In This Issue
Summer issue of The Bridge on Undergraduate Engineering Education
June 12, 2013 Volume 43 Issue 2

Undergraduate Engineering Curriculum: The Ultimate Design Challenge

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Author: Susan A. Ambrose

Two decades ago I witnessed a dramatic event unfold in engineering education. Believing that “real impact in engineering education will be made only by looking at the curriculum as a whole” (authors’ italics, not mine), an engineering department at a major research university decided to engage in curriculum review and revision by taking what they called a “wipe the slate clean” approach (Director et al. 1995, p. 1246). At the time, I thought it a commonplace occurrence in higher education, or at least in engineering. But much of what has been done in the intervening years in engineering education, while promoting and deepening learning in specific courses and/or a specific year in the curriculum, has not in fact transformed engineering education across the country because engineering departments rarely take a “wipe the slate clean,” holistic approach.

In this article, I highlight some of the most important findings from learning research that have been piloted and/or integrated into engineering courses or curricula around the country. These interconnected and interacting findings support the educational value of building curricula that provide

  • context and continual integration across time and courses that promote transfer of existing knowledge and skills to new contexts;
  • early exposure to engineering and engineers to lay the foundation for future learning;
  • meaningful engagement at the most auspicious time to promote deep learning;
  • opportunities for reflection to connect thinking and doing;
  • development of students’ metacognitive abilities to foster self-directed, lifelong learning skills; and
  • authentic experiential learning opportunities to put theory into practice in the real world.

The work in engineering that has focused on the above is important, with results that have impacted learning, but because it is not coordinated or continual I question whether it is enough. I advocate the need to do all of the above concurrently and continually across the curriculum, in an intentional and coherent way, which may require a “wipe the slate clean” approach to the design of 21st century engineering education.

Context and Continual Integration Promote Transfer of Knowledge and Skills

For many instructors, the end goal of learning is the ability to use knowledge and skills flexibly in novel situations. Success in meeting this goal requires learners to transfer what they know to new settings or problems, which means first recognizing what is needed in a given context, then accessing and using the appropriate knowledge and intellectual skills.

Research (Glaser 1992; Simon 1980) shows that knowledge remains inert unless it is “conditionalized” (i.e., it includes conditions of applicability), and that students often don’t use relevant information in problem solving because they don’t recognize the need for it. Hence knowledge that is overly contextualized (e.g., traditional physics, chemistry, and calculus courses with “context-bound” examples) can impede transfer.

Conversely, when students are exposed to multiple contexts (think of a physics professor using engineering and architecture as well as physics examples to illustrate physics concepts), they are more likely to abstract relevant features, enabling them to recognize and use that knowledge flexibly in new contexts (Gick and Holyoak 1983). This research reinforces the notion that transfer is an active process of its own, and does not happen easily or automatically. It is essential to create a curriculum with the conditions and opportunities for transfer, as is being done at places such as California Polytechnic State University (Linda Vanasupa, California Polytechnic State University, email correspondence, January 15, 2013).

Of course, other aspects of context beyond integrating math, science, and engineering are important. For example, the social context of engineering involves understanding how the technical is shaped by the social and how much the technical can reshape the social (Adams et al. 2011). Teaching in this context is especially important to women and minorities as well as in battling the misconception of potential students and parents who view engineers as insensitive to social concerns (Vest 2011). A program at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) exemplifies the effort to address this concern: first-year students are engaged in solving complex technosocial problems under such broad categories as “Feed the World,” “Power the World,” and “Heal the World” (Tryggvason and Apelian 2012).

Integration across contexts and over time is exactly what senior capstone courses are lauded for: They provide opportunities for students to make connections among ideas, approaches, experiences, and courses, and to synthesize and transfer what they’ve learned to new and complex situations. Yet leading engineering education researchers continue to voice concern that the current educational model is not effective in preparing engineering students to integrate knowledge, skills (and identity) as developing professionals (Dall’Alba 2009; Sheppard et al. 2008; Stevens et al. 2008). In other words, the senior capstone course is necessary but not sufficient in meeting the educational goal of integration.

Because integration and transfer are important components of deep learning,1 students should be continually engaged in these intellectual processes throughout the curriculum—not just in their final year—and at an increasingly sophisticated level. In fact, mastery requires students to acquire component knowledge and skills, practice them to the point that they can combine them fluently, and then use them when and where appropriate (Ambrose et al. 2010). Such continual integrative experiences help students to expand and deepen their “internal knowledge structure” of the discipline (i.e., organized networks of information stored in long-term memory), which will aid their eventual retrieval and use (Bransford and Schwartz 1999).

