Author: Liz Nilsen

Home / Articles posted by Liz Nilsen
Cracking the ‘how’ in changing engineering education

Cracking the ‘how’ in changing engineering education

We’ve been quiet, but hard at work, and are now ready to unveil something big: the first of what will be several articles mining the experience of the Pathways  project, with which we worked in 2013-2016 (when the NSF funding ended).

If you’re at the ASEE conference, make time for our presentation Wednesday morning as well as the Entrepreneurship division reception Tuesday evening. Scott Hutcheson will be presenting some of the findings of our research with the universities involved in Pathways. A program of the National Center for Engineering Pathways to Innovation (Epicenter), Pathways was an effort to create a “tipping point” for the inclusion of innovation and entrepreneurship (I&E) in undergraduate engineering education. 50 schools participated (although a somewhat informal “community of practice” persists). In addition to opportunities to learn about effective approaches to I&E, teams from each institution received training and coaching in Strategic Doing as a way to organize their work together.

We invited the schools to be part of follow-up research, and 33 accepted. The research explores questions around team composition, leadership structure, environmental factors, and the use of agile strategy. To tease out the factors that are most critical to this kind of work, 24 of the schools (those that were in the initiative for at least two years) were divided into quartiles according to the number of new collaborations they had completed (eg, a new course, a makerspace, a student IP policy). The research team then compared the highest quartile with the lowest to see if any patterns emerged.

We’ll discuss several of the findings in coming posts, but we’ll start with what we think is one of the biggest findings:

The consistent use of Strategic Doing stood out as one of the strongest predictors of team productivity. The teams in the highest quartile about 8 of the 10 Rules of Strategic Doing consistently, while the teams in the lowest quartile used 2.

You can read a summary of the paper here (the full paper will be available to the public soon).

Photo credit: EpicenterUSA (Flickr)

Hack of the Week: Helping Students Diverge

In their thinking, that is: this week’s Hack is from Daniel Raviv of Florida Atlantic University, who’s got lots more ideas in a set of books (links below). Here’s an easy exercise to help students build their ideation abilities:

Show the students a coat hanger, and have them individually list different uses for it. They can think creatively about the item: use any material, size or shape of a hanger; they may imagine cutting it, shrinking it, using many of them, etc. Students then share their ideas, and depending on the time constraints, pick a suitable idea to implement.

More ideas from Daniel:

8 Simple Ways to Outsmart a Mosquito: A Hands-On Guide to Learning the 8 Keys to Innovation
Everyone Loves Speed Bumps, Don’t You? A Guide to Innovative Thinking
Partly Funny with a Chance of Brainstorms: A Guide to Divergent Thinking

Hacks of the Week are easily-implementable ideas – share yours now.

Gordon Prize Goes to Worcester Polytechnic University

The National Academy of Engineering (NAE) recently presented Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) with the 2016 Bernard M. Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering and Technology Education. The honor stems from the school’s creation of  the“WPI Plan,” which gives students ample opportunities throughout their education to tackle authentic problems both in the community and around the world. A recent Donahue Institute evaluation underscored the effectiveness of WPI’s approach in preparing students for future careers. It’s worth noting that the program started in 1970 – kudos to WPI for making a long-term commitment to doing education differently.

Read more here.


Hack of the Week: Starting a Weekly Innovation Challenge

This week’s Hack is from Sridhar Condoor of St. Louis University, a KEEN school – a student challenge to explore the importance of planning and communication. Want to know more? Check out this paper from last year’s ASEE conference.

Have a Hack to share? Hacks are bite-sized ideas to help transform engineering education. Email your idea to us.

Hack of the Week: “Crediting” Students’ Informal Learning

This week’s Hack is from the Pathways team at the University of South Florida. USF is launching a series of “pop-up classes” – short-duration learning opportunities (see here for Stanford’s pop-ups for inspiration). Students still want some documentation of their experience, and USF came up with an ingenious way to do that – creating a “zero-credit” course for each pop-up so that they will show up on students’ official transcripts. Email team leader Sanjukta Bhanja to learn more.

Do you have a Hack to share? Hacks are bite-sized ideas that help transform engineering education. Email us with yours.

