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Engineering students’ report spurs change in department

Independent study produces 55-page report with recommendations for curriculum, advising

By
Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 14, 2017

A group of students concentrating in engineering completed a Group Independent Study Project last spring, ultimately producing a 55-page report that proposed improvements for the department across four broad areas. The report identified problems in the areas of advising, community, curriculum and hands-on experience and gave in-depth suggestions to address those shortcomings.

The GISP students presented the report to engineering faculty and administrators May 2016, “and, since then, it has lived on,” said Rod Beresford, senior associate dean for academic programs for the School of Engineering and a faculty sponsor of the GISP. The administration began acting on the report’s recommendations at the beginning of the fall 2016 semester, he said.

“In response to this GISP report, we instituted an ad-hoc committee … we had lots of faculty meetings to discuss the recommendations, and from that came a series of very specific recommendations around the curriculum,” said Sorensen Family Dean of Engineering Lawrence Larson. Those recommendations, which included changes to engineering concentrations, course requirements and capstone projects, were approved last week by the College Curriculum Committee, he said.

Research for the report informally began in 2015, said Ryan Brown ’15 ScM’16, who helped form the GISP team. A talk given by Deb Mills-Scofield ’82, a mentor for engineering alums, in the class ENGN 1000: “Projects in Engineering Design” prompted Brown to think about “really critical questions” concerning the School of Engineering, he said. “I began to realize … the engineering faculty was a little bit out of touch with the student body.”

Brown reached out to Beresford with his concerns, and Beresford supported a group of students as they conducted a survey of recent alums and engineering seniors in the department. In the survey, they asked for opinions about how the school could improve, Beresford said.

The students presented the survey results in spring 2015 and applied for a GISP in the fall to continue work on the report, Brown said. The students used information from the survey and “brought in guest speakers from Brown, other institutions and … (the) industry,” to guide them as they wrote the report, Brown said.

One of the GISP students’ first assignments was to “collect data from other (engineering) students (at) other schools” and compare their experiences to those of students at the University, said Margaret Mathieu ’17.5, who worked on the report. Compared to students from other schools, many survey respondents from Brown felt that engineering classes focus too much on theory and not enough on hands-on learning. The report proposed changes to lab curricula that aim to address this problem, though those changes “will take a longer time” to implement than some of the other suggestions, Mathieu said.

The GISP students also sought to address problems with advising in the department. “We saw the ‘sophomore gap’: In between the end of your freshman year and (sophomore) spring break, there’s really no one assigned to (advise) you,” said Sarah Dugan ’17, who worked on the advising section of the report. And though engineering students “absolutely need an engineering Meiklejohn,” the department had been matching students with Meiklejohns from other departments, she added.

The engineering department has “been really awesome about implementing some new things,” Dugan said. The department requested engineering Meiklejohns for all engineering students and created a new Student Advisory Board, Dugan said. The Student Advisory Board is a group of students that will continue to address other issues raised by the report, such as diversity initiatives and community building, according to a document compiled by the GISP team that tracks changes within the department.

The report also recommends that the administration work to establish a stronger identity for the School of Engineering, develop more workspaces and community events, facilitate outreach to prospective minority students and encourage dialogue between students and faculty.

In its introduction, the report compares itself to the Magaziner-Maxwell Report, which proposed the New Curriculum to the University in 1968. But, Brown said, “the scope (of the new report) is fundamentally different” from that of the Magaziner-Maxwell Report — the GISP report proposes solutions to specific problems instead of a sweeping reform.

Members of the administration, such as Larson and Beresford, see this report as the beginning of a long undertaking. The report “gave us a great start to some very fundamental changes,” Larson said. “(But) the process will never end … I look at this as a continuous process of improvement.”