Curricular Content, Quality, and Standards
Engineering continues to change in response to new challenges and new technologies. Recent technological breakthroughs have been made in biotechnology, nanotechnology, information and communications technology, materials science, and photonics, and other fields. In response to changes in engineering, engineering education is also changing. As engineering becomes increasingly specialized, more material must be covered in lower division courses, as well as in junior and senior year courses. Fundamental changes have been made in engineering education in four-year B.S. programs: more project-based learning; the introduction of principles of design and other professional engineering features in lower division courses; and more emphasis on life sciences, interdisciplinary material, and liberal arts.
The increase in required prerequisite knowledge in related disciplines may increase the amount of coursework required for an A.S. degree at two-year educational institutions. In some states, community college students are already required to complete not only general education courses, but also courses in seemingly unrelated fields, such as physical education. As a result, the number of credits required for an engineering degree has increased. Research shows that students who earned a baccalaureate degree in engineering who started at four-year institutions completed an average of 149 credits; students who started at community colleges completed an average of 160 credits (Adelman, 2004).
There is a growing consensus among educators and policy experts that engineering curricula and pedagogy must be changed. Wulf and
Fisher (2002) have argued that engineering educational institutions are becoming increasingly out of touch with the practice of engineering:
Not only are they unattractive to many students in the first place, but even among those who do enroll there is considerable disenchantment and a high dropout rate (of over 40 percent). Moreover, many of the students who make it to graduation enter the workforce ill-equipped for the complex interactions, across many disciplines, of real-world engineered systems.
A number of researchers have focused on the need to include design and build projects in lower division courses and to encourage research in the undergraduate curriculum.(Beston, 2004; Grimson, 2002; Seymour and Hewitt, 1997). The recommendations for how engineering education needs to change contained in the NAE 2004 report, The Engineer of 2020: Visions of Engineering in the New Century, are wide-ranging:
Almost all discussion of educating the engineer of 2020 presumes additions to the curriculum—more on communications, more of the social sciences, more on business and economics, more cross-cultural studies, more on nano-, bio-, and information technologies, more on the fundamentals behind these increasingly central technologies, and so forth (NAE, 2004).
Changes have also been made in accreditation criteria, where the emphasis has shifted from student inputs to student learning outcomes. Criteria 3, Program Outcomes and Assessment, of ABET’s Engineering Criteria states (ABET, 2004):
Although institutions may use different terminology, for purposes of Criterion 3, program outcomes are intended to be statements that describe what students are expected to know or be able to do by the time of graduation from the program.
Engineering programs must demonstrate that their graduates have:
the ability to apply knowledge of mathematics, science, and engineering
the ability to design and conduct experiments, as well as to analyze and interpret data
the ability to design a system, component, or process to meet desired needs
the ability to function on multi-disciplinary teams
the ability to identify, formulate, and solve engineering problems
understanding of professional and ethical responsibility
the ability to communicate effectively
a broad education necessary to understand the impact of engineering solutions in a global and societal context
recognition of the need for, and an ability to engage in life-long learning
knowledge of contemporary issues
the ability to use the techniques, skills, and modern engineering tools necessary for engineering practice.
ABET mandates that each program have an assessment process and documented results. Programs must also show that the results are used to continue the development and improvement of the program. The assessment process must demonstrate that the outcomes of the program, including those listed above, are being measured.
The discussion that follows addresses three questions raised in workshop presentations and committee discussions:
What material should be covered in A.S. programs at community colleges? Should community colleges strive to provide course content that is as close as possible to lower-division courses in four-year engineering programs?
What resources do A.S. degree programs need to prepare students to transfer and succeed in four-year engineering programs?
How can quality in A.S. programs be assured?
The first question relates to the development of a standard, lower-division engineering curriculum. In this regard, community college faculty and administrators are “shooting at a moving target.” Courses that used to be taught at higher levels are increasingly being taught in lower levels of B.S. degree programs. Because of the lack of critical mass of students in community college programs and a lack of resources to recruit faculty with specialized expertise, this change presents serious problems for community colleges. In addition, institutions disagree about which courses are “lower level” and which are “upper level.”
Developing a curriculum requires defining students’ competencies in engineering and relevant cognate subjects after two years of college-level coursework. Although this was not included in the committee’s charge, some obvious competencies can be listed:
Level 1: calculus sequence, physics, inorganic chemistry, and introduction to engineering (including design)
Level 2: calculus sequence, physics, introduction to engineering, statics, dynamics, fluids, thermo, circuits I and II, digital logic, mechanics, materials, organic chemistry, perhaps introduction to process design
Level 3: same as Level 2, but with a strong engineering-design and fabrication component in each course and with calculus and physics taught as engineering classes, perhaps at least partly by engineering faculty
How much variation could be allowed without compromising the principle of a common curriculum? For example, some universities insist that all engineering students must take their class in thermodynamics, which is designed to meet the specific needs of their mechanical engineering program. When elements of upper level courses are taught in the freshman or sophomore year, partnerships with community colleges can be threatened. A good measure of a successful partnership might be the willingness of a community college to commit to teaching the aforementioned classes at a level of expertise acceptable to the four-year partner as long as the four-year institution is willing to eliminate major-specific freshman and sophomore classes as a requirement for transfer. Another solution would be for the university partner to offer major-specific courses online to the community college(s) with which they partner.
