New Curriculum for First-Year Engineers at UMass Amherst Stresses Interactive Teaching Methods

AMHERST, Mass. - When University of Massachusetts professor Aura Ganz''s course on computer networks was offered this spring, there was a standing-room-only response: "There were 35 seats and 100 requests. People were e-mailing me, asking if they could bring a chair; they were willing to stand," recalls Ganz, a professor of electrical and computer engineering. "It was overwhelming."

Ganz''s popular course is part of a larger effort to overhaul the curriculum for first-year engineering students. The new curriculum emphasizes hands-on learning, so that students are acting - and thinking - like engineers from day one, says Thomas Blake, College of Engineering associate dean, who has been closely involved in revising the curriculum.

During the fall semester, students take classes which enable them to sample various engineering fields. This is followed in the spring by a series of modularized courses, in which students tackle complex technologies in several fields. Developing an understanding of the different forms of engineering helps students to make informed choices when it''s time to settle on a discipline, usually by their sophomore year, Blake says.

In the fall classes, students may learn about mechanical engineering by redesigning a product, such as a stapler or a floppy disk, so that it works better and is less expensive to manufacture. Or they explore civil and environmental engineering by doing real-world projects on waste management. Or they could look at electrical and computer engineering by designing simple circuits. The students seem "energized" by delving straight into engineering, Blake says, rather than beginning their college careers by plowing through several semesters'' worth of abstract material.

Then during the spring semester, they begin to tackle advanced technology in a series of mini-courses such as Ganz''s. The courses are rigorous: Ganz''s includes the latest developments in information transfer, including how modems, the Internet, and local area networks (LANs) work, how data can be moved through regular telephone lines, and how wireless modems operate.

"It''s very complex technology, but the students follow the material logically and put the puzzle together," says Ganz. Yet despite the demanding academic material, "the students are so enthusiastic. Word is out there are jobs in this market," she says, pointing to explosive growth of networks in businesses, schools, and government.

Ganz, who is also director of the Multimedia Wireless LAN Lab, spent the better part of January designing the new course, and creating a comprehensive Web site to go along with it, complete with animations. Not surprisingly, the entire course is based on the Web site, including the syllabus, assignments, and class notes. Apparently, computer-savvy students didn''t have a problem with that.

"I didn''t distribute any paper," says Ganz, "and there wasn''t a single complaint."

The first-year curriculum also stresses teamwork and strong communications skills, both of which are critical for engineers in a competitive world. "We want to give them skills that are relevant, and skills that will make them better students and better engineers," Blake says. Professors generally emphasize analytical skills - looking at how a problem is structured, in order to fashion the best solution. And students are taught to present their ideas in a professional, businesslike way - a must for engineers, who must often make such presentations before clients and colleagues.

It''s not just teaching philosophy that has changed, Blake says, but also students themselves. Today''s students have grown up with computers, and arrive at college with an impressive level of computer skills; they often have a fearlessness of complex technology. At the same time, he says, they generally have less experience in mechanics than students in past years: whereas high school students inclined toward engineering used to take apart and reassemble mechanical equipment, the essence of many machines now lies on tiny computer chips.

This new breed of engineers is accustomed to learning by using computers - screen-by-screen - in addition to traditional textbooks, another factor the faculty considers. And although many people throughout the teaching profession are exploring the new student-active, hands-on methods of teaching, incorporating those educational concepts as part of the curriculum is relatively unique, Blake says. The interactive method of teaching may eventually be expanded to include the sophomore, junior, and senior years in engineering education at UMass.

"Students today take in information differently than students of years ago," says Blake, "and that''s certainly something we take into account. We want our students to be great successes."