The BRADLEY DEPARTMENT of ELECTRICAL and COMPUTER ENGINEERING

Culture of change: tech changes—should education | ECE | Virginia Tech

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A culture of change: The tech changes—should the education?

A graphic showing the possible future paths an ECE student can take within the four-year curriculum.
Possible future paths through ECE.

Today's fast-changing technology challenges engineering departments to re-evaluate how they prepare the next generation. What are the most fundamental skills and knowledge that no electrical or computer engineer should be without How much hands-on experience should students gain, with technology that may be obsolete as soon as the students graduate

Last year, the ECE department embarked on a multi-year effort to evaluate and shape its culture and curriculum for the world that faculty, students, and alumni will face tomorrow. The effort is supported by a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) program called "Revolutionizing Engineering Departments (RED)," which is focused on the professional formation of engineers for the 21st century. The ECE department is one of only 13 departments to receive this grant in the past two years.

"We would like to create a new curriculum model that blends science, engineering, creativity, and design," says Luke Lester, ECE department head and principal investigator. "There is no field that does not overlap with electrical and computer engineering. To remain the go-to career for innovation, we must prepare electrical and computer engineers to solve problems in all areas."

Group of researchers discussing ideas.
The interdisciplinary team facilitating the curriculum effort. Back Row: Steve Harrison, Annie Patrick,Tom Martin, and Matthew Wisnioski. Front Row: Luke Lester and Lisa McNair.

The curriculum effort is facilitated by an interdisciplinary team including Lester; Tom Martin, ECE professor and Bradley Faculty Fellow of Education; Lisa McNair, associate professor of engineering education; Matthew Wisnioski, associate professor of science and technology in society (STS); Steve Harrison, professor of practice in computer science; Jeremy Ernst, associate professor in integrative STEM education; Liesl Baum, research assistant professor in the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT); Benjamin Knapp, ICAT director; and Annie Patrick, an STS Ph.D. student.

How do you start curriculum change?

The RED grant project kicked off in July 2016, with interviews of faculty, staff, current students, and alumni to collect information and get a baseline reading of the department culture.

Today, ECEs are asked to work on projects from smart textile design to cancer research. At Virginia Tech alone, research teams work on biomedical devices, oil mining, underwater communications, chemical analysis in space, artificial brains, and the vehicles of the future.

The core skills for any of these efforts are problem solving and—sometimes more importantly— problem setting, according to Martin. Problem setting is where the process begins: how to define a problem so that it can be solved. Teaching these skills has always been a challenge, he acknowledges.

Curriculum is never static

Since its inception 125 years ago, the ECE department has regularly updated its curriculum to reflect changing technology and demands. As tools became smarter and so many tasks became software- and computer-based, the department created the introductory circuits labs using a "do-it-at-home" model, ensuring that students had the tools and equipment to both build their labs and experiment with personal projects.

In 2014, the department began to offer a new senior design model where students work on a wide range of industry-sponsored projects from developing light-trapping technology to testing vehicle cybersecurity penetration.

For extracurricular projects, students have access to the department's Design Studio Complex.

The AMP Lab opened its doors in fall 2012 as a fully-equipped space for students to work on personal engineering projects—from artificial limbs to improved speaker systems. These projects allow students to pursue any area that interests them, letting them overlap electrical and computer engineering with other disciplines, and tackle projects outside their regular coursework. Many students start by using the same components and setups they have on hand from their lab courses.

The next iteration of Virginia Tech's ECE experience will build on these freedoms, and move some earlier into the curriculum while giving students options for multiple pathways to earn their degree. The curriculum team is not planning just an update, however, but it is also exploring the fundamental issues for creating a significantly different experience.

"We'd like to broaden the range of careers students can pursue, and broaden the pool of students who choose ECE," explains Martin. For example, there might be a student who wants to be a doctor, and chooses an undergraduate degree in electrical and computer engineering because it's the basis for so much medical equipment. The ideal program, according to Martin, would still prepare students for traditional ECE careers, but open options for students who want to explore other areas at the same time.

Martin would also like to avoid a situation he has seen frequently: an electrical engineering student takes Introduction to Computer Engineering and would like to take more such classes, but would need to add an extra semester or year because the curriculum is already so packed. "We want to give students enough information to make a reasonable choice early on, and make it easy to change their minds in their third year," says Martin. This is particularly valuable for students who are interested in applications of ECE that combine two or more aspects of the department that have historically been separate, like software defined radio. "Is it EE or CPE" Martin asks. "You need both, and right now it's hard to get that mix in our program without double-majoring."

Concepts and challenges

An early conversation in the new curriculum effort centers on threshold concepts: the difficult concepts that unlock new levels of understanding for multiple areas and that change the way students think. "These concepts are hard for students to grasp, but once they understand them, a lot of other things make sense," says Martin. The first challenge, according to Martin, is to identify these concepts. The next challenge is to move as many as possible into the early years of the undergraduate curriculum so that students have flexible options for their futures.

Facilitators are running focus groups among the faculty, students, and ECE advisory board members to help identify these concepts. A number of professors have left these groups and continued the conversation—meeting in the hallway to discuss new ideas and potential tactics for change.

Part of the challenge is to change what it means to be a Virginia Tech ECE, says Martin. "The perception can sometimes be that you're an engineer when you've run the gauntlet of classes." Instead of asking if students can pass a set of classes, we are asking if they can solve the problems they need to solve.