IMPULSE: A Large-Scale Integrated Engineering Program

University of Massachusetts Dartmouth’s integrated engineering education program is still alive and thriving. As a matter of fact, since 2001 it has been required for all first-year students majoring in physics, mechanical, and electrical and computer engineering [2].

Called IMPULSE, the integrated curriculum is a chance for freshman students to take interrelated courses in engineering, calculus, and physics. The courses, although graded separately, are coordinated by faculty and completed as a set. Collaborative learning is emphasized strongly, as teachers assign groups of three or four students who proceed through the curriculum together (as a team for all three classes they take in a given semester).

Interestingly, the department has designed and built a classroom specifically for IMPULSE, which includes new computers with access to all the math, physics, and engineering software that a student could desire. Specifically, each group has a work station featuring a table with computers at either end and an interface box for attaching sensors (force, motion, temperature). The idea is that one computer can be used for data collection while the other can be used for a lab writeup [1]. The classroom is designed so that students are facing each other, to encourage discussion.

Almost every class session includes students presenting work – in the form of problem solutions, independent research, or answering questions that have come up in class. This process keeps them practicing oral, written, and visual communication skills.

To combat the ever-present question “When will I ever use this?” IMPULSE has transformed the calculus curriculum so that the answer can always be “Tomorrow, in your physics/engineering class” – the just-in-time approach. Specifically, calc III topics like vectors, line integrals, 3D graphing, double and triple integrals were moved into the first two semesters of calculus in IMPULSE. Integration is introduced earlier. As a tradeoff, less time is given to integration techniques and convergence of series (calc II, traditionally). Technology is used to do the traditional calculus drill work. In the 90’s and early 2000’s, the IMPULSE used Maple and TEMATH for graphing data and solving equations.

As for faculty time commitment, IMPULSE did require extensive planning before the course was piloted and weekly meetings for coordinating the integration of each teacher’s subject. The meetings allowed them to reference each other’s curriculum during their own classes, which motivated the students to learn all skills presented in each class.

How are the courses themselves laid out?

First semester engineering:

  • Engineering class meets for two hours on Monday and Wednesday and one hour on Friday. The longer classes are used for more traditional lecture and implementing experiments. The Friday class was used for team building activities and presentations from guest speakers (professionals in industry, other professors, etc). Course topics are kinematics, Newton’s laws of motions, principles of energy and momentum conservation, rotational kinematics and dynamics.
  • Several engineering design projects are assigned throughout the semester and are designed to occupy a one-month period. For example, students were told to bring swim suits to class on Friday, but not told why. They were given a limited materials and cardboard and asked to design a cardboard canoe. After two hours of design and creation, they tested their canoes in the school’s pool. Afterward, they were given two weeks to develop an improved version of their first canoe for a second competition.
  • As the IMPULSE project was expanded to be required by all students at the university in engineering, the Friday courses were changed into a design studio component for a single semester-long capstone project. The project they found to be most cost effective and applicable to the curriculum was a water rocket project [2]. The purpose is to design a rocket using soda bottles that will stay aloft in the air as long as possible once it is launched vertically from a specially designed launcher.

Second semester engineering:

  • Courses meet for two hours each on alternating days. Focus is placed on problem solving skills in CD and AC circuits, electromagnetics, software tools and computer measurement and control.
  • Hardware is used to simulate real world processes. For example, teams build impromptu systems to simulate the lighting system, ignition system, and signal system of a car.
  • The course culminates with a team-specific design project. Examples include: designing of sensors to monitor earthquakes and the detection of stresses in the wing of an aircraft. Teams are required to submit reports and give an oral presentation abou their project as well. Note that a team automatically fails if they do not deliver and demonstrate a working model – yet that has never happened since the birth of IMPULSE.


  • Classes consist of two 2-hour blocks and a 1-hour recitation. A typical class incorporates one or two mini-lectures (15 minutes) and team problem solving sessions where students work together on the board. Students originally resisted working on the board but quickly recognized the benefits of this working style.
  • Physics curriculum is very closely tied with the engineering projects.
  • Comparisons between IMPULSE physics and traditional physics was difficult because first-years don’t take physics traditionally. The faculty administered a pre- and post-test for students in both traditional and IMPULSE courses to measure the depth of understanding of Newtonian mechanics. The results are included below [4]:


  • Just-in-time arrangement of curriculum motivates students to learn calculus.
  • Vectors and integration are introduced in the first semester.
  • Almost all of the IMPULSE students stay with the course to take the calculus final exam, as opposed to the unintegrated curriculum, depicted below [3].

  • IMPULSE students scored almost a grade and a half higher than the control group in traditional courses (see below) [4]:

An interesting comment on the classroom delivery techniques: in the first year of IMPULSE, professors did not lecture at all. In following years, students demanded lecture and now short lecture sections (15 minutes maximum) have been introduced [2].

IMPULSE has been very successful; the attrition rate has been halved in first-year engineering students and doubled the percentage of students passing two semesters of physics [2, 3].

Further, the first-year students are doing much more work toward an engineering degree in the IMPULSE program, as opposed to traditional curriculum.

Also, retention has substantially improved [4]:

Overall statistics summary [4]:


[1] Using Technology in an Integrated Curriculum – Project Impulse. Kowalczyk and Hausknecht.

[2] Integrating Engineering Courses with Calculus and Physics to Motivate Learning of Fundamental Concepts. Laoulache, et al.

[3] IMPULSE Improves Retention and Performance at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth

[4] “Can an Integrated First-Year Program Continue to Work as Well after the Novelty has Worn Off?” Pendergrass, Laoulache, Fowler.


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