University of Rochester

Rochester Review
September-October 2009
Vol. 72, No. 1

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Engineering,Redesigned The Hajim School looks to bring more creativity and hands-on design—as well as humanities and social sciences majors—into its programs as the school prepares students to address the technological questions of the 21st century. By Karen McCally ’02 (PhD)
clark SOUND DESIGN: A course on the design of loudspeakers might be one way to introduce engineering—and how engineers approach their work, says Rob Clark, the dean of the Hajim School, as an example of a hands-on, project-oriented course that would appeal to engineering majors as well as to students in the arts and sciences. (Photo: Richard Baker)

Rob Clark, the dean of the Edmund A. Hajim School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, is not able to devote as much of his time to teaching as most faculty. But there’s one engineering course he envisions offering at Rochester. The hook? Anybody could take it. Even students with no background in college-level math, and very little science.

That course is centered on the design of a loudspeaker.

“I think music is compelling to most people,” he says, and while speakers are made of simple components, “there’s some interesting science and engineering behind the design.”

At the large table at the center of his office in Lattimore Hall, Clark leans forward as he begins to describe just what can be accomplished in an entire course based on what appears to be a deceptively simple project.

“I can introduce electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, materials science, and optics. I can do all of that in one class.”

And as students build their own set of speakers, play them, and test them, Clark says, “they’ll see that things you build don’t always match what you predict.”

In an office two doors down from Clark’s, Lisa Norwood ’86, ’95W (MS), pulls a pen out of her desk drawer.

Norwood, who earned a degree in geomechanics from the engineering school more than 20 years ago, and now serves the school as an assistant dean of undergraduate studies and director of the Women in Science and Engineering program, unscrews the “big old fat pen,” as she calls it, and exposes a USB port.

People watching CNN’s coverage of the protests following the Iranian presidential election in June might recognize Norwood’s pen as similar to the spy pens that the network sent into Iran. Using such devices—which also contained tiny video cameras and voice recorders (which Norwood’s pen lacks)—ordinary Iranians photographed and recorded images and conversations on the streets, uploaded them onto computers, and transmitted them around the globe.

But who would think to build such a device? Many people, Norwood says, might look at the disassembled pen and think, “Why the heck would you have a USB port in a pen? If you’re going to be working on a computer, you wouldn’t be writing, and if you were writing, you wouldn’t have any need for a computer.”

But engineers are trained to ask, “Can you imagine what you could do with this?”

Imagining the engineering school of the 21st century is one of the goals of a new initiative at the newly renamed Edmund A. Hajim School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Coming off its 50th anniversary year and under the direction of a new dean, faculty and administrators at the Hajim School are poised to become leaders of a fledgling movement among engineering educators. The primary aim is to make the rarified concepts of engineering accessible to a much wider population.

mottley and norwood ENGINEERING TEAM: Jack Mottley, a professor of electrical and computer engineering (left), and Lisa Norwood ’86, ’95W (MS), an assistant dean for undergraduate studies in engineering, are helping explore ways to improve the education of Rochester’s engineering students. (Photo: Richard Baker)

Creative problem solving, often with important social consequences, is what engineering is all about. Yet for decades, engineers have worked far from the public eye, cast in a variety of unflattering stereotypes—“the pocket-protector-carrying Dilberts of the world,” says Clark.

Engineers are known far more for their special skills at working equations than for their attention to social concerns. And their sense of fashion, according to similar stereotypes, would hardly place them in the same category as the artists or sculptors who, Clark says, share a similarity with engineers in their penchant for creative thought and innovative design.

And yet in a society that reveres high-tech gadgets, and that faces environmental and health challenges that engineers are key to solving, surveys demonstrate that most Americans have little knowledge about what engineers do or of the basic scientific concepts on which their work is based.

According to Clark, it is “the social responsibility of every engineering school in the country” to provide courses for students in the humanities and social sciences to gain technical literacy. After all, he says, technical problems facing the globe now—in procuring energy, water, or ensuring sustainability—“are problems people would be willing to fight over.”

Beginning last January, faculty representing each of the Hajim School’s six academic departments began meeting bimonthly in the first schoolwide curriculum review in more than 20 years. The purpose was twofold: To fulfill the mission of offering technical literacy to students outside the school and to improve the engineering education of its own students.

The review has broad support in Arts, Sciences, and Engineering. Richard Feldman, a professor of philosophy and dean of the College, says that devising technical courses is “a great idea, and it would fit well with the Rochester Curriculum.”

That curriculum, which is common to students in the Hajim School as well as the College, requires students to broaden their education by taking clusters of related courses in areas outside their major fields.

Tom Hsiang, the associate dean of undergraduate studies and professor of electrical and computer engineering who chairs the curriculum review committee, says the school starts from a strong position.

“Our professors have done a very good job of transferring the state-of-the-art, in the fields, into the classroom,” he says. “And we integrate really well with the liberal arts college setting,” an asset that technical schools such as MIT and Cal Tech, would not be able to claim, he adds.

But where the school has not been as strong, Hsiang says, is in “introducing engineering to our students.”

It is not only the scientifically averse who have little understanding of engineering. Often, beginning engineering students could benefit from a better understanding of the field.

“Students typically coming out of high school know science, know mathematics, but they have very little concept of what engineering is, let alone the individual disciplines in engineering,” says Hsiang.

Jack Mottley, a colleague of Hsiang’s in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, agrees.

“Many students come in the front door and they only know that some high school counselor told them, ‘you’re good in math and science, you should consider engineering.’”