Hack of the Week: Orientation Scavenger Hunt

This week’s hack is from Florida Tech’s Pathways team: they re-designed their freshman orientation activities with a scavenger hunt for new students. The hunt took students around campus to show them where to find makerspaces and other opportunities for innovation. Check out the video below. Want to know more? Email team co-leader Beshoy Morkos.

What’s your Hack? Hacks are bite-sized, practical resources for transforming engineering education. Email us to submit an idea.

Go Slow to Go Fast?

Apparently this saying comes from martial arts (I’d wondered). Maybe it works in that context – but when it comes to strategies for transforming engineering education, I have an amendment to put forward.

I’m always interested in the issue of “pace” in conversations with schools thinking about transformation in engineering education. On one hand, schools that are already considering change have – at a certain level – already made a decision and just want to get on with it. They’re also usually veterans (or victims) of a strategic planning process that seemed both interminable and ineffectual.

On the other hand, the nature of academia – and perhaps STEM fields in particular – is that some of the best results need a long time to develop. Many people in the corporate world would argue that the institution of tenure also contributes to a culture in which the expectation of quick results is very low. As a former colleague of mine – who had previously worked in a very fast-paced New York media organization – once said, “The only time we would have ever had a meeting this long was if we were shutting the whole place down!”

“Agile strategy” announces its difference right up front – it’s quick, both to implement and adapt. This causes a certain cognitive dissonance for many academics. Here are some of the questions I’ve heard more than once in guiding the Pathways teams using strategic doing as a specific methodology for agile strategy:

  • “How do we know we’re considering all the options?”
  • “How do we know we’ve picked the very best place to start?”
  • “Don’t we have to get all the stakeholders on board first?”

My answers – “you don’t,” “it doesn’t matter as much as you think,” and, well, “no” – aren’t particularly comforting. But, when a team finds the courage to pick a tiny corner of their world to start working on, one that they don’t need permission to address, and begins doing the work, something extraordinary often happens. They (usually) get a taste of success that keeps them motivated. They gain confidence in their ability to identify the options and pick the right one(s). And people watching them – and there are always people watching, if they make “sharing small successes” part of their plan – are drawn to the chance to make something happen. Soon their small success is multiplied and turns into much more significant change.

If their first effort isn’t successful (which is sometimes the case for a variety of reasons), it’s critical for teams to quickly rebound – or as the disciples of agile put it, to pivot. Good teams will immediately debrief, extract lessons and then pick a new tack and get moving again. What they don’t do is to blame the approach – “if we hadn’t moved so quickly, we wouldn’t have failed.” Failure sometimes happens – but an agile approach will help ensure that failures are small, early, and don’t call the entire endeavor into question.

Go small – not slow –  to go fast. That’s my new motto.

Colorado School of Mines Leading the World

QS Education, which connects students from all over the world with university programs, just added “mineral and mining engineering” to their categories for rankings.  The top school – beating out those famous schools everyone thinks of right away – is Colorado School of Mines (full ranking list here). The site uses academic and employer reputation and several research-oriented metrics.

Not content to rest on their laurels, Mines – which is a Pathways to Innovation school – has plenty of new initiatives going on to transform their students’ learning experiences. We’re hoping to feature their work in a longer blog post and a Hack of the Week soon – but for now, congratulations!



Hack of the Week: Improving Fluid Mechanics Learning

If you teach fluid mechanics, check out the unit Andy Gerhart‘s developed at Lawrence Tech to help students develop an entrepreneurial mindset along with mastering the engineering content. The school is one of the KEEN campuses and Andy recently did a webinar with KEEN – watch it and get the materials here.

Do you have a Hack to share? Email us. Each Hack of the Week is a bite-sized, practical tip or resource for improving engineering education.

Hack of the Week: Re-thinking Advisory Boards

This week’s Hack is from Pathways school University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez, which was tired of advisory boards that gathered a few times a year to “share information.” They’ve launched the Fellowship of External Doers (click the link to read the group’s motto, if nothing else), complete with a Slack account to enable frequent communication. Email UPRM’s Ubaldo Cordova-Figueroa to learn more.

Have a Hack to share? Email us.