Grand Challenges: Technological Literacy and Increasing Diversity

Susan Hagness -- image credit: COE portraits Relatively few people outside of the engineering disciplines understand the real work of engineers. Engineering gets little attention in our schools' science curricula, and while major engineering challenges related to urban infrastructure, safe food and clean water, and sustainable energy frequent the news headlines, they are seldom recognized as such.

Susan Hagness, professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, believes that this lack of public knowledge about engineering can and should be addressed through education. Working with five faculty members from across the COE and a grant from the 2010 Project, she has recently completed a pilot run as the PI of a course, "Introduction to Society's Engineering Grand Challenges," that tackles this very problem.

"For several years, I've been thinking that people don't have an accurate and complete perception of what engineering is about," says Hagness. She believes that this public perception of engineering leads to lower recruitment of students, particularly women, into engineering disciplines.

Part of her hypothesis, Hagness notes, is that highlighting humanitarian aspects of engineers' work helps to interest students who might not otherwise consider engineering.

"Right now, people say 'Do you like calculus, chemistry, and physics? Then you should become an engineer.' Instead, I think it should be 'Do you want to make a difference in the world? Then you should become an engineer.' Students need strong analytical skills along the way, but the motivation should be something bigger."

The course, inspired by the National Academy for Engineering's "Grand Challenges for Engineering" project, offers an overview of several major social issues in which engineers can make significant impacts and encourages students to delve deeply into challenges of their own interest.

This spring, ninety-eight freshmen from across the UW-Madison enrolled in Grand Challenges. Thirty percent of the students were drawn from programs other than pre-engineering, and twenty-four percent of the students were women, "a higher percentage of women than the COE-wide percentage," says Hagness.

Assessing the Students

McMahon teaching a Grand Challenges module -- image credit: COE News The Grand Challenges course unfolds as a series of modules. After the first several weeks of a team-taught introductory module in which students meet together and examine basic engineering principles and historical engineering achievements, students participate in two theme-based modules.

These smaller sections focus in on a specific scale of grand challenges - from the personal to beyond our planet - and are taught by one or two of the course's six instructors. The themes cut across the disciplines of engineering, examining both technical and non-technical constraints at each scale.

Once in their module sections, students work first individually and then in small teams to construct presentations around a specific grand challenge of their interest. This year, in Hagness's own section, "engineering the mega-city," projects focused on such topics as sustainable construction of skyscrapers, rapid transit, surviving natural disasters, and blackout-proofing megacities.

Students first completed individual writing assignments to help them construct their own ideas about each facet of the module's project.

"The students cover several issues" in their preparation for the teamwork, Hagness says, including "the motivation for tackling that grand challenge, the technical issues, the limitations, the ultimate technical goal, and proposed technology that might overcome the obstacles."

In addition, students identify non-technical constraints - for example, political and ethical issues - and examine the role of specific engineering disciplines in the solving of the challenge. "That really helped them see how engineers work in teams across disciplines to tackle a problem from different angles," she observes.

Finally, students came together to prepare their project presentation, working together to craft their group's talk (in module two) and poster presentation (in module three).

"For most of the students, this was the first time that they had to present work in front of a group at the UW," Hagness points out. "Many of them indicated that they were really nervous, but I think that giving a successful talk is such an important skill to learn, and they did very well. Technical communication is so critical to effective engineering."

Hagness reports that the instructors and students were particularly excited about the success of the third module's project, which culminated in a course-wide poster session. "It was great for them to be able to interact with each other and learn about each other's work. The teams could cater their presentation to the viewers who were standing there."

In the end, students were assessed on their individual work, reflections about how their team worked together, and the delivery of their two presentations. "A number of students expressed satisfaction with the way that the process helped them tackle a large project by breaking it into small pieces. They seemed to like the opportunity to work individually and then come together as a team to share ideas," she says.

Assessing the Impact and Looking Forward

Hagness and her team assessed the impact of the course on the whole, as well, surveying the students at the beginning and the end to measure the impact of Grand Challenges and its individual components.

"We're still working with the data," Hagness cautions, "But there's a suggestion that the course seemed to strike a positive nerve especially with the women, which goes back to one of our hypotheses - by consciously focusing on humanitarian applications of engineering, we might be able to improve the gender diversity of the college."

Hagness and her team have received another COE 2010 Project grant for the academic year 2008-09, as well as approval on their proposal to create an official InterEngineering course. They plan to continue developing the course, running it each fall as INTEREGR 102: Introduction to Society's Engineering Grand Challenges.

And, Hagness notes, "Our longer term vision is to open up this course to the wider campus community. I think it would be beneficial to every UW-Madison graduate to have a certain level of technological literacy, to know about what engineers do, to develop a better appreciation of the technical and non-technical constraints for these enormous societal challenges."

"We need more journalists and politicians who are scientifically and technologically literate, for example," Hagness points out, "And I think it would be fantastic to have science education majors take this course, since they will be able to influence young kids who might consider engineering as a career. This spring I worked with Amy Wendt who led an effort to put in an NSF proposal to take this Engineering Grand Challenges concept into Wisconsin high schools. There are several ideas that are being floated about for opening up this technical course to the larger community."


Many thanks to COE News for the image of Trina McMahon teaching a Grand Challenges section. See here for its original appearence.

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For more information about the ideas in this article:

1) COE News: "Student news - Grand challenges: Freshman course teaches students how engineering benefits society"

This April COE News piece about the Grand Challenges course includes additional information about the course's full teaching team (Susan Hagness, Daniel Klingenberg, Trina McMahon, Kristyn Masters, Jeffrey Russell, and Nicola Ferrier), the specific themes that they taught in the small module sections, and students' reactions to taking the course.

2) Attitude Surveys, from the Field Tested Learning Guide.

This section of the Field-tested Learning Assessment Guide focuses on attitude surveys, examining the situations in which this type of assessment can be useful. The FLAG suggests that attitudinal surveys can provide instructors with feedback about what students know, what they have learned about a certain topic, and what kinds of preferences students have about the ways in which they learn. This type of feedback - the type of survey that the Grand Challenges team used to assess the impact of the course - can help instructors assess their teaching strategies or decide how to organize future course material.

3) Scholtes, P.R., et al. (1995). The Team Handbook. Joiner Associates, Inc. Madison, WI.

Though primarily designed for corporate settings, this book is a practical guide to teamwork that can be used across many different contexts, from creating extended projects to in-class exercises like the ones in Grand Challenges. Writing to a general audience that includes both team managers and team members, Scholtes includes information about all phases of teamwork: for example, ideas for project set-up, activities designed to make work more productive, and advice on learning how to work together. (See also the extended review of this resource, in the November edition of Insights.)