Several workshop participants described how their institutions had used distance education to make courses more accessible to their students. For example, tribal colleges, which are predominantly two-year colleges, use distance learning to reach geographically isolated and dispersed groups of students. Distance learning may also appeal to some students whose work schedules prevent them from participating in classroom learning. In addition, distance education can also introduce community college students to four-year university faculty members and coursework; even laboratory work can be conducted via distance learning.
Research that has been done on the effectiveness of distance learning, is scant and inconclusive (Rovai, 2002). Two-year students typically choose community colleges for reasons that seem antithetical to distance learning, such as the personalized teaching/learning provided by smaller classes and more interaction with faculty—in other words, a sense of community. Given the limited amount of data available on the efficacy of distance learning for community colleges, the committee believes more research should be done in this area.
LOWER LEVEL CURRICULUM
Most of the workshop participants from two-year educational institutions pointed out the problems created for engineering science programs by the evolution of four-year curricula. As engineering curricula become more specialized, driven partly by the continual improvement process required by ABET 2000 criteria, community colleges are finding it increas-
ingly difficult to offer courses or curricula that satisfy their four-year engineering partners. Because of capacity issues, many community colleges can only offer a single engineering sciences curriculum. As new courses are added to four-year engineering programs, the number of four-year engineering programs to which their students can transfer without losing credits is decreasing.
One of the weaknesses of articulation agreements is that changes made to four-year program curricula are often not reflected in the agreements. Some community college representatives also noted that they were unable to offer the number of lower-division courses defined by the articulation agreement because of insufficient faculty, laboratory facilities, and other resources.
Another weakness cited by representatives of community colleges was the failure of four-year institutions to consult with them about impending changes or to give them adequate time to adjust their curricula to reflect these changes. To ensure that community college faculty members and administrators have time to plan a response to changes, they must have timely, frequent communication with institutional partners.
Lack of communication between two-year and four-year educational institutions is a problem, especially for community colleges with numerous four-year transfer partners and those located a good distance from many of their partners. Since four-year institutions are in the dominant position in transfer partnerships, they must provide mechanisms for ensuring frequent communication with their community college partners to assist them in responding to curricular changes.
There is a growing consensus among engineering educators that the amount of application coursework should be expanded. Reducing the emphasis on strictly theoretical expositions and increasing the practical applications of engineering will benefit students in both two- and four-year institutions. Many presenters at the workshop cited a need for more project and design work in lower-division engineering courses for several reasons: to improve students’ understanding of the relevance of coursework to what engineers actually do; to integrate more new technologies into coursework; to increase the emphasis on teamwork, communication skills, and skills required to operate in a global business environment; and, particularly for community colleges, to establish partnerships with local industries.
Several exemplary approaches to creating a more active learning environment were profiled at the workshop (the programs at Three Rivers Community College, Merrimack College, and Monroe Community College are described in previous chapters). Washington State University offers students a variety of real-world engineering (or architecture) ex-
periences. Students can participate in a regional or national robotics competition, help create design-and-build projects for a concrete canoe, participate in bridge building, participate in designing a chemically powered car, or participate in environmental design competitions. Student groups have also built a solar-powered boat and a real airplane. More than 20 student clubs offer a wide variety of activities, and the graduate program in engineering offers international exchanges.
RESOURCES OF COMMUNITY COLLEGES
Two areas of concern for community colleges attempting to maintain high standards are faculty professional development and adequate infrastructure. Community colleges are teaching, not research, institutions. The committee is not able to generalize about these two areas of concern from the anecdotal information provided by workshop participants. The adequacy of facilities, in particular, is dependent on a variety of contextual factors the assessment of which is outside of the committee’s charge. Testimony from workshop participants suggests that closer collaboration between four-year engineering programs and their two-year transfer partners—e.g., sharing facilities and faculty exchanges—would potentially enhance both the opportunities for professional development of community college faculty and the facilities available to community college students and faculty.
ACCREDITATION AND EVALUATION
It would be surprising if the subject of ABET accreditation of community college engineering science programs did not arise in the course of the workshop and the committee’s deliberations, especially with regards to discussions of curriculum, standards, and quality. Currently, ABET does not accredit two-year engineering science programs; it does accredit two-year engineering technology programs. Community colleges are accredited by regional organizations. Some workshop participants expressed the view that an ABET-style accreditation process would not work for community colleges. Others felt that community college associations and engineering societies should address this issue. The committee’s charge does not include addressing the question of whether or not engineering science programs should be accredited by ABET. However, further assessment of the value of accreditation, how accreditation might be best accomplished, and who might be best able to do so is warranted.
The central topic of this chapter is what a student pursuing a baccalaureate degree in engineering needs to know at the end of the first two years of study and how that knowledge can be demonstrated to a four-year institution and others. This question involves issues related to curriculum, pedagogy, and quality.
Conclusion 4-1 Institutions of higher education are addressing issues related to curriculum, pedagogy, and quality, but must do much more to resolve them.
Conclusion 4-2 As the trends in engineering education move toward greater diversity and specialization in the lower division course offerings of four-year engineering programs, engineering science curricula are less likely to cover the same material or achieve the same results. Thus, the need for communication and resource sharing between transfer partners and for the timely updating of articulation agreements is becoming more urgent.
Conclusion 4-3 The engineering education community, and the profession as a whole, would benefit from a discussion of the feasibility and desirability of standardized accreditation for community college engineering science programs.
Conclusion 4-4 More emphasis in the K–12 curriculum in U.S. schools needs to be placed on mathematics. Mathematics courses in engineering should put more emphasis on applied engineering examples.