ArticlePDF Available

Redesigning Engineering Education

Authors:

Abstract

In developing the PLAN, WPI sought to address concerns inherent to its then traditional curriculum that was rigid, unresponsive to differences among students, and was compartmentalized by independent departments so that intellectual growth was fragmented. The PLAN was an entirely new and different educational program responsive to the needs of students and society while nurturing sensitivity to the ideas and values of our society. It included fundamental departures from the traditional elements of technical education including: A. The achievement of competence rather than the accumulation of credits. B. Individual freedom and responsibility in planning the program of study. C. A large component of project and independent study learning. D. Emphasis on education as a cooperative venture between faculty and students. Frequently, changes to engineering curricula involve the addition of new material to a well-established body of knowledge. Deciding which components to eliminate becomes the central issue in curricula reform. To adopt and implement the PLAN, the WPI community necessarily employed a more fundamental approach by focusing on learning rather than information transfer. Additionally, the PLAN has been a dynamic entity undergoing continual and substantive revision in the best spirit of continuous improvement. In the following sections the processes invoked in the adoption and revision of the PLAN by the WPI community are outlined in the hope they may help guide other faculties in embracing substantive revision.
Realizing the New Paradigm
for Engineering Education
Proceedings
June 3-6, 1998
Omni Inner Harbor Hotel
Baltimore, Maryland
Conference Co-Chairs:
Edward W. Ernst
University of South Carolina
Irene C. Peden
University of Washington
Engineering Foundation Conferences
Three Park Avenue
New York, NY 10016-5902
T: 1-212-591-7836; F: 1-212-591-7441
e-mail: engfnd@aol.com; www: http://www.engfnd.org
This conference has been supported, in part, by the Engineering Education Centers Division of the National Science Foundation
through Grant EEC-9802123.
Realizing the New Paradigm for Engineering Education
i
Redesigning Engineering Education
William W. Durgin, Associate
Provost Worcester Polytechnic
Institute
Edward A. Parrish, President
Worcester Polytechnic
Institute
Abstract
In developing the PLAN, WPI sought to address
concerns inherent to its then traditional curriculum that
was rigid, unresponsive to differences among students,
and was compartmentalized by independent departments
so that intellectual growth was fragmented.
The PLAN was an entirely new and different
educational program responsive to the needs of students
and society while nurruring sensitivity to the ideas and
values of our society. It included fundamental departures
from the traditional elements of technical education
including:
A. The achievement of competence rather than
the accumulation of credits.
B. Individual freedom and responsbility
in planning the program of study.
C. A large component of project and
independent study learning.
D. Emphasis on education as a coopera
tive venture between faculty and
students.
Frequently, changes to engineering curricula
involve the addition of new material to a well-established
body of knowledge. Deciding which components to
eliminate becomes the central issue in curricula reform. To
adopt and implement the PLAN, the WPI community
necessarily employed a more fundamental approach by
focusing on learning rather than information transfer.
Additionally, the PLAN has been a dynamic entity
undergoing continual and substantive revision in the best
spirit of continuous improvement. In the following sections
the processes invoked in the adoption and revision of the
PLAN by the WPI community are outlined in the hope they
may help guide other faculties in embracing substantive
revision.
Introduction
The impetus for curricular reform was faculty
recognition that "the school didn't have goals for the
future."` Debate in a faculty meeting led to the appointment
of a planning committee that studied the matter and made
reports over an eighteen-month period. This process
involved students,
Realizing the New Paradigm for Engineering Education
faculty, administrators, trustees, and alumni and resulted in
a plan, the WPI PLAN as it came to be known, which was
voted by the faculty and adopted by the administration and
trustees. The faculty vote was not unanimous; one-third of
the faculty did not vote in the affirmative.
These same thoughts were echoed in "The
Engineering Education Coalitions"' which traces the origin
of the coalitions to the late 1980's when senior NSF
managers sought to change the prevailing paradigm of
engineering education to a comprehensive approach that
focused on connecting and integrating curricular elements.
