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Engineering to Revamp Targeted Undergraduate Courses

May 18, 2012

Despite being highly-ranked nationally, the College of Engineering is not content to rest on its laurels. Striving to improve aspects of its undergraduate education programs by specifically targeting large courses (sometimes dubbed by students as “weed-out courses”), the College recently initiated the Strategic Instructional Initiatives Program (SIIP). Its goal: to renovate specific undergraduate courses to improve student engagement and learning outcomes.

Associate Dean Charles Tucker explains some aspects of the SIIP initiative during a recent SIIP meeting.
Associate Dean Charles Tucker shares strategies during a recent SIIP meeting.

According to Associate Dean Charles Tucker, Engineering has recently been experiencing a groundswell of awareness regarding the quality of undergraduate education, no doubt due to the leadership of Tucker and Dean Ilesanmi Adesida and their long-standing commitment to improving the quality of education, particularly for undergraduates. In part, this paradigm shift is certainly related to “customer” satisfaction.

Quips Tucker, “We finally figured out we are tuition driven.” He continues, “I think there’s just a growing sense of the importance of particularly undergraduate students to our college…There’s a big resurgence of focus in the College about undergrad students and their experience, and this is one of a number of different things that we’ve been doing to try to improve that.”

He goes on to cite other COE efforts to improve undergraduate education: climate studies in 2009 and 2011, free tutoring via CARE (Center for Academic Resources in Engineering), and iFoundry/iEFX (Illinois Engineering First-Year Experience).

SIIP was conceived at a leadership retreat of deans, department heads, and senior faculty.

“At that time, our college financial picture had brightened after a lot of dark years,” Tucker recalls, “and the conversation at that meeting was, ‘We have a little flexibility in our budget; what kind of investment should we make?’ There were many things, but there was a strong sentiment to make an investment in the educational side, and do better.”

With the intention of funding 3–5 projects for up to three years, the College invited faculty proposals designed to improve the pedagogy of large undergraduate foundational courses that:

  1. enroll large numbers of students;
  2. enroll students from multiple departments;
  3. are regarded as challenging teaching assignments; and/or
  4. provide a foundation for subsequent courses.

Aspects of improved pedagogy could include course and curriculum redesign, assessment of student learning (such as before-and-after evaluations of student attitudes, experiences, and learning outcomes), and instructor training and development.

Tucker referred to some of these large courses as “orphans…courses that nobody really wants to teach, so nobody feels ownership of.” How did this attitude develop? Tucker could readily discern the thought process of a professor faced with the possibility of teaching one of these large courses.

“It’s a big course, so it’s a lot of work. ‘Why should I sign up to teach a 600-student class when there are other items on the list that have 20 or 30 students?’ It feels like it’s a lot of work, and to some people it feels like extra work.” He also shared that many engineering faculty are used to juniors and seniors and “might not be as attuned to freshmen and sophomores, and who students are at that moment in their development.”

Professor Pitts explains physics principles to students.
Professor Pitts explains physics principles to students.

How will SIIP address this orphan conundrum? First, guidelines mandated that projects were to foster “sustainable change that extends beyond the enthusiasm of a single faculty member or a change in teaching assignments” and should demonstrate “the potential for significant and sustainable improvement” for a decade or more. Regarding sustainability, Tucker shared: “We are looking for remodeling or re-engineering of courses; we wanted the changes to last much longer than a single faculty member’s teaching assignment. So that’s why we asked for multiple PIs, and the teams are from medium size to large size. We asked for the department heads to provide a letter of support, so we knew that it was something the department was blessing.”

Second, into a climate ready for change, the SIIP project was able inject an attractive incentive: funding. “There was enough money on the table that it really got department and faculty attention. You say, ‘You can get $100,000 a year for three years for a three-to-four page proposal,’ and, boy, faculty members just perk their ears up!”

Needless to say, funding was not the only incentive, nor the greatest; departments viewed SIIP as a welcome catalyst to address issues in some of their large courses. One professor remarked: “There were a lot of us who were really excited about working on this subject, and this was the excuse we needed to get together and do it,” while another commented, “We’ve really needed to do something about these courses. We’ve known for a couple of years we’ve needed to do some serious work here. So this is great; this gives us a way to get going on that and a way to attack it.”

Student helps Professor Pitts demonstrate the conservation of angular momentum.
Student helps Professor Pitts demonstrate the conservation of angular momentum.

The College offered successful examples regarding the kinds of changes being made to improve large courses. Tucker describes how Physics has pared the Herculean task of teaching a large lecture down to size.

“Physics education folks…worked at making the job of teaching the course something that can be done by mortal human beings…rather than a job for heroes.” He went on to elaborate: “Their goal was to make Physics 211 or 212 as desirable a teaching assignment as a 400-level elective course.” How?

They restructured the course (the computer people call it “A Course in a Box”), dividing it into different parts assigned to different faculty. They revised lecture content. They fostered student interaction in large lectures. How? “They invented the i>clicker along the way."

Tucker wisecracks: "This is how physicists work: ‘We need this? Ok, we’ll invent it!’”

They created multimedia pre-lectures so students come to the lecture already knowing something about the topic. “They understood that students…don’t read a textbook in advance of the lecture.”Additionally, they invested in training for discussion section TAs. Tucker indicates: “It’s not just, ‘Ok, here it is; go do it.’” And finally, in an effort to reduce faculty workload, they automated course administration via software for grade submission and on-line homework and relegated some administration to departmental staff.

Another place where a very large course has made some distinct improvements is the Math/Engineering Calculus Project, a joint activity between Math and Engineering for teaching calculus to first-year engineering students. Tucker describes: “There were improvements there in course content, in course pedagogy, in getting engineering examples and content into discussion sections, and in having more active learning in discussion sections.”

Following are the home departments of the five SIIP projects and the courses addressed, with links to synopses of the projects' proposed activities.

  1. Civil and Environmental Engineering: CEE201, CEE 202
  2. Computer Science: CS173, CS225
  3. Electrical and Computer Engineering: ECE110, ECE190, ECE290, ECE385
  4. Mechanical Science and Engineering: TAM210/211, TAM212, TAM251
  5. Physics: PHYS211, PHYS212

Although curricular changes like this are often funded through federal grants, SIIP will be funded entirely by College of Engineering funds. In response to my surprise and subsequent comment that Engineering is obviously committed to change, since it's using its own resources, Tucker’s rejoinder was quite apropos: “You know the joke about the difference between involvement and commitment? “When you order ham and eggs for breakfast, the chicken is involved, and the pig is committed. This is commitment!”

In the closing seconds of the interview, I posed one final question that had been burning inside me for a while. Having heard the term “weed-out courses” being bandied about on several occasions, I inquired: “Were they considered weed-out courses intentionally, or is it just something that happened?” Tucker’s reply: “No…I don’t think there’s any intention anywhere in the College of Engineering to weed students out. We have the highest admission profile on the campus, and our fondest desire is that everyone should succeed—and preferably doing something in our College.”

Author/Photographer: Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative
More: Funded, iEFX, Undergrad Education Reform, 2012