Hands-on Opportunities in the Lab


October 19, 2004

In the early 1990s, the College of Engineering initiated sweeping changes in its undergraduate curriculum that significantly influenced the way engineering is taught in the U.S. The most dramatic of these changes squarely bucked the deep-rooted practice of making students master math and science courses before letting them set foot into an engineering class. CIT boldly decided that students, fresh out of high school, would take bona fide engineering courses, complete with lectures on theory, problems to solve, and hands-on opportunities, from day one of their undergraduate engineering program.

Hands-on opportunities are hands-down the most interesting part of the intro courses, at least from the students' perspective. "Students in 18-100, Intro to ECE, are excited, and they have expectations. The lab gives them a real-world sense of things" says Professor Dan Stancil. But what the students expect and what they discover are often two different things.

"Students are disappointed that they can't build a stereo by the end of the course," says Tom Sullivan, who also teaches Intro to ECE. "We teach them that large electrical systems are built of less complicated smaller systems." To illustrate this concept, the students build simple robots that they race in class competitions. It's fun and a lot of work. The students build systems on protoboards, test them, take measurements to learn how circuits operate, and of course, there are quizzes and homework. "Students like the labs more than the homework," say Sullivan. But all of the work is necessary. "The students are building a toolbox that'll let them analyze circuits and understand their operation. In this class, they learn a smattering of a whole bunch of stuff." Subject depth comes later.

As part of their curriculum, ECE students are required to take a freshman introductory course in one other engineering discipline, in addition to ECE. For projects in courses such as Intro to Civil and Environmental Engineering (CivE), students are assigned to teams because "learning about team efforts and what makes them successful or not is part of the educational experience," says Professor Dave Dzombak, one of the instructors of the course. He explains that most engineering is performed in teams and so it is important that the students gain experience with team work.

Another course objective is to make students aware of how important it is for engineers to develop strong written and oral communication skills. To address this issue, many faculty members invite Tom Keating, senior lecturer of technical communication, to talk to their classes.

Talking (and Writing) Shop

When Tom Keating speaks to students, he tells them, "You can be the best engineer in the world, but you'll never go anywhere until you can communicate that."

They can't hear that message enough," he says, and getting students to accept this idea is half of Keating's battle - the other half is teaching students how to effectively communicate technical information.

Keating, who is CIT's associate teaching professor of technical communication, delivers guest lectures on the importance of learning how to communicate as an engineer. He's been a steady presence in Intro to CivE and ChemE sophomore seminar for many years, and this fall also added first-year courses in ECE, MechE and MSE to his lineup. ECE students can even download the lecture online. "I want students to think of communication as something they'll do throughout their careers," he says, and that's why first-year students are prompted to think about their communication skills.

Keating explains that technical communication is purpose-and-audience focused. For example, if an engineer talks to a lay audience about environmental issues at a local Rotary Club, that talk would be far different than one given to a room full of engineers. After their first year, students can take Keating's Technical Communication course, where they'll learn how to give presentations and write materials that meet the expectations of their audience. Keating explains that developing these skills takes time, but it is worth it because students will walk away with something they "will use the rest of their lives."

Group projects do much: they reinforce the material learned in class, emphasize teamwork, and they show students "how hard it is to make something that works," says Professor Jonathan Wickert of Mechanical Engineering (MechE). He's found that when students work on design projects, they have an epiphany. "They realize that they have to build something that is expected to work." And to do that students have to learn fundamental skills. Welcome to the concept of hands-on learning. In MechE, students learn to run a CNC machine. In ECE, "we teach them how to solder so they can put together circuits," says Stancil. Sullivan adds, "Few high schools teach electronics, and the kids have never built a circuit before. They don't dabble in that, but they know how to program. The level of tinkering is different now." And that raises a key point. Much has changed in the past 10 years – educational approaches, technologies and even the experience level of incoming students. Cognizant of this Sullivan says, "When I teach 18-100, I assume nothing about the students – some are advanced and some barely know what an electron is." And that's ok for Sullivan. "My biggest challenge," he says, "is trying to remember what it is like to see all of this stuff for the first time."

Reprinted with permission, Carnegie Mellon Engineering News, Fall 2004. Text by Sherry Stokes.

Students experience hands-on opportunities in the lab.

ECE Lecturer Tom Sullivan, teaches Intro to ECE.

Tom Keating, senior lecturer of technical communication, teaches written and oral communication skills to engineering students.

Group projects reinforce material learned in class and emphasize teamwork.