In short, very few undergraduate engineering programs provide courses each year (or at least activities within courses) that promote integration across context and time. A notable exception is the Olin College of Engineering, where students engage in “hands-on design projects in every year.”2 But why is this the exception and not the rule?

Early Exposure Lays the Foundation for Future Learning

I’ve established the importance of learning in context, and since many engineers engage in design, using that context to learn both knowledge and skills makes sense. A myriad of additional reasons explain why introducing students to engineering and design in the first year leads to a powerful learning experience.

First, research clearly indicates that students are more motivated to learn—and thus engage in the behaviors that lead to learning—when they see value in what they are being asked to do (Ambrose et al. 2010). Introducing them to the “big picture” of engineering and to “thinking like an engineer” can be motivating on several levels, including helping to show the relevance of the concurrent fundamental science and math courses they are taking.

Second, beyond learning the necessary technical aspects of engineering, students must learn intellectual skills, including the approaches engineers take as they engage in problem solving and design. The sooner students begin to approach their studies with the “habits of mind” that professional engineers engage in the better, because these intellectual skills can provide an overarching framework for the rest of the curriculum and cocurriculum.

Third, design projects in the first year get students into teams early (replicating “real world” engineering) and connect them with engineering faculty (Agogino et al. 1992). Finally, as mentioned, design projects that focus on the social impact of engineering work may address the problems of attracting more women and underrepresented minorities.

Engineering educators know that early design courses should focus more heavily on conceptual design methods and less on discipline-specific artifacts, as first-year students don’t have the technical background to do the work (Dym et al. 2005; Kilgore et al. 2007). That is exactly what happened in one of the most notable and long-standing programs of this nature, which began at Harvey Mudd in 1955, where all majors were required to take project-based freshmen engineering design courses (Dym 1994). These courses were created to reinforce the notions that design is open-ended (hence several teams working independently and in parallel on the same project); that there are numerous engineering challenges beyond domains such as aerospace, computing, and manufacturing (hence sponsors of projects are broadly representative and include nonprofits); and that students could begin to think and work like engineers (hence introducing skills like structuring ill-structured problems, decomposing problems, identifying parameters and constraints, and working in teams).

Other universities followed suit, particularly in the 1990s and especially through some of the NSF-funded coalitions, and created first-year project and design courses “as a means for students to be exposed to some flavor of what engineers actually do while enjoying an experience where they could learn the basic design elements of the design process by doing real design projects” (Dym et al. 2005, p. 103).

With so much evidence supporting an early integrative approach to engineering education, why aren’t these types of courses universal by now?

Meaningful Classroom Engagement Leads to Deeper Learning

A critical component of learning is deliberate practice coupled with targeted feedback (Ambrose et al. 2010); in fact, students learn what they practice and only what they practice. Yet this important learning activity is typically relegated to out-of-class time, ensuring that students do not get the immediate and constructive feedback they may need early in the learning process when the material is new, or when they are dealing with novel, complex problems. This lack of feedback has led, over many years, to the call for more in-class opportunities for students to practice and get feedback in real time from instructors and peers, a practice some call “pedagogies of engagement” (Smith et al. 2005). This type of pedagogy provides opportunities in class for students to apply concepts or principles, consider alternative approaches or designs, and engage in other learning activities that enable the instructor to detect and address errors in students’ thinking.

While there are numerous effective ways to accomplish meaningful engagement during class, one of the most notable is the “peer instruction” strategy developed by Mazur (1997). In this model, after a short presentation, students are asked a conceptual question, given time to formulate and record their answer individually, discuss their answer with a peer, and, if necessary, revise their answer. This approach gets students talking about the problems, leading to deeper information processing, and enables peers and instructors to identify and address misconceptions on the spot and respond to gaps in understanding.

An equally effective and much used method in higher education, the case study, typically presents a realistic, complex, and contextually rich problem situation that requires connecting theory and practice (Barkley et al. 2005; Richards et al. 1995). If structured effectively, in-class case analysis provides an opportunity for analytical and integrative thinking with the added bonus of immediate feedback from peers and the instructor. There are examples from as early as the 1960s of case-based teaching and learning in engineering education (Raju and Sankar 1999; Yadav et al. 2010).

Finally, there are simulations, problem-based learning activities, collaborative and cooperative learning activities, the flipped or inverted classroom, and other classroom-based practices that can be done in real time to provide the same kind of practice and feedback opportunities as peer instruction and case studies (Prince and Felder 2006; Smith et al. 2005).

With so many sound examples of meaningful classroom engagement in engineering education publications and proceedings, why aren’t such engaging activities embedded in every course across the curriculum?

