Measuring and Improving Non-Integrated Engineering Education
Sukel, Katherine E.
Realff, Matthew J.
Ludovice, Peter J.
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When the modern American University system was being created in the late 1800's (e.g., Harvard, U. Chicago, U. Michigan, Stanford), the goal was to create the unification of the British focus on undergraduate education and the German focus on the research university (Cuban, 1999). These goals were not seen as being in contradiction, but in synergy. The goal was for research to motivate and even inspire better learning and teaching. From the beginning, the education of undergraduates was to be conducted under the direct supervision and advisement of research-driven faculty members. Larry Cuban's historical analysis of the first 100 years of Stanford University describes how the curriculum altered from this original goal. When Stanford started in the 1890's, each students' four year plan was developed in negotiation with a faculty member, whom the student would select during the freshman year. Departments then, as now, had autonomy over what classes they offered. In individual weekly meetings, faculty members would first help students create a four-year program, and then guide the students through that program. Faculty were available to help explain the program, or individual classes, so that the students could understand how it all was meant to fit together. However, the one-on-one advising model didn't work out well. From the start, faculty members were driven by their research schedules, and student advisement was often neglected. Administration tried both to force faculty to meet at least one hour a week with each of their student advisees, and to slough off the early undergraduate years to focus on more advanced students (at Stanford, U. Chicago, and U. Michigan). But the Trustees and Regents truly believed in the American University Ideal, so undergraduate education remained a requirement of American Universities. In 1916, Stanford shifted from the individualized program to a standard curriculum, which required much less advising. The idea of the standardized curriculum was that a set of courses could be selected for students that would make sense and meet the students' general education needs. While Cuban's history shows that Stanford often flirted with a more elective model, the standardized curriculum model won out in all cases (Cuban, 1999). While the trade-off between an elective curriculum with heavy faculty advisement and a standardized curriculum may seem like a just compromise towards the American University Ideal, the reality is that the standardized curriculum comes at a high cost. Students do not actually understand why they are taking the courses that they are taking (Donald, 1997). Over the last thirty years, higher education students' goals have shifted such that career concerns and financial well-being is more critical than broader philosophical issues (Astin, Green & Kron, 1987; Williams & Schirali, 1991), which implies that students goals may be in conflict with the general education goals of standardized curricula (Donald, 1997). Donald has found that one of the most successful educational reforms in higher education has been to simply increase advising so that students understand why they are taking the classes that they are taking. From a cognitive perspective, we know that it is important for students to see the connections between knowledge areas in order to transfer knowledge between situations (Gick & Holyoak, 1987; King, 1991; Singley & Anderson, 1989). Without seeing these connections, students develop "brittle knowledge" where knowledge is understood only within a given context. Students need to develop more general indices for their knowledge so that appropriate knowledge can be brought to bear in novel situations (Kolodner, 1993). The first question is whether or not the current standardized curricula work. Do students learn basic skills of mathematics and other domains and then apply them successfully in later studies such as in engineering? The research described in this paper suggests that they do not, that students are unable to use knowledge from previous classes in their problem-solving. The second question is, if the current curricula don't work, how might they be improved. As Cuban points out, reforming higher education is a very challenging endeavor that runs up against deeply-held beliefs for how Universities are meant to be run. We propose a solution that does not directly challenge existing University structures, but uses technology to facilitate students' getting the information that they need in order to understand their curricula. In the following section, we describe the experiment we conducted to explore integrative learning in the engineering curriculum of Georgia Tech. We follow with the results of the experiment. We conclude with a section detailing our current project to address these results.