Problem solving is at the core of engineering. As with their work to create more-efficient jet engines or hasten the healing of broken bones, when U.Va. School of Engineering and Applied Science faculty members look at how they are educating students, they are looking for ways to make improvements.
U.Va. engineers are innovating the ways faculty members teach and students learn. Their approaches apply to students in U.Va. classrooms, K–12 students who might someday pursue an engineering degree and even students in China.
“Our faculty members go well beyond just lecturing and writing equations on a chalkboard,” said James H. Aylor, dean of the Engineering School. “They are actively seeking ways to improve access to, and retention of, knowledge — both in their scholarly research and in the classroom.”
An important platform for advancing these efforts is the recently formed U.Va. Engineering Education Coordinating Committee — which brings together educators from both the Engineering School and the Curry School of Education. A group of about 30 faculty members representing both schools held its first meeting in February and plans to hold a regular series of brown-bag lunch meetings and seminars in the coming months.
In welcoming his engineering colleagues to the Education School’s Bavaro Hall, Curry School Dean Robert Pianta commented on the deep and numerous connections between the two schools. As a faculty member for more than 20 years and dean for the past three years, he has come to see the schools as analogous: Both are problem-solving schools that take basic science and apply it in the real world.
“The possibilities for connection are enormous,” Pianta told the attendees. “Let’s be as ambitious and visionary as possible. I know there are concrete things to be done too, such as research solicitations, brown-bag meeting and seminars, but this activity unleashes connections and potential and energy that have good consequences for our students, for our schools and all the people we serve.”
During the first meeting, faculty members shared a number of education initiatives currently taking place at the schools and then broke into teams for workshops based on several grant solicitations focused on research in engineering education and transforming STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) learning.
“Collaborative grant writing is part of what we’d all like to see, but it’s not the only thing,” said James Groves, assistant dean for research and outreach at the Engineering School and co-chair of the newly formed committee. “These meetings could lead to coordination of degree opportunities; they could lead to looking at the way courses are delivered at undergraduate and graduate levels here at the university and also in the K–12 environment.”
The seeds of the current committee were planted three years ago when Stephanie Moore, director of engineering instructional design at the Engineering School, reached out to Curry School faculty for advice on how to outfit a K–12 engineering education laboratory in the Engineering School’s upcoming Rice Hall Information Technology Engineering Building. Her conversations with Joseph Garofalo and Glen Bull, both Education School faculty members who specialize in mathematics education and instructional technologies, informed the building’s current plans for a flexible learning space that supports collaborative and distance learning, as well as research in learning and teaching methods. Features of the lab include reconfigurable workstations, multimedia distance education technologies and an observation room for researchers studying students and teachers in action.
When the Rice Hall engineering education lab opens in fall 2011, it will be the latest chapter in a tradition of innovative education programs at the Engineering School that dates back to at least the early 1980s when the school began offering the Commonwealth Graduate Engineering Program via video conferencing.
The recent Engineering Education Committee meeting allowed faculty members to share activities that are a part of that tradition and may not be widely known throughout the U.Va. community.
As one example, Joanne Bechta Dugan, a professor in the Charles L. Brown Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, has been working with Ron Williams, also a professor in the department, to develop an adaptive software program that helps students more effectively learn math. The online, multimedia program is designed to replace textbooks and classroom lectures and allow students to learn concepts anywhere and at any time.
Testing with prototypes last semester, they found their students could achieve the same level of learning in about half the time as students who were using textbooks and lectures.
Their research is still in its preliminary stages, but Dugan sees promise for further development.
“There is a real opportunity for targeting presentation of materials based on how students are performing,” she said. “We are trying to engineer our students’ engineering education.”
Larry Richards, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, leads a variety of education outreach efforts at the Engineering School, including the School’s Open House for prospective students, to be held this year on March 19.
Since 2002, he has also led the development and distribution of Engineering Teach Kits, which are sent to middle school teachers in Charlottesville’s five surrounding counties, as well as to 200 teachers nationally.
“The teaching kits are helping middle school teachers teach their students how to think like engineers,” Richards said. “Each kit contains science and math lessons, but they also include an engineering design challenge that requires students to build something to show they understand the concepts.”
In addition to his K–12 outreach, Richards is innovating the way current U.Va. Engineering Students learn. Since 1992, he has taught a fourth-year design course in which he focuses on convincing mechanical engineers that their jobs after U.Va. will be to change the world through creative problem solving.
He told the group about how one of his former students in the design class, Evan Edwards (ME ’02, SE ’04), patented two technologies before graduating. After U.Va., Edwards went on to found the specialty pharmaceutical company Intelliject Inc. with his twin brother, Eric, who is now a Commonwealth University medical student. Through their company, they created a compact epinephrine auto-injector for the treatment of severe allergic reactions. The auto-injector was licensed in November 2009 by Sanofi-Aventis for $25 million, with additional development and commercial milestone payments of up to $205 million plus future royalties on sales.
Reid Bailey, assistant professor in the Department of Systems and Information Engineering, is another education innovator at the Engineering School. Each year he organizes the Systems Robotics Design Camp for area middle school students. During the week-long camp, students learn engineering concepts that allow them to program robots that can navigate streets of a model city or efficiently explore a Mars-like terrain. In addition, the campers create “robot art” and investigate how complex patterns can emerge from a small set of simple rules.
Bailey is also dedicated to improving U.Va. Engineering students’ design capabilities. He leads the Technology Leaders Program, in which students learn to combine a top-down, systems engineering approach with other more domain-specific disciplines such as computer engineering.
Bailey noted that many students graduate with only one aspect of this engineering design perspective and that the TLP program helps students better prepare themselves for practicing engineering in the real world.
In fall 2009, a group of TLP students participated in a research project to develop a new revenue system for the Virginia Department of Transportation. Teams explored ways to develop a system that would charge drivers a “user fee” per mile as an alternative to the current gas tax. Their solutions ranged from using existing on-board computers for wirelessly sending mileage to VDOT to drivers simply writing down their mileage on their tax returns each year.
James Groves, who co-chairs the Engineering Education Committee along with Dan Berch, professor in the Curry School of Education, leads a variety of innovative engineering education programs at the Engineering School, including the Engineers PRODUCED in Virginia distance education program.
PRODUCED allows Virginia Community College System students throughout the Commonwealth to earn a U.Va. bachelor’s degree in engineering science without having to leave their communities. Students join live class sessions online and in real time through tablet PCs and computer headsets for two-way audio interaction with faculty and classmates. It’s a learning environment suited to nontraditional students who may be balancing their educational pursuits with families and careers.
Using distance education technology and expertise from PRODUCED, Stephanie Moore this past semester supported a distance education course taught by Zongli Lin, professor of electrical and computer engineering. The class’s 150 students were on-Grounds and in a classroom in Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China. The course helped share knowledge across borders and also served as a test ground for further development of technologies and curriculum that can be conveyed effectively from a distance.
“We are using technologies and curriculum that allow our students to make connections all around the globe for a truly international learning experience,” Moore said. “It’s an opportunity to gain the global perspective that will be necessary for the world in which they will live and work.”
~ By Zak Richards