The program aimed to establish curricula that would
engage students in exciting and fulfilling studies and
provide them with a strong foundation and the capacity for
lifelong learning.
What WPI has learned as a community about
implementing a "change in the prevailing paradigm" may
be helpful at other institutions as the coalitions proceed in
their efforts to challenge conventional thinking about
engineering education throughout the US. What WPI has
learned has also aided greatly in repositioning WPI as a
broader comprehensive university seeking to define the
kind of liberal education needed for the next century.'
Original WPI PLAN
The PLAN consisted of several principal elements
along with assessment mechanisms. It was begun in 1971
when WPI was predominately an engineering school. The
principal components were:
D Projects and Independent Study- approximately 25
percent of students' time would be spent applying
theoretical knowledge to practical problems. It was
envisioned, for example, that undergraduate students
would work side-by-side with faculty members and
graduate students at the frontiers of discovery.
D Internship Centers - students would conduct
meaningful work in line with their studies in an
industrial setting under the guidance of a faculty
member.
Multidisciplinary Approach - combining the study of
science and engineering with courses in the
humanities and social sciences.
D Intersession - a concentrated time between terms
during which visiting scholars would conduct seminars
and short courses.
D Calendar - four terms each seven weeks in length plus
a
summer term.
The degree requirements specified that students
must demonstrate competence by applying knowledge to
unfamiliar problems. To this end, it was envisioned that
each
62
student would pass a comprehensive examination and
satisfactorily complete two advanced level projects (each
the equivalent of a term's academic work or one-quarter
academic year) and complete satisfactory studies in a
minor field. By the time the first class graduated, the
comprehensive examination had been implemented as a
competency examination. Evaluation consisted of written
evaluations of project and independent study work on an
"acceptable" or "acceptable with distinction" basis.
Competency examinations were administered by the
appropriate disciplinary department and were strictly on a
pass/fail basis. Problems were original and unfamiliar to
students. Typically, students were given a few days to
research and work the problem and prepare a written
response, which was submitted to an examining
committee, much like a thesis committee. Students were
then given an oral examination and informed immediately
whether or not they had demonstrated competence.
Students were eligible to take the competency examination
after successful completion of a minimum quantity of
academic work. It could be retaken any number of times,
but most students successfully demonstrated competence
within four years. A few were successful after three or
three and one-half years while some took longer than four
years.
The structure of the PLAN included a number of
significant departures from traditional engineering and
science pedagogy. Students were given the freedom and the
responsibility for their own courses of study in a
non-prescriptive environment with a focus on outcomes.
The curriculum was largely project-based with the projects
drawn from the "real world." Students necessarily learned
to deal with open-ended problems, to learn on an as-needed
basis, and to take responsibility for their own progress. The
PLAN dramatically increased the advising responsibility of
the faculty and was believed to be more cost-efficient. The
PLAN recognized that knowledge of human relationships
and human need was as important to engineers and
scientists as to liberal arts majors. Students were required to
conduct substantive study in the humanities and (soon)
would be required to conduct one of the project activities at
the interface of technology and society. Finally, the PLAN
was envisioned to substantively involve graduate students
in the undergraduate program and to have undergraduate
project activity intimately connected to graduate research. It
was planned that the undergraduate student would not only
experience multidisciplinary projects, but also would be
partners in the excitement of a broad spectrum of collegiate
life.
The WPI PLAN at Present
Three projects, distribution requirements and
some ancillary elements constitute the present degree
requirements. The projects and their principal outcomes
are:
The Humanities "Sufficiency" Project, which
measures whether the student has achieved a
sufficient background in a self-selected area of the
Humanities or Arts (for engineering and science
students) to be likely to continue lifelong learning in
that area;
The "Interactive Qualifying Project" (or IQP)
which assesses the capacity of students to reflect on
the impacts of science and/or technology on societal
values and structures; and The "Major Qualifying
Project" (or MQP) which measures the ability of
students to begin working on open-ended professional
problems at the level assumed of someone beginning
professional practice or graduate school.
Collectively, WPI believes these three projects
provide students with a learning environment where they
have rich opportunities to achieve the goals' the faculty
articulated in
1987:
> To lead students to develop an excellent grasp of
fundamentals in their principal areas of study.
