CSU Receives $2 Million To Revolutionize Engineering Education

Jun 23, 2015

Colorado State University worries that they are losing future engineers.

"There are a lot of students that come in that have the desire and the aptitude to be engineers but they're leaving the discipline in very large numbers," explains Tony Maciejewski, the head of the Electrical and Computer Engineering department at CSU.

So Maciejewski and a few of his colleagues applied for a grant to change the way that his department teaches engineering. They’ve received $2 million from the National Science Foundation that will allow them to do just that over the next five years.

Maciejewski says that students often quit early in their schooling, out of frustration with early engineering classes.

"People leave early, you know as freshmen or sophomores, because they don't get to do what engineering is," he says.

Real engineering requires applying what they learn into hands-on projects. Yet many engineering students don’t get the chance to work on a comprehensive project until their senior year, and by then it's too late.

"The statistics show that [you’ve] probably lost two-thirds of your students by that point in time," he says.

Tony Maciejewski, head of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, looks at a student project in a circuit theory application course.
Credit Colorado State University

If students do stick with engineering, Maciejewski says many will then quit their very first job in the field, because their work doesn’t look the same as their classes in college.

"Because we don’t do a good job of showing them what real engineering is while they’re at the university, many of them will get on the job and say wait a minute I’m not prepared for this, this is not what I thought it would be, and they move off into other disciplines."

Losing engineers isn’t a problem only at CSU. There’s a shortage of people working in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math across the U.S. That’s part of why the National Science Foundation has set up grants like the one CSU is receiving.

"[Students] find themselves often in a treadmill of weekly problem sets and we know that this can be taught so much better," explains Donna Riley, the program director for Engineering Education at the NSF.

Riley received a hundred proposals for the "Revolutionizing Engineering Departments" grant, which she said was overwhelming. The NSF usually funds about 20 percent of the proposals it receives, but their budget only permitted six recipients for this particular grant.

"What we were really looking for was brand new ideas -- something really big -- that was going to deeply change how departments operate," says Riley. "I think the CSU award is a really good example because they're completely redefining what it means to be a faculty member and what it means to teach in their department."

CSU’s plan establishes "threads," such as ethics or basic science and math knowledge, that will connect one course to another. These threads might connect concepts between, say, chemistry and electrical engineering. Or they might all play into a project or example in the students’ classes.

"So for example they might take an object like a cell phone that every student has and knows about and can engage with and use that as an organizing principle to weave together all of these different threads," explains Riley.

This would be a big step from the current feeling of isolation in the department, with professors rarely collaborating from one class to another.

"Those faculty probably will not be coordinating, they will not be talking to each other, they may not have even met," says CSU's Maciejewski.

If the plan helps keep students engaged CSU, both Riley and Maciejewski hope to spread elements of the new teaching to other schools.

"Part of the proposal had to show the value of transferring this over to other electrical and computer engineering departments, as well as other disciplines," says Maciejewski.

The NSF intends to open the call for proposals again. As for CSU, students can expect to see changes to their classes sometime in fall 2016.