Monday, February 13, 2012

Bridges To Better Engineering Education

I often use the metaphor of the bridge when I speak on many of our projects at Quanser. Not only is it entirely appropriate and colorful for an engineering audience but it is a very useful metaphor when one discusses some of the most pressing challenges in global engineering education. Take for example, the challenge of building a strong conceptual and experiential bridge between the typical high school experience and the typical university program in engineering. It is true that most preparatory high school curricula will include the fundamental sciences and mathematics and the idea has always been the first year university curriculum will build upon this foundation using its own math and science courses. Following that would be the series of application courses which will take the student from the abstract to the concrete.

Bridging the gap between high school and university is essential.
The reality is that many engineering educators are experiencing significant disconnects between the high school experience and the university expectations. For them, this is a chasm that must be bridged. The consequences of doing nothing are actually quite severe. Not only is enrollment into the Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) programs dropping in many jurisdictions, but the retention rate once students arrive is also disconcerting. Many universities have reported on the order of a third or more of these students dropping out or changing majors. These issues of qualified student recruitment and retaining the intellectual and emotional connection with young students on-campus is the highest priority challenges for many institutions.

Extra-curricular engineering experiences in high school are valuable.
Over the past week, I had the opportunity to meet and explore bridge-building ideas with individuals who are neck-deep into this very murky situation.

First stop was St. Louis to attend the annual Judge Advisor training session of the FIRST Robotics program. The Judge Advisor is the chief judge of each of the regional competitions as well as a participating judge in the national championships. Our group consists of primarily senior professionals from industry with a few forward-looking professors in the mix. All of us are volunteers and all of us believe in the positive benefit of a highly charged and ambitious extra-curricular engineering experience for high school students. The Judging Team is responsible for encouraging and rewarding those teams who not only excel in the technical dimensions of the competition but also the "big picture" aspects of engineering including ethics, entrepreneurship, and societal responsibility. At the annual training sessions, we converge, learn about changes in the competition, and most importantly, we welcome and train the cohort of new Judge Advisors who have been recruited during the previous year.
Alan and Cindy, Chief Judge Advisor for FIRST, moderate one of the more controversial moments during the sesson: "Why is it so bloody cold in St. Louis and how do we move next year's session to Hawaii"?
I'd like to report that we made huge progress and launched outrageous new ideas that will propel FIRST to new heights … but I can't. For the most part it was fairly well-organized and no-nonsense. The reality is, the FIRST concept works. It has found the formula for triggering a passion among an entire generation of young people who may not have had any opportunity to experience real world science and engineering. And it has also successfully integrated a richly multidimensional framework that promotes the complete experience and not just making robots dance. The annual training weekend is really a chance for us to reaffirm our belief and commitment to the values of FIRST and with a bit of luck come up with a few clever ideas for the upcoming season.

Teaching more rigorous engineering concepts in high school is seen as key.
Following St. Louis, I moved on to Albuquerque, New Mexico, home of the famed University of New Mexico (UNM). Over the years, it has earned a reputation as a top tier research university in the US and boasts a broad range of academic achievements.

A couple of months ago, Professor Ramiro Jordan of UNM's Electrical and Computer Engineering Department visited the Quanser offices to discuss our potential participation in a new UNM initiative to introduce more rigorous engineering concepts into the high school system. Their model is the Advanced Placement (AP) system. In the AP system, high school students can take more challenging versions of English, physics, math and so on - the so-called core courses - and receive university level credit for them prior to entering the freshman year. This allows the student to either take a broader range of courses or accelerates their time in university.

The faculty at UNM felt that they could apply the same concept with the primary freshman engineering courses. That is, have students study engineering computing, design, and other key concepts in high school. So an AP student can theoretically complete an entire semester's worth of engineering studies prior to arrival on campus. The first step was an exploratory session with university and high school officials. Joining me for this leg of the trip was Quanser founder Jacob Apkarian.

We were invited to the discussion because of our work in developing new education concepts in undergraduate engineering. In addition to the many logistical challenges of this initiative, there is also a parallel set of issues surrounding the relevance of the existing freshman engineering curriculum for the modern world. If we're going to go through the effort of shifting courses down to the high school, we might as well reflect on the quality of the courses, some of which are over twenty years old.

Modern engineering education requires an engaging, hands-on approach.
The Quanser perspective is fairly straightforward. You cannot have effective engineering education without thoroughly modern, engaging, hands-on lab experiences. This was the founding principle of the company and, over time, we've developed a strong reputation as an industrial partner who is genuinely active and forward-thinking on matters of engineering education. Jacob and I were delighted find that our strong opinions on the importance of the lab were shared by all at the table.

The core questions of "What should be the primary concepts of freshman engineering?" and "How can labs bring these labs to life?" consumed the larger part of our two day visit and in the end, we were given an opportunity to explore these concepts in more detail back at Quanser and return with a complete proposal.
Jacob Apkarian, founder of Quanser, in discussions with Electrical and Computer Engineering faculty at the Univesity of New Mexico.
There are many things that we do at the company that are exciting and important but this particular discussion seems that much more exciting and important. First is the sheer intellectual challenge of adapting modern engineering practice to a level appropriate for high school students, while at the same time maintaining the high academic standards of a leading university. But there is also the human dimension. My children are 16 and 13 so I, like all parents, have developed some very strong opinions on high school education. As good as their school is, the deficiencies and disconnects are all too evident. This is especially pronounced in the context of STEM education. Extended to the societal level, most of us would agree, I believe, that creating a more cohesive and enriching education experience from K12 right on to grad school is one of the more noble quests in any society.

Our concepts are starting to take shape. And the totality of Quanser expertise is beginning to guide our thinking. At this early stage, we have no idea how far this initiative will go in making a real difference in the lives of our children but it's very satisfying to know that we have been recognized as part of the answer and I feel very privileged that we are going to vigorously take on this complex challenge.

- Tom Lee
As Chief Education Officer at Quanser, Tom Lee is focused on spearheading the development of Quanser's global academic community. He is closely involved with Quanser's technology and solution development process and the company's partner and alliance programs. He holds a PhD in Mechanical Engineering, and an MASc and BASc in Systems Design Engineering from the University of Waterloo.

1 comment:

John Baden said...

Great post, I couldn't agree with you more. Since I finished university I've said that that there shouldn't be such a huge contrast between college (UK) and university. The two should work together in harmony so the transition from one to the other is first of all easier, and second of all students can hit the ground runnig.