> To lay a foundation for life-long renewal of knowledge.
> To gain a mature understanding of themselves.
> To form a deep appreciation of the interrelationships
among basic knowledge, technical advance, and
human need.
Required projects form the core of the PLAN. The
curriculum is designed so that faculty spend substantial
time working with individual or small teams of project
students in a cooperative environment.
First, the Humanities "Sufficiency project. The
WPI faculty believe strongly that every student should
attain substantive understanding of the humanities through
study in a sequence of thematically related courses and
project work. The experience was designed to allow
students to acquire an understanding of how knowledge is
obtained and expressed in a non-technical area. Students,
with the support of advisors, select five courses where they
must define a thematic or intellectual relationship for
example, five courses dealing with aspects of history of
science, or theater production, or creative writing. They
conclude their sequence of study by writing, with a single
faculty advisor, a final project wherein they conduct
independent study and a critical or research essay (or
original work or performance).
The Interactive Qualifying Project resulted from
faculty concern that students needed to develop
appreciation of the inter-relationships of science,
technology, and society. The objective of the IQP is to
enable graduates to understand, as citizens and
professionals, how their careers will affect the larger
society of which they are part. This project is the
equivalent of three courses and is typically conducted in a
small team setting under the guidance of one or more
faculty advisors. Any faculty member can advise
Realizing the New Paradigm for Engineering Education
63
any undergraduate(s) in this project activity. As such, the
faculty, as a whole, clearly has ownership of the IQP and
has developed an expectation that everyone ought to
participate.
Interactive Qualifying Projects by definition are
set in a societal context and are frequently pre-arranged
with other organizations such as government agencies,
museums, societies, and foundations. Students are
expected to prepare a proposal, conduct background
research, conduct the study, and prepare a written report.
Students make frequent oral reports during the project and
many make formal presentations at the project conclusion.
The faculty advisor works with the project team
throughout the project, finally reading and evaluating the
report. Thus, the report itself is the outcome reflecting
achievement of understanding of the interrelationship of
technology and society in an instance, that usually has
broad implications.
The three courses equivalence for the IQP is, in
fact, one of the principal reasons WPI adopted a
seven-week term basis for the academic schedule.
Normally, students take three courses per term, but clearly
can pursue the entire IQP in one seven-week term which
provides opportunity for of campus project centers.
Approximately one-third of WPI undergraduates take
advantage of this opportunity to conduct their IQP's at
established residential project centers in Washington, DC,
San Francisco, Bangkok, London, Venice, Puerto Rico,
Costa Rico, and elsewhere.
The final project-based degree requirement is the
Major Qualifying Project (MQP). Our faculty wanted to be
sure that the students demonstrate, in their major field of
study, the application of the skills, methods, and knowledge
of the discipline to the solution of a problem that would be
representative of the type to be encountered at the
beginning of one's career. Typically, small teams are
formed to focus the project work on a topic offered by
industry, the faculty, or the students themselves. Again, the
course equivalence is three courses, but usually spread
throughout the year. Both the advisor and students must be
in the same discipline, although multi-disciplinary teams
are frequently formed together with an advising group of
faculty from the represented disciplines.
Students prepare a proposal delineating what, why,
where, when, and how they will conduct the project.
Frequendy, MQP's involve engineering design so that
specifications must be developed, the design conducted,
and demonstration of achievement must be made. In this
case, oral presentations are necessary in the weekly team
meetings and, often, at the project conclusion. The report,
itself, is one of the outcomes reflecting the objective.
Additionally, written and oral communications are
demonstrated as are other desired elements such as
teamwork.
In addition, students must satisfy Distribution
Requirements, a Social Science Requirement, a Residency
R
e
quirement, a Physical Education Requirement and achieve
a threshold amount of academic credit. For students of
engineering, the Distribution Requirement results in one
year of study in mathematics and science, one and a half
years study in engineering science and design, and
out-of-department study stems, etc.