Reflection Connects Thinking and Doing

When students engage in meaningful and frequent reflection about what they are learning, they are less likely to “have the experience but miss the meaning,” because reflection provides a “continual interweaving of thinking and doing” (Schön 1983, p. 280). It generates, deepens, and documents learning (Ash and Clayton 2004). In fact, studies show that students who “repeatedly engage in structured reflection…are more likely to bring a strategic learning orientation to new challenges” (Eyler 2009, p. 28; Eyler and Giles 1999), reinforcing the end goal of learning as the ability to use knowledge and skills flexibly in novel situations.

There is no better way to get students to reflect on their learning than through writing. A rich literature focused on “writing to learn” (Fulwiler and Young 1982; Parker and Goodkin 1987) establishes the theoretical links among writing, thinking, and learning across a variety of disciplines. Embedding writing across the curriculum can help to promote deeper processing (enhancing students’ ability to retrieve and use knowledge flexibly) by, for example, prompting students’ reflection about what they are learning, how it connects to what they already know, and how they might use that knowledge in the future. Incorporation of reflection across the curriculum may be easier now because of the emergence of technologies such as e-portfolios (which allow students to assemble and showcase electronic evidence of their learning), which some institutions are using as a foundation for student reflection on their learning and performance; and it has indeed found its way into engineering education (Adams et al. 2003; Heinrich et al. 2007; Knott et al. 2004).

So, yes, students learn by doing, but only when they have time to reflect on what they are doing—the two go hand in hand. Why, then, don’t engineering curricula provide constant structured opportunities and time to ensure that continual reflection takes place?

Metacognition Supports the Development of Lifelong Learning Skills

The vast majority of institutions of higher education in the United States articulate the need to prepare students to be lifelong learners so they can thrive in the current and future workforce. Numerous studies project the number of different jobs current students will have over their careers. Today’s students will work in jobs that don’t yet exist. Information quickly becomes obsolete. For all these reasons, it is essential to ensure that students can continue to learn independently, which requires engaging in metacognition, often defined as the process of reflecting on and directing one’s own thinking (Bransford et al. 2000).

The iterative cycle of self-directed learning requires students to engage in a number of processes:

  • assessing the task at hand, including goals and constraints;
  • evaluating their own knowledge and skills, including strengths and weaknesses;
  • planning their approach in a way that accounts for the current situation;
  • applying various strategies to enact the plan and monitoring their progress; and
  • reflecting on the degree to which their current approach is working so that they can adjust and restart the cycle as needed (Ambrose et al. 2010).

This cycle might seem like “common sense” to many faculty members, but research reveals that, while experts engage in these processes, often unconsciously, novices do not (Ambrose et al. 2010). Furthermore, metacognition is rarely formally or explicitly addressed in courses or curricula. But students must be “quickly disabused of the notion that scientists and engineers work mostly on problems that can be solved using memorized facts and procedures” (Felder and Brent 2004, p. 283). They need to learn how to learn.

As noted above, reflection and writing can help students become more cognizant of their own learning process and can promote their ability to continue to learn throughout life (Ash and Clayton 2004). Again, a few engineering educators are exploring how to prepare students for lifelong learning (Heinrich et al. 2007; Jiusto and DiBiasio 2006), but why aren’t all focused on this critical intellectual skill?

Experiential Learning Opportunities Connect Theory and Practice in Authentic Settings

Experiential learning is, simply put, learning by doing. As Eyler (2009, p. 28) notes, “theory lacks meaning outside of practice.” Experiential learning naturally integrates theory and practice. And it happens in the classroom or lab (e.g., in design projects, capstone projects, case studies, simulations), although many would argue that it is much more powerful and robust when students have opportunities to use their knowledge and practice their skills in off-campus, real-world situations (e.g., co-ops, internships, service learning).

Furthermore, experiential learning opportunities prompt learning when students are put in unfamiliar situations for which they are not prepared and yet must act in order to get a job done. In other words, it provides practice in using self-directed learning skills and transferring what they know across contexts and over time to novel situations, as described above.

Over the past decade, because of increasing concern about the quality of higher education (Arum and Roksa 2011; Bok 2006), scholars have sought to understand what experiences correlate to “the most powerful” learning outcomes (Kuh 2008).3 They have used their data to call for, among other things, the design of more “high-impact courses” as well as “greater fluidity and connection between the formal curriculum and the experiential co-curriculum” (Bass 2012, p. 26). Bass (2012, p. 28) also suggests that the optimal way to learn is “reciprocally or spirally between practice and content,” a reverse of typical curricula that are built from content and eventually engage students in practice. The best-case scenario, according to Bass (2012), is an educational environment that weaves the connections back and forth across the formal and experiential curriculum. This strongly speaks to experiential learning in general, and specifically to cooperative learning.

