Lessons for Practice: Instructional Design Strategies from Engineering Education

Article excerpt

Due to a number of challenges, such as the emergence of a global economy, changing student demographics, current science on how people learn, low numbers of engineering graduates, and improved instructional technologies, engineering education is under scrutiny across the country. In the United States, only 5% of undergraduates earn engineering degrees. Conversely, China's current group of engineering undergraduates represents 40% of all graduates. Is this a trend we can positively address by enhancing our engineering education practices, or do we need to find ways to reach potential students with alternative delivery methods such as distance learning? Even if we do increase our numbers of graduates, will the marketplace be ready for them? While there are numerous efforts underway to help prepare students in the lower grades for the pipeline into higher education in engineering, science, or technology, I will address two of the challenges mentioned above (science of learning and instructional technologies) and how they can influence change in engineering education.

Why should the United States Distance Learning Association and its members have interest in specifics about engineering education? Are there parallels to be drawn from a discipline-specific approach, or are there instructional issues relevant across the disciplines that are applicable to distance learning professionals? While there are "signature pedagogies" used to deliver engineering instruction (Schulman, 2005), engineering professors who employ instructional design strategies and base classroom activities on student outcomes are following the basic tenets of quality instruction. This commentary will not delve into specifics of engineering instruction such as design or laboratory classes, but will instead look at how the science of learning and instructional technologies are influencing engineering education practices.

Although engineering is a scientific discipline that is built on the study of scientific principles and methodology, it is really driven by the application of science to address the needs of society. This practical approach to knowledge can be seen in how engineering professors want to assess change in their classes and because they are theory-based thinkers; they review the scientific findings on pedagogy before they incorporate such practices into their teaching. Given that engineers use a systems approach, they are at least open to instructional design and a systematic approach to instruction. The use of a systematic approach to instruction provides a framework to analyze course components and methodology as well as the ability to complement pedagogical practice with technological capabilities.

Many view an engineering class as one in which a professor lectures (a chalk talk) and works derivations on the board while students dutifully take notes. This type of engineering class does exist, but take a look at the Journal of Engineering Education to see what trends and empirical evidence exist that promote more active learning environments. Colleges of engineering across the nation now support their own engineering teaching centers where learning scientists, instructional designers, and media specialists are readily available to help create instruction that meet the needs of today's students.

Many of these centers promote pedagogy based on the National Academy of Sciences book How People Learn (HPL) (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000) and its practical findings. Often, situational factors and lack of awareness of the research prevents any practical applications. While it is not easy to translate educational research into classroom practice, this is happening with HPL. Implementing research-based approaches requires well-designed curriculum, and often face-to-face instruction involves a fair amount of spontaneity. For example, the VaNTH (www.vanth.org) National Science Foundation funded effort has educators and engineers across multiple institutions working with industry to develop curricula and technologies to educate future bioengineers. …