Global Perspective Program
The global economy, fueled by scientific
discovery, technological innovation, and instantaneous
communication, has produced fierce competition for
financial, material, and human resources. Scientists and
engineers will be confronted as never before with problems
whose solutions require technical expertise and necessitate
an ability to understand and work effectively in cultures
other than their own.
Ten years ago, WPI launched its Global
Perspective Program to provide students an opportunity to
pursue projects concentrating on global issues. Presently,
there are 15 Global Project Centers where students and
advisors pursue project activity. Predominately, the focus
has been on Interaction Qualifying Projects but recently
Sufficiencies and Major Qualifying projects have been
added and plans are underway to include graduate activity
as well. Approximately 25 percent of the undergraduate
students have participated in this program during the past
few years. This percentage is expected to increase to 50
percent during the next few years. WPI minimizes the cost
of participating in this program by charging no additional
fees, extending full financial aid, and requiring "project
fees" from sponsoring agencies. Local organizers arrange
housing, board and transportation with an eye toward
economy and also arrange projects and sponsors as well.
Change Process
Reflecting on the process of change at WPI, the
outcomes that were achieved include:
Academic program planning shifted from faculty to
students.
Students create programs of study tailored to
individual interests.
Prescribed sequences of courses eliminated.
Focus shifted to outcomes rather than subjects or
courses.
Project-based curriculum motivates students to learn
both in and out of classrooms.
Significant oral and written communications
embedded in projects.
1 Emphasis shifted to learning rather than information
transfer. Revised academic calendar to enable flexibil
-
Realizing the New Paradigm for Engineering Education
64
ity, off campus projects, etc.
Establishment of non-punitive grading system.
Encouragement of cooperative learning.
The curricular changes at WPI grew out of
dissatisfaction with traditional engineering education and
concern that institutional direction was lacking. The
change process was driven by faculty through a committee
structuree with administrative support. Since there are no
schools at WPI, all faculty are involved in curricular
change. Approximately two-thirds of the faculty ultimately
voted to establish the WPI PLAN. In order to ensure
successful establishment of the PLAN, an implementation
committee was formed to facilitate the curricular changes.
The "learning-curve" was very steep as the nature of
projects was developed, as competency examinations were
administered, and as academic advising matured. Initially,
it was believed that the PLAN would be less costly than a
traditional curriculum, but it was recognized that
transitional costs would be significant. It is worth
observing that faculty development was (and still is) an
important component of the PLAN. To this end, numerous
"retreats" and summer efforts were conducted to refine the
curriculum, develop administrative procedures, and
establish a strong advising system.
Outcomes
The WPI PLAN includes components which are
inherently tutorial and time intensive for faculty. Courses,
for the most part seven weeks in length, demand that
students learn on their own and at a fast pace. Many
students and faculty have initial difficulties with these
formats. In recruiting faculty, WPI seeks individuals who
can be comfortable with a non-traditional curriculum, who
are openminded and adaptable, who are interested in the
interrelationships of technology and society, and who are
willing to spend a substantial amount of time in project and
academic advising activities. Nevertheless, expectations for
scholarly accomplishment and research productivity are
high frequently causing a time allocation dilemma for
faculty. Most faculty members successfully find equlibria
which enable them to excel not only teaching in the context
of the PLAN but also teaching graduate students and
pursuing their research obj ectives.
References
1. Gehret, K.G, "Free But
Accountable-Engineering Students Chart
Own Course," The Christian Science Monitor,
January 16, 1971.
2. Coleman, R.J., "The Engineering Education
Coalitions," ASEE Prism, September, 1996.
3. Parrish, E.A., W.W. Durgin, and L.E.
Schachterie, "What Was Learned From Our
Reform Efforts," Proceedings FIE
Conference, November 1996.
4.Undergraduate Catalog, 1998-99, Worcester
Polytechnic Institute.
