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ASEE Connections

February 2018




In This Issue:
    • Enrollments Increase for Environment-related Degrees

    • Does Automation Negate the Need for Immigration?
    • Idaho Lawmakers Seek to Weaken Climate Curriculum

    • A Smarter Way to Grade

    • Practice Makes Perfect


    • View a Video Promo for the February Prism Cover Story
    • What’s on Tap in the March/April 2018 Issue of Prism?

    • ELATE at Drexel 2018-19 Application Deadline Extended Until February 23
    • Webinar on Professionalism, Ethics, and Department Climate
    • TUEE II Webinar Series—Preparing Tomorrow’s Engineers (March/April 2018)


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By Daodao Wang

As environmental issues remain at the forefront of international debate, environmental engineering, as well as disciplines like civil/environmental engineering and biological engineering, are becoming increasingly attractive to undergraduate students who want to make the world a better place. Over the past six years, the total number of environment-related engineering bachelor’s graduates have increased, although as a percentage of total engineering bachelor degrees it plateaued at around 3%.

Bachelor graduates from the Top 15 schools (out of 256 schools in ASEE’s Profiles of Engineering and Engineering Technology Colleges survey) sum up to 19,585 in total, and compose 21.8 percent of all bachelors from the three fields.

Figure 1. Environmental Engineering Bachelor’s Degrees, 2011-2016

Table 1. Top 15 Schools with Highest Total Number of Environmental Engineering Bachelor’s, 2011-2016





Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton is an immigration hardliner. This month, the Republican lawmaker helped kill a bipartisan immigration bill in the Senate, and he’s keen to reduce legal immigration. Since January, he has argued that automation in the form of robots and artificial intelligence will destroy millions of jobs and that allowing in large numbers of new immigrants “to do grunt work” would take even more jobs from Americans. The Washington Post’s Wonkblog, however, cites complaints from U.S. companies that there are not enough trained people available to fill job openings. The likelihood that machines will destroy some occupations doesn’t mean there will be fewer jobs, it adds. As one economist tells the blog: “There will be people who get hurt by automation, but we have zero evidence it will actually reduce the overall number of jobs in the economy.” Indeed, a recent U.S. News & World Report story quotes a new report by consultants McKinsey & Co. that found that while up to 800 million jobs globally could be automated by 2030, new technologies should also create 890 million new jobs. Joe Brusuelas, chief economist at RSM, tells the Post: “Tom Cotton is woefully misinformed. Robots will create more jobs.” Additionally, Wonkblog points out that even if new technologies did somehow create mass unemployment in America, the free market pretty much ensures that immigrants would then stay away. When jobs disappeared during the Great Recession, it notes, “Mexicans stopped coming across the border.”



Last year, the lower house of Idaho’s legislature voted to remove references to human-caused climate change from science education standards drafted by the state’s Department of Education. That caused a backlash from educators, students and parents, the New York Times reports, who argued the dumbing down of the standards would harm students’ education. The legislature then told the department to rewrite the standards. That task was handled by a committee of 20 top science teachers with help from academic and industrial experts, and while the revised standards watered down some of the areas dealing with global warming, the education and science communities were mainly satisfied with the revision. But earlier this month, the state House Education Committee voted along partisan lines, with Republicans in the majority, to remove two sections from the revised standards: one on the environmental impact of fossil fuels, and one supporting content for a host of references to anthropogenic warming. Scott Syme, the Republican legislator who led the effort to scrap the materials, told the newspaper that “when you have conclusions in standards, it stifles inquiry, and I don’t think that’s the intent of the department.” But one science teacher told the Times that teachers need the supporting content to help assign coursework, and without it, many may instead opt to avoid teaching climate change. The matter is now before the Senate Education Committee. If that panel fails to agree with the House committee’s version, the department’s standards will take effect, the Idaho Statesman reports. The paper editorialized that lawmakers should “respect the scientific process,” and “listen to educators to whom we trust our children’s future.”





Online portfolios allow engineers to be judged on what they produce, not on a number.

