Jim Richardson*, Associate Professor
University of Alabama, Box 870205
Tuscaloosa, AL 35487-0205
Joey Parker, University of Alabama


The authors' experience with an experimental freshman engineering program at the University of Alabama points to new roles for engineering educators. The program, part of the NSF-sponsored Foundation Coalition, emphasizes curriculum integration and team work. The most striking result of the program is the attitude of the students at the end of the freshman year. Compared to students in the traditional curriculum, students from the experimental program take more responsibility for learning and work considerably harder.


"Students are not the same as they used to be." How many times have you heard this complaint? Perhaps you've even said it yourself. Faculty frequently complain, "Students are too eager to plug numbers into a "magical" formula and don't try to understand the underlying concepts." Another common faculty complaint is, "Students don't study enough." Twenty years ago, a few professors probably had the same complaints about me! I remember taking courses in which I had absolutely no interest. The goal quickly became: pass the class with the least amount of work.

Are today's students more disinterested than students a generation ago? Antidotal evidence says yes. Raised on CNN and MTV, today's students are accustomed to fast-paced information delivery from an ever-more sophisticated entertainment industry. And the gap between our delivery style and the delivery style to which our students have become accustomed affects the credibility of our message.

Students don't doubt our sincerity when we say that it is absolutely vital for an engineer to understand the concepts supporting the answer from the computer. But the foreign nature of our delivery tells the students that it is important for engineers of our generation, not theirs. While the difference between an engineering decision and a computer output is self evident to us, it is not at all evident to our students, few of whom have ever been paid to make decisions.

Should we change our method of information delivery to match what the students are used to? Yes we should change but no we should not emulate newscasts. Rather than competing with the entertainment industry, we should exploit a major difference between our functions. The entertainment industry makes and distributes a product, (and, because of economies of scale, it is a very sophisticated product). We university professors provide a service. We train young men and women to make decisions, logical and ethical decisions.

It's true that part of our current job is to deliver information. We write on the board and the students copy mathematical equations, step-by-step solution procedures, and various technical data. Many of us photocopy information and hand it out to our students. And a few of us even present lectures using computerized projection systems. The information-delivery part of our job, however, is ripe for takeover. Multi-media courseware and distance education are two examples of the impact technology will have on information delivery for higher education. And although I've learned a lot from books, most of my really important lessons have been learned through interaction with others.

To successfully compete for our students' attention we need to spend less time delivering information to them and more time evaluating their performance and suggesting ways to improve. We can serve as role models, we can listen, we can react. Students crave the opportunity to walk out from behind their televisions and do something. Designing, building, testing, role playing, any activity in which students emulate practicing engineers will elicit enthusiastic participation. Students need to see role models, they need to practice being engineers, they need approval and they need an occasional personal kick in the pants.

The authors' experience with an experimental freshman engineering program at the University of Alabama (UA) points to new roles for engineering educators. The program has been taught to three freshman classes, beginning in the Fall of 1994. The most striking result of the program is the attitude of the students at the end of the freshman year. Compared to students in the traditional curriculum, students from the experimental program take more responsibility for learning and work harder.


Volunteers from the math, science and engineering faculty at the University of Alabama participate in the NSF-sponsored Foundation Coalition (FC). The primary goals of the FC are to integrate topics between math, science and engineering classes and to promote active learning and team skills. Curriculum integration has received most of the faculty effort. It has been moderately successful in that students seem to have a better sense of the role of math and science in engineering and seem to better understand fundamental concepts which cross discipline boundaries (for example, vectors). The curriculum integration produced a striking serendipitous result, however. Communication among students, among faculty and between students and faculty increased dramatically.

Because topics were exchanged between math, physics, chemistry and engineering, these classes lost their one-to-one correspondence with classes in the traditional curriculum. Students were therefore required to take all four classes as a block. Students were also placed in the same four-person teams for math recitation, physics lab, chemistry lab and engineering design projects. The result was students got to know each other very quickly and formed study partners within the second week of school.

Also, faculty from math, physics, chemistry and engineering were required to work together to coordinate the integrated topics. Weekly "freshman faculty" meetings were set up. After discussing the integrated topics, the conversation usually turned to the one thing everyone had in common--the students. The faculty discussed students who were falling behind, exceptional students, and disruptive students. Freshman faculty also monitored student attitudes via their responses to weekly survey questions which were distributed and collected via e-mail.

The increased communication had many, many positive effects. The students helped each other learn and the faculty exchanged ideas to improve teaching effectiveness. Also, faculty and student enthusiasm was boosted by the improved communication with their colleagues.

