UW News

September 26, 2002

UW to lead effort exploring how engineering students think and learn, and how best to teach them

An engineering professor at the University of Washington has received a $10 million federal grant for a national center to explore how engineering students think and learn — knowledge that experts consider essential to teach today’s undergraduates the skills they need to solve tomorrow’s problems.

“When it comes to hard data on the student experience, on how engineering is learned, there really isn’t much,” said Cindy Atman, associate professor of industrial engineering. Atman is principal investigator on the grant and will lead a consortium of partner schools and other collaborating institutions. “To structure the learning experience in a meaningful way, we need to be working from empirical data. Otherwise, how do you know what to change?”

The Center for the Advancement of Engineering Education is the first national center funded by National Science Foundation to look at not just the engineering learning experience, but to go the next step in applying the data to classroom practices. The $10 million will be disbursed over five years, beginning in January, and partners include the Colorado School of Mines, Howard University, Stanford University and the University of Minnesota.

The NSF will formally announce the award during the Engineering and Computing Education Grantees Conference in Washington, D.C., next week.

Selecting the UW to lead the effort was not happenstance, according to Atman. The university is a nationally recognized pioneer in studying both engineering learning and teaching.

In September 1998, Atman founded a center at the UW, the Center for Engineering Learning and Teaching, or CELT. The purpose was to gather data about the learning process as it relates to engineering and explore the implications of that process for pedagogy. Some of the results were eye opening.

In one study, seniors and freshmen were given the same problem to solve: design a playground for a fictitious neighborhood. They were allowed to ask for information they felt they needed from a project administrator.

The good news was that seniors asked for more information, covered a broader range of design steps and moved more fluidly through the design process than the freshmen did. Seniors had a more global perspective. The bad news was that many didn’t go far enough.

“Only slightly over half of the graduating seniors found out the budget that they had to stay within,” Atman said. “They also weren’t thinking about liability issues, and they weren’t thinking about maintenance issues.”

The new center will continue the work the UW’s CELT has started, expanding the effort to a national audience. Researchers will work with colleagues in the UW College of Education to do in-depth longitudinal studies at the UW and three of the partner universities — Howard, Stanford and the Colorado School of Mines. “That will give us a broader national look at what the student experience is,” Atman said.

The studies will follow students from their freshmen through their senior years. At two of the sites — the UW and at Howard University — an additional segment of students will be tracked from their junior years through graduation and their transition into the workforce.

In addition, the center will work with faculty in the UW’s Technical Communication Department to set up resources and tools, based on the research, to help educators improve the effectiveness of their teaching. Many of those will be available through a Web-based engineering education portal. And the center will host annual engineering education institutes to develop a core group of leaders who can foster change in how engineering is taught.

Atman says she has seen a glimpse, on a smaller scale, of what such an effort might accomplish. At the UW, CELT is using data from its research to help identify challenges and has had a full-time instructional consultant, Angela Linse, on hand for the past two years to work with faculty on improving instructional techniques. In the first year, Linse worked one-on-one with 17 percent of the UW’s engineering faculty. If one also counts work with groups, she advised more than 40 percent.

“That’s an amazing number for the first year,” Atman said.

She attributes the high participation rate to the fact that CELT has data to back up the call for change. “When you work with engineers, you have to show them data — they want to know why something works,” she said. “We need to base our discussions on solid data, but we also need to be changing the process. They have to happen together to have an effect.”

In addition to the partner schools, collaborating institutions include City College of New York, Edmonds Community College, Highline Community College, the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, San Jose State University, Women in Engineering Program & Advocates Network, and Xavier University.


For more information, contact Atman at (206) 616-2171 or atman@engr.washington.edu. On Saturday, she can be reached at (206) 523-0333. She will be in Washington, D.C., from Sunday until Tuesday morning at the Hyatt Regency Washington on Capitol Hill, (202) 737-1234.

Information about CELT can be found on the Web at http://www.engr.washington.edu/~celtweb/