Mottley addresses that problem in his Introduction to Electrical and Computer Engineering course for freshmen. Although not required, the course is designed for students who want a better sense of what engineers might do—specifically electrical and computer engineers—before committing to a rigorous professional program.

In the course, which requires no college-level science and math, Mottley says he approaches engineering design by engaging students in an assembly project, and having them ask questions such as, “How would I put this together? What do I want it to look like? What things does it need to have on it? How is somebody going to control this?”

The course also gives students hands-on experience many have not had. Mottley observes a generational difference between him and many of the students entering the Hajim School.

“There’s less of a hands-on approach to things than many of us remember from the way we started out,” he says. When he was an undergraduate in the 1970s, many students in science and engineering had experimented with circuits, for example, before they entered college.

But not every department in the Hajim School offers such an introductory course. And even if they did, students would not have time to explore each discipline, unless it were somehow through a single course.

Mitch Anthamatten, an assistant professor of chemical engineering who serves on the curriculum review committee, pulled together a focus group of chemical engineering majors and found that “the students would love to have a survey class, something their freshman year that showed them, ‘What are the different types of engineering that I can major in?’”

As it stands, many of the engineering students themselves don’t have a clear sense of the engineering disciplines until their junior or senior years, even while they declare a major at the end of their sophomore years. With the exception of the computer science department, all departments in the Hajim School have in common a structure in which students begin with a series of foundational courses in math, physics, chemistry, computing, biology, and finish their programs, either late in their junior, or even in their senior years, with courses in engineering design.

By that time, many who might have been successful engineers, begin to grow weary of their foundational math and science courses, and to wonder, as Maithili Jha ’05 once did, “why am I doing all of this?”

A native of Chicago, Jha declared her major in biomedical engineering as a freshman, and worked through the first two years of the curriculum, a demanding set of courses in biology, chemistry, physics, and math. Now an employee of Malvern Instruments outside Boston, where she markets instrumentation for what is called material characterization to biochemists, Jha recalls wavering, and struggling academically, until she got her second wind by taking advantage of the Hajim School’s Industry Practicum program.

The practicum offers students the option of spending eight months in a paid internship putting their knowledge to work in industry. For Jha, it was a game-changer.

“I was working on circuits, and building things. And when I came back, there was no question that I was meant to be an engineer.”

But the practicum has disadvantages. It means students must put off requirements, often spending up to a semester or year longer to finish their degrees. And it involves careful and early planning on the parts of students and multiple faculty and academic advisors.

Although Jha stuck with biomedical engineering, completing her degree in five years, along with a minor in studio art, many wavering students ultimately leave engineering for another major. Hsiang notes that of the Rochester freshmen who indicate they want to study engineering, only about 60 percent eventually graduate with an engineering degree.

That figure is mirrored nationally.

On the one hand, some attrition is appropriate. Engineering of any type is among the most demanding of disciplines. The math and science required to graduate with a bachelor of science degree in any of the engineering fields—a degree that meets the standards of the national Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology—is not for everyone. Yet among the questions the committee is asking, is whether more students might soldier on if they had a better sense of what awaited them when they finished.

For nine months, the seven-member committee discussed what a new curriculum would look like that would offer team-based, hands-on technical literacy and design-focused courses for non-Hajim students and first-year Hajim students alike.

At the same time, there was broad agreement that a path had to remain in place for those engineering students who are decided on a field and want to follow a traditional path.

“We still need to offer a path to students who know right away what kind of engineer they want to be, and want to jump right into the curriculum,” Clark says.

Altering the engineering curriculum in any field is difficult, and to do so schoolwide is an even greater challenge.

“On the one hand you’d like to have a lot of flexibility to take other courses. But on the other hand, you cannot sacrifice what your discipline does,” says Anthamatten. “The prerequisite structure is very intricate.”

Clark agrees. “The whole curriculum is a nest that is woven together, and as a group we need to figure out how you weave this in,” he says. “If you insert a new course into the curriculum, something else has to move. It affects the entire sequence.”

Among the most ambitious proposals the committee is considering is whether—and how—to offer a “common first year” to all Hajim School students, which would offer a menu of hands-on, multidisciplinary courses, such as Clark’s course on loudspeakers.

The idea poses challenges to the chemical engineering curriculum, says Anthamatten, who notes the difficulty of proceeding with a major in that department without having taken both semesters of the introductory chemistry sequence.

Yet the chemical engineering department has devised a model for the type of tech-literacy courses the committee would like to see the departments develop. For the past five years, the department has offered a popular course called Green Engineering, in which several faculty coteach modules on fuel cells, solar cells, environmental economics, and other topics.

“After more than five years of teaching and fine-tuning the course, the class size has grown and the student reviews have improved,” says Anthamatten. The course is offered to freshman chemical engineers but has attracted students from the humanities and social sciences as well.

“It’s offered to freshmen who are in our programs, but sometimes seniors in other disciplines” take it, and it is the type of course that could be offered to more nonengineering students.

If engineers were to devise more courses such as this one, Norwood says, it might encourage students to see their math and sciences courses as “tools, not roadblocks.”

“If you’ve got this picture of what you see yourself doing, it will be easier for you to look at those science and math courses as tools to your end result, as opposed to roadblocks to this amorphous thing out there called engineering.”

The curriculum review is still at the beginning of a long process, and no recommendations are final. But it is advancing a compelling vision that would place the Hajim School at the forefront a movement toward greater accessibility and hands-on design that is just starting to take place within engineering schools.

Clark, who came to Rochester from Duke a year ago, says Rochester, which has excelled in the implementation of multidisciplinary and crossdisciplinary programs, has an ideal opportunity to be leader. “It’s one of the things that drew me to the U of R.”