The biggest effect on student attitudes probably occurred when the students discovered the power of collective bargaining. When the students suggested a change on behalf of the entire class which was backed by well-posed arguments and delivered in a calm manner, it proved much more effective than an individual whining complaint. Nothing surprising here, except that the students would never have gotten together to work out the suggested change if they were not familiar with each other and used to working in teams. And the faculty would never have gotten together to work out a solution if they were not familiar with each other and meeting once a week.

Another benefit of the communication between faculty was that the students saw faculty working together as a team. Although we preached the merits of team work and emphasized that employers want to hire engineers with team skills, our message was taken to heart when we followed what we preached. A startling outcome of all the team work was the spontaneous formation of the Student Coalition Team.

When the students returned for their sophomore year, they began to diverge into separate engineering disciplines and so formed a list of phone numbers and addresses to keep in touch. Someone suggested a newsletter, someone else suggested a web-page team and another student suggested an intramural team. The students selected team leaders and set regular meetings. The team leaders formed the management team. A few weeks after school started, without an ounce of faculty intervention, the Student Coalition Team was born.

The Student Coalition Team now has five teams. The Social Team runs the newsletter and organizes parties, intramural sports, and a Coffee House. The Internet Team taught a dozen students how to program on the web and then completely overhauled the local Foundation Coalition web page. The Professional Development Team organized a resume-writing workshop and conducted mock interviews for Co-op jobs. The Academic Excellence Team organized tutoring for lower division students. And finally the Special Problems Team made T-shirts, organized a fund-raiser for charity, and upgraded the student lounge.

Improved communication provided a more dynamic environment for the students and for the faculty. Engineering design projects injected a professional atmosphere into the curriculum.


The primary goal of the engineering courses was to develop practical problem solving skills. Incoming freshmen struggle with word problems. Trained in high school that problem solving is plugging numbers into formulas, the students need to learn the art of formulating a solution strategy. Design problems represent a special challenge because they are word problems which are usually under-constrained (many possible solutions). Most real-world problems are also under-constrained, however.

One of the most popular parts of the experimental freshman year for the students was the design projects in the engineering courses. The students especially liked projects which were built around concepts they could understand and which were practical and meaningful (enabling them to "feel" like practicing engineers).

Last year's favorite project was designing an overhead power distribution system for a new subdivision. The students were asked to read the project description before the class in which the project was formally introduced. After taking a short quiz, the students watched an engineer from Alabama Power demonstrate the basics of the design procedure. The students were then given two weeks to complete the design. During this time the students called the city planning department to determine the average house size in the new subdivision and they called the power company to find out the expected number of all-electric houses.

Each team of students presented its design via a written report and an oral presentation. The reports and presentations were evaluated for content (thoroughness, reasonableness, and accuracy) and effectiveness (organization and professional appearance). The most valuable learning experience for this project occurred after the reports were handed back. The woman who actually designed the power distribution system (a recent Alabama graduate) presented her design and then answered questions for well over an hour. Most questions were of the variety, "Why did you do this?" Several of the student designs were very similar to the actual design (a point which was not missed by the students).

The course instructor delivered very little information during the three-week project. Most of the instructor's time was spent setting the project up and evaluating the student designs. And yet the students assimilated a lot of information, some of which was generated by students. The classrooms were very noisy during the two-week design period. The student teams were building their designs, each in their own way, and were requesting information from their fellow students as they needed it. This is in stark contrast to what happens in a typical lecture period.

In a typical lecture, one stream of information flows in a single direction. During a design period, multiple information streams flow in myriad directions. During a lecture, the instructor determines the order of the information. During a design period, the students determine the order of the information. In a television show, one stream of information flows in one direction in an order determined by the producer. Both lecture and design projects are valuable learning tools. One tool lends itself to mass production, however, and the other learning tool does not.


Students are often bored in our classrooms. Part of the reason is our information delivery process is antiquated compared with what students see on TV. Emerging technology will produce multi-media learning modules and remote delivery of lectures. Students will have access to the most stimulating learning tools and the most polished lectures that the growing "edu-tainment" industry can provide. Freed (however reluctantly) from much of the chore of delivering information to our students, educators can devote more energy to a bigger challenge--training minds.

Students learn to make logical and ethical decisions by watching role models, by practicing, and by responding to feedback. We, as engineering educators can serve as role models and we can solicit practicing engineers to serve as role models also. Students can practice with each other. Guided practice in which a facilitator keeps a team moving in a constructive direction is valuable early in a student's college education. And finally, we must provide the feedback, the nudge which gets a student back on course.

Providing effective feedback to students is surely an art. Knowing what to say and when to say it must develop over years of experience. Engineering educators teaching together as a team can share their experience and enhance their development into effective mentors. The scarcity of team teaching in our universities says more about the lack of demand for good teaching than it does about its effectiveness. As students and their parents become more discriminate consumers of higher education, the demand for good teaching will expand.

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