Integrated Engineering Education

I have recently started working with Mark Urban-Lurain and Jon Sticklen in the Center for Engineering Education Research (CEER) at Michigan State. They are working on an education project as part of an NSF funded project to improve engineering first-year retention rates. One facet of this project is to introduce a new introductory engineering course which integrates many different components of engineering course requirements – like physics, calculus, and even computer science.

The first way that I am participating in this research project is by doing a literature survey this fall of other university-level integrated engineering programs. I’m starting with a paper called Integrated Engineering Curricula, which is a survey like the one I am compiling, but for the 90’s and early 2000’s.

Overall, the article lauds the integrated programs and shows encouraging results for implementing the integrated systems across the board. The students are performing better, learning and retaining more, using their knowledge, and are expressing more satisfaction with the program.

Some interesting highlights from the background research are the three driving forces for developing integrated curricula:

  1. Integrative plus Reductive Educational Goals: Integrated curricula helps students better understand the connections/inter-reliability between otherwise compartmentalized subjects. It promotes synthesis and analysis by teaching students how to “construct the whole.”
  2. The Science of Learning: Experts have more connections between facts in their knowledge base than novices do, and integrated curricula caters to developing more connections in material. Transfer of knowledge may be increased in an integrated learning environment.
  3. Diversity: Integrative programs appeal to a broader audience, according to research of minorities in engineering. They help create a community of learning which can improve retention rates.

During the next week or so, I am going to spend a day on each of the major first-year integrated programs examined by this article:

  • Arizona State University: Freshman Integrated Program in Engineering
  • Colorado School of Mines: Connections
  • Drexel University: Enhanced Educational Experience for Engineers
  • Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University: Integrated Curriculum in Engineering (ICE)
  • Louisiana Tech University: Integrated Engineering Curriculum
  • North Carolina State University: Integrated Math, Physics, Engineering, and Chemistry (IMPEC)
  • Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology: Integrated First-Year Curriculum in Science, Engineering and Mathematics (IFYCSEM)
  • Texas A&M University: Freshman Integrated Program, First-Year Integrated Curriculum
  • Ohio State University: Gateway
  • University of Alabama: First-Year Integrated Curriculum
  • University of Florida: Knowledge Studio
  • University of Massachusetts Dartmouth: Integrated Math, Physics, Undergraduate Laboratory Science Engineering (IMPULSE)
  • University of Pittsburgh: First-Year Integrated Curriculum

Before we look at the nuances of implementation and program, however, let’s take a step back and look at the similarities and common themes that these integration efforts share.

Grades and Curriculum

  • Improvement in student disciplinary learning – or, GPAs were generally higher for participants in integrated programs
  • Seeking nontechnical outcomes (foreshadowing ABET EC2000) – integrated programs can best teach functioning in multidisciplinary teams, understanding of professional/ethical responsibility, ability to communicate effectively, broad education needed to understand impact of engineering solutions in global/social contexts, a recognition of the need for and ability to partake in life-long learning
  • Student workload – workload increased, but students did not mind the increased (according to surveys)
  • Integrative learning activities – lab projects and major design projects experiences were a large part of curricula across the board

Social Implications

  • Retaining students in engineering – retention rates were notably higher in most programs; I don’t remember seeing any programs which resulted in a decrease in retention rate
  • Promoting diversity – minorities were retained at impressively high rates; female performance improved significantly
  • Building academic and social connections – creating a community of learning, social connections, and even a faculty learning community

Administrative Trends:

  • Scaling up – difficulty in taking the program to the university-wide level due to the way the education system is set up now (compartmentalized); compromises were made in the form of creating “intro to engineering” integrated courses
  • Faculty collaboration – collaboration was necessary to success, but faculty viewed the additional time required to be above and beyond the amount of time they were willing to commit to first-year courses

So, what can we take away from all of these observations?

  1. We need to change the way faculty are approaching courses so that they are prepared to commit the necessary time and energy in an integrated course.
  2. Design projects are essential to curricula.
  3. Clustering students facilitates cooperative learning and the formation of learning communities.
  4. Integrated programs are *actually* improving retention, increasing diversity, and improving the learning of both disciplinary content and nondisciplinary skills.
  5. Large-scale curricular change is very difficult to implement. A successful pilot program does not guarantee implementation. The compromise is usually some sort of integrated course, not entirely integrating departments.

Stay tuned for a more detailed look at individual programs.

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