Experiential learning also enables university students to bring back and integrate into the classroom both the authentic applications of their knowledge and skills and the new knowledge and skills they have gained. Thus experiential learning not only strengthens and deepens what students already know and can do, but also provides an expanded platform for future learning. In short, experiential learning opportunities and formal academic programs can inform and complement each other.

Many engineering programs engage students in experiential learning activities such as co-op or service learning, and some engineering faculty members have tried to assess the impact of these experiences on self-directed, lifelong learning (Jiusto and DiBiasio 2006). The perceived value of such experiential programs is validated by engineering education research indicating that students see extracurricular experiences such as co-ops and internships as more representative of what it means to be an engineer than their in-class experiences, and they report a steep learning curve in their first job when this element is missing from their education (Korte et al. 2008).

Why should students wait until they enter the workforce to apply what they have learned?

Conclusion: Putting It All Together—A Systems Approach

The examples discussed here, and many more documented in engineering education journals and elsewhere, show that the engineering education community has accumulated a rich body of knowledge over the past 20 years and implemented many successful educational innovations that have had impact on student learning. Why, then, haven’t there been major changes in engineering curricula and more students flocking to the field?

One answer is that we (faculty) rarely reflect on the larger context. Rather, we focus on what we have immediate control over, our courses. However, to effect significant change, we must redesign by leveraging and integrating continually across the curriculum the results of the solid work done by engineering education and learning sciences researchers. No one knows better than engineers the importance of systems thinking in problem solving and design, and yet much of the wonderful work that has been done in engineering education has focused on pieces of the curriculum rather than the whole of the curriculum and beyond. Since we operate in a dynamic system—that includes student expectations, faculty beliefs, departmental norms, college resources, university culture, societal needs, and global challenges—we must recognize that curricular change takes place in a broader context and requires, for example, faculty buy-in, departmental leadership, and necessary resources.

This brings me back to the story I alluded to at the beginning of this paper. Let me end with that experience and the main lessons I draw from it.

It was the Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) Department at Carnegie Mellon University that, in 1989, adopted a “wipe the slate clean” approach to curriculum review and revision, a two-year process that resulted in a radically different curriculum that proved to have many long-term advantages (Director et al. 1995). The transformative process first required recognition that “real impact in engineering education will be made only by looking at the curriculum as a whole” (p. 1246; authors’ italics). It also required acknowledging that knowledge in the field of ECE was expanding rapidly, but the time to degree was not, so some difficult decisions needed to be made.

As a result, the new curriculum addressed some of the issues discussed above—for example, the need for students to (1) see the big picture, i.e., the connected view of the ideas that define the discipline; (2) integrate across courses rather than experience the curriculum as a set of discrete courses; and (3) come into contact with engineering faculty and engineering ideas during the first year. This revision resulted in, among other things, new courses at the freshman level and more flexibility for students in the curriculum (e.g., a smaller core of required classes, area requirements instead of course requirements, free electives). These were major changes, not minor tweaks. But more importantly, the approach spread to the entire engineering college as other departments followed suit.

Why is this story so instructive? First, it happened almost 25 years ago and, although a few other universities took a similar radical approach to reengineering engineering education both before and after CMU (e.g., Drexel, MIT), this type of revision has been the exception, not the rule. Second, such transformation required leadership and support at the department and college levels, as well as collaboration among the entire faculty because “everything was up for grabs.” Finally, it took time and resources, provided by the department head (and when it spread to the college, the dean), which signaled the importance of the endeavor.

Where does this leave us in 2013? We have bold models (both old and new) to follow; we know a lot about how learning works; and what we know has been applied at a “micro” level to engineering education. It is time to move beyond tweaking individual courses or revamping one year of the curriculum. We need to be audacious enough to put the pieces together in a coherent, encompassing way across engineering curricula.


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1Deep approaches to learning—which result in long-term retention—require students to actively search for meaning (e.g., relating new information to their prior knowledge, organizing and structuring information meaningfully, looking for patterns and underlying principles, and engaging in self-explanation; Entwistle and Peterson 2004), whereas students who use surface approaches to learning focus on memorization, discrete elements, and the like.

2 From the college’s statement of vision on its website,

3 High-impact practices include undergraduate research, study abroad, service learning, internships, learning communities, and capstone courses. According to Kuh’s research, these practices correlate with high retention and persistence rates as well as student behaviors that lead to meaningful learning gains.


About the Author:Susan A. Ambrose is Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning and professor of education at Northeastern University.