School of Engineering debuts revamped first-year curriculum
Published: Wednesday, September 12, 2012
Updated: Sunday, September 23, 2012 15:09
When picturing a first-year engineering student’s homework, you might imagine differential equations and physics problems sets. In the School of Engineering, new electives involve building Lego robots.
Freshman Kate Shaner did not hesitate to take Simple Robotics, one of seven elective courses offered to first-year engineering and computer science students as part of the pilot first-year experience program in the School of Engineering.
According to Research Assistant Professor of Computer Science Ethan Danahy, Simple Robotics and a few of its fellow elective courses have been a part of the engineering curriculum for many years.
“This course has been around for probably ten-plus years in its half-credit formation and has been passed around a couple of professors,” Danahy said.
This year, though, these electives received a facelift as part of the School of Engineering’s efforts to revamp the freshman year experience for undergraduate engineering and computer science students.
“My advisor highly recommended this course,” Shaner said. “Who doesn’t want to play with Legos and get a grade?”
Professor of the Practice Ron Lasser is one of the many faculty members dedicated to this ongoing project.
“The reason we’re doing all of this is that we knew that Tufts students didn’t feel that they were getting what they thought they needed,” Lasser said.
Associate Professor Soha Hassoun, who teaches Introduction to Computational Design, argued that the material of the former first-year engineering electives was the source of these complaints.
“It didn’t energize them and [increase their] excitement about engineering,” she said.
Students who had taken these courses in their original form reflected this sentiment. Senior Brittney Veeck took issue with the narrow focus that these courses gave students in past years.
“It’s very easy to have a preconceived notion of what one of the types of engineering is, but I still don’t really know what the chemical or biomedical engineers do,” she said.
Nevertheless, the importance of these courses was clear. The goal was to combat the simplicity and lack of enthusiasm surrounding the first-year experience, which resulted in the formation of a faculty committee. Led by Dean of the School of Engineering Linda Abriola, this committee conducted research to determine ways in which the university could improve the freshman experience for incoming engineering students.
“We did both written surveys as well as informal [question-and-answer] sessions with upper level students over the past couple of years,” Lasser said. The result of this research was a readjustment of the curricula for engineering electives taken by first-year students.
According to Lasser, these newly designed courses diverge in many ways from their predecessors.
For example, they are full credit courses that meet twice per week, as opposed to the previous courses, which were offered once per week for half credit. Danahy, who has now taught Simple Robotics in both its half-credit and full-credit forms, applauded the move.
“Changing from the half credit to the full credit, the difference is that I can cover more material,” he said. “I’m allowing students to get more in-depth in the various projects they are working on.”
When it came to selecting courses to constitute the new first-year experience program this fall, Abriola collected proposals from across the various engineering departments. Many professors, including Hassoun, jumped at the opportunity to teach one of these courses.
“I thought it would be an incredibly exciting opportunity to reach out to newer students and engage them in projects and research early on,” she said.
Lasser explained that the courses selected were required to meet certain criteria.
The courses, he said, had to provide an introduction into engineering subject matter while also focusing on leadership, teamwork and project management.
“[Students] want to make sure that the course is relevant so that there’s a connection from theory to solving problems in the real world, rather than just doing math,” he said.