess a fundamental understanding ofhow electronic systems work will be better decision-makers in our technologically advancedmilitary. This understanding will combat ignorance of devices that most people depend on dailyin today’s modern society.Within this contextual framework, our course was developed and has morphed with the audiencein mind. Feedback and assessment data from the past two years confirm that a focus on conceptsbefore details is imperative. The key elements—keeping readings, demonstrations and formativeassessments direct and to the point; highlighting relationships between concepts; providingrelevant examples; providing alternate explanations to mathematical methods—are in place andresults show promise. Our instructors meet these tough critics through enthusiastic motivation, aclear focus on concepts before details, relation of concepts to relevant Air Force missions whenpossible, and reinforcement to enable long term memory. However, the process of teachingengineering to a non-engineer remains a challenge. The ultimate goal is for the students to retainthe knowledge they gained in the course, relate the information to things they see and use everyday, and recognize that they do understand the basics while on active duty.

Hendrix, C. D., & Roberts, M. L., & Eccles, W. J., & Butler, J., & Deppensmith, R. (2012, June), Why Should They Care? Meeting the Challenges of Teaching Non-engineers to Engineer Paper presented at 2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, San Antonio, Texas. 10.18260/1-2--22235

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