ENGE Foundations Dissatisfaction

Virginia Tech freshman Kaylen Melick sits in the Engineering Lounge in Randolph Hall, attempting to formulate a challenging yet functional MATLAB program for an assignment, April 12, 2017.

The foundations of engineering class holds a notorious reputation among first-year engineering students as being a necessary evil toward earning their degree. Many students fail to see the class’ relevance to their own future engineering careers and are frustrated by the seemingly aimless work they’re required to do.

“By being broad enough to encompass all of the majors offered by the College of Engineering, it feels like foundations of engineering doesn’t truly prepare you for your major,” said Jonathan Lacson, a freshman engineering student.

Virginia Tech offers about 60 sections of the foundations class every semester. The current model of the class is somewhat new, with teachers being allowed more flexibility in how they meet the course objective for the class as assessed by the engineering accreditation process.

Several engineering students agreed that the class wasn’t as exploratory as it could have been, including Kevin Swecker, a freshman engineering student.

“The 1216 class, with my section focusing on the development of a drone, felt like an introductory course in aerospace engineering with an introduction to Inventor,” Swecker said. “As a prospective engineering student, I feel as though I have, with the exception of MATLAB, (learned) nothing in foundations of engineering to prepare me for my first in-major semester.”

According to Ken Reid, associate professor and assistant department head for Undergraduate Programs, the class’ purpose is to teach less about the individual majors and focus more on the interchangeable basis of all engineering.

“In the end, the important piece is doing the engineering design. There’s a pretty specific engineering design process that you really need to go through.”
Ken Reid
associate professor and assistant department head for Undergraduate Programs

“We have 14 different programs, so it’s going to be pretty easy to look at a project and say, ‘This doesn’t relate to me,’” Reid said. “But in the end, the important piece is doing the engineering design. There’s a pretty specific engineering design process that you really need to go through.”

Reid is responsible for coordinating the class, as well as developing the engineering curriculum. He also teaches several sections of it every year.

“Part of engineering is picking out the best answer for every step of the way, figuring out if your design actually meets the criteria that your customer wants,” Reid said. “Even if you’re working on a drone project, and you’re not an aerospace engineer, you’re still going through that project and being able to justify the design. It’s sort of universal for all engineering majors.”

Reid also emphasized the importance that the foundation course has on the rest of students’ engineering education at Virginia Tech.

“If I sent you straight into a circuits class, you could do the work,” Reid said. “Would you be able to relate the math that you’re doing to what it really means in real life? Sometimes yes, but sometimes no. I want you to build that context of what engineering is and why you’re doing all these classes. I want you to keep the big picture in mind as you go through the full year.”

Reid has studied numerous research that evaluates the effectiveness of engineering classes, such as the American Society for Engineering Education and the Frontiers of Education Conference. Virginia Tech has also hosted a first year engineering experience conference and has found the foundations of engineering class to be successful in teaching critical skills such as communication and teamwork that are desirable to employers.

He explained that the focus of the class encouraged self-discovery for the students, rather than just feeding information about the individual majors to them. While Virginia Tech has explored the idea of presenting a different engineering major every week, referred to as talking-ed seminars, Reid found it to be overall unproductive.

“My experience with talking-ed seminars is that everyone sits towards the back. They do their other homework, and they’re there for attendance. It’s really not a valuable way to get information across,” Reid explained.

Instead, he encourages students to personally look at different engineering majors they’re interested in, or even engineering majors they know nothing about, and recognize on their own what discipline they want to go into. The benefit of the foundations course is students have time to examine other majors rather than immediately committing to one.

Reid also finds the class to be beneficial in helping students reach graduation.

“Our assumption is that if you get into Virginia Tech, you should be highly successful,” Reid continued. “You have all the ability to be highly successful. So what can we do in the first year to help you build the foundation so that you can be successful for the rest of your college career, as successful as you want to be.”

David Knight, assistant professor in the Department of Engineering, agreed that the focus of the foundations class it to develop the necessary skills to become an engineer, regardless of the major.

“I think one of the important take-home messages is to think about the transferrable skills that can be developed out of the class,” Knight said. “Those are the kinds of things that I don’t think students recognize as being important immediately after taking the class and then especially when they get to the senior capstone. I think once students are later on in their careers they see the benefit more of the kinds of things we emphasize in the first year program.”

Knight’s class was unique in that he didn’t require tests, instead having the students attempt real world learning activities to see how their engineering skills were developing, while simultaneously meeting the class objectives.

Knight did, however, recognize the challenge of the course.

“It’s a difficult course for our department to offer because we are feeding into different departments,” Knight explained. “If we tailor it into any one department then that puts students going into other places at a disadvantage. I think the challenge of having a first-year program is making sure we give due as much as we can.”

“Often times it’s unfortunate that a lot of students will wait for the SPOT Surveys to air their ideas or concerns because then they lose the opportunity to experience the change.”
David Knight
assistant professor in the Department of Engineering

As far as the future of foundations of engineering, Knight and Reid were both in agreement that they are constantly looking to improve the course and encourage students to come forth with their perspectives and ideas on bettering the class.

“I look really closely at recommendations from students on SPOT Surveys to try to implement it the next year,” Knight said. “What we try to do too is check in with students along the way. There was some feedback from students throughout the semester, and I try to implement those as we were going. Often times it’s unfortunate that a lot of students will wait for the SPOT Surveys to air their ideas or concerns because then they lose the opportunity to experience the change.”

Reid also encouraged students to discuss the class with the engineering department and help them be more successful.

“While there are things in the class that might make you wonder, ‘Where is this going?,’ there’s generally a reason behind each thing in the class. But if somebody has questions about it, let us know, we’re happy to answer them.”

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