Realizing the New Paradigm for Engineering Education
65
... One or two courses on creative thinking skills or design tasks cannot fully develop the potential creativity in students (Cropley and Cropley 2000;Helson 1999), leading some researchers to address the need for creativity education at the macro (curriculum)level rather than just the micro (course)-level (Borrego and Cutler 2010;Crawley et al. 2011). Coincidentally, a movement to reform curricula by integrating creativity has emerged, especially in the field of university engineering education (e.g., Badran 2007;Durgin and Parrish 1998). Such a multilateral approach to integrating creative development throughout a curriculum is thought to result in more profound and long-lasting changes than brief training in a few courses (Mills and Treagust 2003). ...
Article
Existing approaches to developing creativity rely on the sporadic teaching of creative thinking techniques or the engagement of learners in a creativity-promoting environment. Such methods cannot develop students’ creativity as fully as a multilateral approach that integrates creativity throughout a curriculum. The purpose of this study was to formulate a theoretical framework for a curriculum that fosters creativity. Based on the analysis of documents from accreditation organizations and engineering programs, the researchers synthesized the essential abilities and knowledge of creative engineers and formulated an initial theoretical framework for an engineering curriculum designed to integrate creativity development. To validate this initial framework, in-depth faculty interviews were conducted. The results pointed to an optimal curriculum containing four course groups centered on design, domain knowledge, interdisciplinary knowledge, and creative leadership. In addition, the findings revealed an optimal structure and sequence for the courses by grade level. The discussion includes implications of the resulting framework, along with contextual and institutional issues and recommendations for future study.
... One or two courses on creative thinking skills or design tasks cannot fully develop the potential creativity in students (Cropley and Cropley 2000;Helson 1999), leading some researchers to address the need for creativity education at the macro (curriculum)level rather than just the micro (course)-level (Borrego and Cutler 2010;Crawley et al. 2011). Coincidentally, a movement to reform curricula by integrating creativity has emerged, especially in the field of university engineering education (e.g., Badran 2007;Durgin and Parrish 1998). Such a multilateral approach to integrating creative development throughout a curriculum is thought to result in more profound and long-lasting changes than brief training in a few courses (Mills and Treagust 2003). ...
Article
Existing approaches to developing creativity rely on the sporadic teaching of creative thinking techniques or the engagement of learners in a creativity-promoting environment. Such methods cannot develop students' creativity as fully as a multilateral approach that integrates creativity throughout a curriculum. The purpose of this study was to formulate a theoretical framework for a curriculum that fosters creativity. Based on the analysis of documents from accreditation organizations and engineering programs, the researchers synthesized the essential abilities and knowledge of creative engineers and formulated an initial theoretical framework for an engineering curriculum designed to integrate creativity development. To validate this initial framework , in-depth faculty interviews were conducted. The results pointed to an optimal curriculum containing four course groups centered on design, domain knowledge, interdisci-plinary knowledge, and creative leadership. In addition, the findings revealed an optimal structure and sequence for the courses by grade level. The discussion includes implications of the resulting framework, along with contextual and institutional issues and recommendations for future study.
Conference Paper
This paper describes the integration of design projects to aid persons with disabilities in the mechanical engineering program at WPI. Students ranging from first year through graduate level design and build a wide range of devices as aids to daily living, to improve mobility, or for use in recreational activities. Ongoing relationships with local agencies that serve persons with disabilities are used to solicit project topics. The range of student abilities allows us to fit the sponsor-requested projects to an appropriate class level. Students experience the full range of design activities from needs assessment through prototype construction. Students are highly motivated to work on these unique design projects that have a high impact on their clients.
Article
First Page of the Article
What Was Learned From Our Reform Efforts
  • E A Parrish
  • W W Durgin
  • L E Schachterie
Parrish, E.A., W.W. Durgin, and L.E. Schachterie, "What Was Learned From Our Reform Efforts," Proceedings FIE Conference, November 1996.
Free But Accountable-Engineering Students Chart Own Course The Christian Science Monitor
  • K G Gehret
Gehret, K.G, "Free But Accountable-Engineering Students Chart Own Course," The Christian Science Monitor, January 16, 1971.
Free But Accountable-Engineering Students Chart Own Course
  • K Gehret
Gehret, K.G, "Free But Accountable-Engineering Students Chart Own Course," The Christian Science Monitor, January 16, 1971.