Seeding innovation in engineering education

Posted on 21. Jun, 2011 by in In Depth

Dean Paul Peercy

Dean Paul Peercy

Four years ago, a new course for UW-Madison freshmen interested in engineering addressed a big question: How can engineers change the world? Today, a bigger audience than we ever anticipated will be contemplating that question.

Introduction to Society’s Engineering Grand Challenges, conceived by a team of innovative engineering faculty in 2007, is a multidisciplinary course that builds on the “grand challenges” of the 21st century as identified by the National Academy of Engineering. These are some of the vexing, all-consuming issues of our time: How can we maintain and improve our megacities, where 60 percent of the world’s people live? How can we harness the enormous potential of solar and fusion energy? How do we provide the world with access to clean, safe drinking water? How can we secure nuclear technology and materials to prevent the threat of nuclear or biological terror?

Each of the 14 grand challenges provides a powerful module with which to explore the promise and potential of engineering. Students form teams and dive into a specific challenge, which culminates at semester’s end with a poster presentation on possible solutions. The course started quickly with nearly 100 students in its first year, and now consistently enrolls its maximum of 150 students per semester, including many non-engineering majors.

The founders of the course—Philip Dunham Reed Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Susan Hagness; Mechanical Engineering Professor Nicola Ferrier; Chemical and Biological Engineering Professor Daniel Klingenberg; Biomedical Engineering Associate Professor Kristyn Masters; and Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor and Pieper Servant Leadership Chair Jeffrey Russell—recognized that today’s students are motivated to pursue careers that have a meaningful impact on society. And potential future engineers need to be exposed early to the rapidly changing nature of the profession.

The grand challenges course, like many great ideas, proved to be contagious. The faculty leaders seized an opportunity to reach a bigger audience through the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates (MIU), a campus-wide grant program that advances educational ideas that benefit a broad swath of students. Beginning this fall, the MIU will enable the college to double the grand challenges course enrollment to 300 students, including as many as 90 students per year from disciplines outside engineering.

The impact will not stop there. Another exciting offshoot of the course will involve Wisconsin middle-school students. Faculty led by Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Amy Wendt obtained a National Science Foundation grant to adapt the grand challenges course for eighth-grade students in Racine, Madison, Westfield, Appleton and other Wisconsin communities. These modules are designed to fit within the existing science curriculum, which may help inspire young people who may never have considered a career in engineering.
In another measure of the course’s success, the Neenah-based global engineering company Plexus Corp. saw the great potential of the middle-school module and provided funding to bring it to a Fox Valley school. Especially attractive to the company was the possibility of encouraging more young women and underrepresented students to open their minds to an engineering career.

We are proud of the grand challenges course for another reason. It is one of the ideas funded under “Engineering Beyond Boundaries,” a college initiative to promote a culture of continuous academic improvement. EB2 provides modest grants that help seed innovation, giving great ideas enough initial support to take root and grow. The ultimate goal of EB2 is to move our students beyond the boundaries of the traditional engineering curriculum and forge deeper connections to other disciplines, from business and medicine to social sciences and the humanities.

We have funded 26 projects since the start of this program, and more than 80 percent of these projects have a multidisciplinary theme. Not all of these ideas will find a long-term place in our curriculum, but the best ones have the potential for transformative impact on engineering education.

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