OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Engineering initiatives to make education more inclusive, relevant

07/17/2015

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The Oregon State University College of Engineering has been selected to participate in two National Science Foundation initiatives to significantly change engineering education and foster a more inclusive culture of underrepresented minorities and women.

One of the initiatives is part of a multiyear national effort to substantially improve and broaden engineering and computer science education, in order to “revolutionize engineering departments.”

With a five-year, $2 million grant, one of only six of its type in the nation, the OSU School of Chemical, Biological, and Environmental Engineering plans to substantially change its curriculum to make courses more realistic, consequential, and relevant to the lives of students and embracing of different cultures.

“Many engineering students in the U.S. are still educated using traditional methods developed over many decades,” said Jim Sweeney, professor and head of the school. “What they learn can unintentionally be removed from the context of their lives, identities and future careers as working engineers.”

This results, Sweeney said, in talented students who often leave the profession.

OSU will explore education that better incorporates both curricular and real-world experiences. Problem-based learning, cultural inclusion, and consequential work will hopefully improve the student experience and aid retention, recruitment and graduate numbers. Curricular redesign will take place through nine sophomore and junior-level fundamental engineering classes taken by all chemical engineers, bioengineers, and environmental engineers.

“Students will be able to tie the content in the classroom to the rest of their lives,” Sweeney said. “Our graduates will be dramatically better prepared to apply their knowledge to whatever unpredictable challenges face our society in the years to come.”

In a second NSF-sponsored initiative, the OSU School of Mechanical, Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering will be one of just five engineering programs in the nation to participate in a new program to increase diversity and foster an inclusive culture for underrepresented minorities and women in mechanical engineering.

The project aims to advance understanding and the experiences of mechanical engineering faculty, staff and students who have been underrepresented in the past. It will study the impact of stereotypes and the process of change-planning and goal-setting in an academic environment.

“Many of the efforts at improving diversity of students in mechanical engineering programs have hit a wall,” said Robert Stone, professor and head of the School of Mechanical, Industrial, and Manufacturing Engineering. “There’s a 10-15 percent range nationally for those who identify as female. This program is looking to break through that, and make sure that all of the ways that a mechanical engineering degree can be used to make the world a better place are clearly promoted and included in our curriculum.”

For instance, Stone said, at OSU that includes a humanitarian engineering minor that includes courses on how to understand low-resource environments and communities, and then utilize engineering principles to provide appropriate solutions to the local problems.

“It’s ultimately about making sure all potential students know that they can use mechanical engineering to do good in the world,” he said.

Successful initiatives in these programs are expected to be scaled up for broader national application, officials said. A key goal is to tear down cultural barriers for both students and faculty and create future engineers from all sectors of society.