Industry Insights

Three Universities that are Redefining ECE Departments

2019-03-25  |  5 min read 

The Tucson edition of the annual conference for the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department Heads Association (ECEDHA) is well underway, and it is living up to its advance billing. There is a lot of activity, and one of the highlights was the Redefining ECE Departments (RED) breakout session conducted by Dr. Tony Maciejewski of Colorado State, Dr. Ashfaq Khokhar of Iowa State, and Dr. Luke Lester of Virginia Tech. Each of these schools has made sweeping changes to the undergraduate ECE experience, and the three presenters described programs, challenges, and results from their respective schools. The RED program is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), which seems to have been pleased by the initial results. The NSF is presently looking for new proposals on adaptations and implementations to scale the program and incorporate new ideas.

Dr. Khokhar presented first, and Iowa State’s project, called Reinventing the Instructional and Departmental Enterprise (RIDE), is based on “X-Teams” and “Y-Circles.” Each course to be revised has a cross-functional team (X-Team) of students, faculty members, and experts from various disciplines who propose ideas that are then considered by a team of faculty from the relevant community of practice within the department (Y-Circle). The goal is to increase the use of evidence-based teaching and design thinking. In the RIDE model, there is a constant feedback loop in which tools drive processes that change the mindset and culture, which in turn changes the processes and ultimately the tools. Dr. Khokhar also described a lotus blossom model that is useful in seeing how changes radiate outward. Although there was initially some resistance from students, the student satisfaction surveys actually improved after the RIDE program was implemented.

Dr. Lester’s presentation was about radically redesigning both the “fan-in” and “fan-out” of prospective undergraduate ECE students. By fan-in, Dr. Lester meant the pool of students coming into the ECE program, and by fan-out, he meant the career paths students would pursue upon leaving school. In short, Virginia Tech wants to attract a broader set of students, and to prepare them for a broader set of careers. Dr. Lester said that students see ECE as boring, and the common perception that ECE is limited to electricity, electronics, and electromagnetism. Furthermore, the sophomore year is often very dry, filled with abstract information that leaves students cold. To counter that, Virginia Tech introduced open-ended lab projects for sophomores. Virginia Tech has also implemented “majors” within the ECE program that will be more recognizable and attractive to students, including robotics, cybersecurity, and machine learning.

Dr. Maciejewski’s presentation was provocatively entitled, “Throwing Away the Course-Centric Teaching and Learning Method.” Colorado State’s model weaves four threads throughout the undergraduate ECE program: technical content, creativity, foundations (math and physics), and professionalism. Students experience two-week periods called Learning Studio Modules (LSMs) in which professors from multiple disciplines collaborate to ensure that students master knowledge integration activities. Dr. Maciejewski also discussed organizational issues, such as the importance of assembling a robust, multidisciplinary project team with special emphasis on ensuring excellent communication to all stakeholders. Partnership with the math department was also important to Colorado State’s success, and Dr. Maciejewski stressed the importance of gathering data with assessments to persuade people who may initially oppose RED initiatives.

Of course, the presentations contained much more information than the preceding paragraphs could cover, and one should consult the proceedings of the conference for more details. After the three presentations concluded, the presenters fielded many questions from the audience, and the general tone of the questions indicated that multiple schools will soon be adopting and adapting the ideas presented at the breakout session.