The New Face of STEM

To engage the next generation of engineers, schools need to integrate hands-on curriculums.

Beth_HaloAs the mom of a high school senior in the throes of applying to engineering schools, I’m in awe—and more than a bit intimidated—when I see what’s in store for my son during his first year of study. Calculus, physics, sustainable engineering principles, even statistical methodologies is on the docket, regardless of whether it’s his safety or reach school.

Combine the rigor of the course load with the fact that many of these classes are taught in large lecture style, and it’s no wonder so many first-years are turned off by the engineering curriculum and switch out of the major. Past studies have shown than upwards of 40% of engineering students switch to other majors or drop out of school not just because of the difficulty of the engineering curriculum, but because of the way it has traditionally been taught.

Kids like my son, fresh out of small high school classes with personalized teaching and lots of interaction, need more than book learning and lectures to stay engaged and embrace tracks in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). They need to get their hands dirty, working on projects in collaborative teams and learning cross-discipline skills—much like they will when they’re out there in the real world on their first engineering job.

Getting Hands On

Luckily, more and more universities are getting that message loud and clear. Not only are they promoting student participation in competitions like the DARPA Robotics Challenge or ASME (American Society of Mechanical Engineers) Student Design Competition, but they are actively retooling their curriculum to foster more hands-on and project-based learning.

Take a look at what’s happening in Ohio State University’s First-Year Engineering course, ENGR 1181: Fundamentals of Engineering. To ensure students don’t get discouraged by the slog through core science and mathematics courses, the department has introduced a final project that tasks students with developing a controller for an N-scale train set using MATLAB technical computing software and an Arduino microcontroller. In preparation, students learn measurement, graphing, data analysis and other core engineering concepts along with a basic class in MATLAB programming. Then in the 10th week of the course, they get to roll up their sleeves and dive into the project, working in groups of four. The higher-level classes build on this hands-on training, requiring students to build an advanced energy vehicle as well as other collaborative project work. Since adopting the new course sequence, OSU says a higher percentage of its students are continuing on in the engineering program.

Some engineering students at Purdue University are gearing up for their own hands-on engineering adventure. The university is offering a design class specifically focused on building a component of the Hyperloop, a space-age-like transportation system proposed by serial inventor Elon Musk. Hyperloop is a pneumatic tube-based transportation system built around reduced pressure tubes and pressurized capsules or pods that would transport people and cargo between destinations at speeds up to 700 mph. Purdue’s Hyperloop course will require students to create a passenger capsule or pod for the vacuum-based transportation system, and some of those will be entered into SpaceX’s Hyperloop pod competition later this year. The course is based on SpaceX’s contest requirements and is taught by a professor in the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

More Changes on the Horizon

This is just the tip of the iceberg in what’s happening in college engineering programs around the country. Group collaboration, hands-on learning opportunities and labs stuffed with the latest in engineering technology—from 3D printers to CNC (computer numerically controlled) milling machines and robotics tools—are being mainstreamed to help universities shift to a more experiential learning style.

I’m confident that engineering is a great track for my son. Yet, I have to admit there’s a chance he’ll be discouraged without an opportunity for an immersive experience that depicts what real-world engineering is like. That said, I couldn’t be happier about the coming changes—for him and for all of those upcoming engineers who are so critical to driving next-generation innovation.

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About the Author

Beth Stackpole's avatar
Beth Stackpole

Beth Stackpole is a contributing editor to Digital Engineering. Send e-mail about this article to [email protected].

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