Universities To Research the Education of Engineering Students

A team of researchers from four universities has just received three grants totaling $1.1 million from the National Science Foundation to study how engineers are educated. Faculty from Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, California Polytechnic State University, and the University of San Diego in California will be collaborating on issues related to recruiting, retaining, and educating engineers.

"Engineering has always been geared toward problem-solving," said Michael Prince, who has taught chemical engineering at Bucknell University for 19 years. "What's changed is the skills and background engineers need to have."

A $500,000 grant will explore self-directed learning environments in engineering undergraduate classrooms. Prince and a team of colleagues are already examining student misconceptions in engineering. The latest grant expands that research to examine other questions that focus on how to teach engineering more effectively. Newer accreditation guidelines for engineering programs require that students be capable of life-long learning, but there's been little classroom research on how to achieve that goal.

Another $500,000 grant will investigate the development of chemical engineering materials that incorporate the life sciences to better prepare chemical engineers for a wider range of careers. While chemical engineering students used to find jobs almost exclusively at large oil companies after graduation, there now is more demand in the pharmaceutical industry and other fields that require a working knowledge of biology, Prince said. For students to become familiar with biological concepts, these concepts must be widely integrated into the engineering curriculum.

"Students will graduate knowing the life science that is relevant to their practice," Prince said.

The third grant, for $120,000, will research the development of engineering faculty as educational researchers. According to Prince, research suggests that while engineering faculty draw heavily on their own experiences in the classroom to make decisions about their teaching, professors seldom look to the educational literature to inform their decisions about teaching. This grant examines the issue, with an eye towards understanding how to encourage engineering faculty to use the existing research on teaching and learning more effectively.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at dian@dischaffhauser.com or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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