By Chris Rogers

Grades are an interesting conundrum. How do we reduce someone’s understanding of a subject to a single number or letter? What does a 3.2/4 in fluid mechanics mean? Often it means that the student tries hard, is fairly good at memorizing, and has done the homework. It might mean that the student really understood statics but got confused when friction entered the fray—or maybe she did not really understand statics, but Bernoulli’s equation made sense. How well does that single number reflect her ability to watch rain pouring off a roof and quickly model it, estimating the flow velocity, or being able to look at water coming out of a faucet and explain why it is moving the way it is?

The problem is grades are very convenient—we can easily average them all together to give a person a GPA and through that somehow rank him relative to his peers. We can quantitatively analyze the spread of learning across the classroom and get a better understanding of how effective we are as teachers—or can we? Take Sally, a highly creative student in that fluid mechanics class. She thinks a lot about the fluids problem and decides to take a risk (after all, what is creativity if there are no risks or failure?) She attempts to take friction into account but therefore gets the answer “wrong,” and the grader gives her an 8/10. Fred had simply thumbed back into the chapter, seen equation 3.2—it looked appropriate—and applied it to the problem, and got a 10/10. Who actually has a better understanding of fluid mechanics? Is there a reason that we continually hear stories about successful entrepreneurs getting mediocre grades in school?

There is a secondary problem. As teachers and mentors, we are heavily invested in helping our students learn the material. We work with them during office hours, stay after class, answer their e-mails, and generally support, encourage, and push them. After all of this, how are we supposed to objectively score them? How can we impartially judge those we mentor? It is easy if we do not coach, but as soon as the coaching starts we are about as effective at grading as parents are at objectively judging their children.

So what can technology do to help us change how we grade? It allows us to move away from the “one number that rules them all,” and move toward something like art appreciation. No one listens to Joshua Bell because he got a 3.8/4 in violin class. We listen to him because we have heard him play a piece of music we love and we appreciate the clarity and strength of his tone. How can we do the same thing in engineering? Just as we judge Bell based on his recordings, electronic portfolios will allow companies to judge engineers based on the engineering they have done. Imagine you are looking for a roboticist and you come across a website of a student who has built a humanoid robot that reads your emotions and helps you with daily tasks. How would this affect your hiring decision as opposed to the grade he got in his introductory robotics course? Even better, on another student’s website, you see the drone she built, the auto-drive car her team developed, and the LEGO robot she and her friends took into a local classroom. You now have a pretty good picture of her robotics skills—much better than the 3.3 GPA can express.

While robotics is intrinsically project based and therefore lends itself to a portfolio, what about courses like introduction to fluid mechanics or controls or dynamics? Even a portfolio of the types of analytic problems the student has solved helps in better understanding his fluids knowledge, giving us more insight into what he learned and how well he did. More exciting, though, would be to teach an entire fluids class around producing potable water. Students would learn statics as applied to a water source, calculate pressure drops in pipes leading to the purifier, grapple with concepts of friction, model momentum losses in their system, and see how well Bernoulli’s equation predicts the behavior of the purification system they build.

I look forward to the day when the GPA option disappears. We, as teachers, would no longer have to judge but instead would supply problems to solve, encouragement, just-in-time help, and written recommendations to help a student understand her strengths and weaknesses. Her work could stand on its own.


Chris Rogers is a professor of mechanical engineering at Tufts University.






Expanding in-class and web-based problem-solving opportunities with instant feedback can transform large lecture courses and boost learning.

By Jae-Eun (Jane) Russell, Mark S. Andersland, Sam Van Horne, John Gikonyo and Logan Sloan

The ability to systematically and efficiently solve problems is a critical engineering skill that requires both expert guidance and practice to develop. However, many traditional large-lecture courses do not provide an optimal learning environment to practice this skill. Typically, most class time in these large engineering courses is focused on content delivery. It is then left to students to master the content and practice problem solving on their own outside of class. Students are expected to practice and master concepts and solution strategies introduced during the lecture largely on their own. Often, due to schedule constraints or the lack of timely help, only homework problems and a few pre-exam practice problems actually get solved.

As a consequence, many students do not get opportunities to wrestle with enough concepts or solve sufficient numbers of problems to develop robust problem-solving skills.

For this study, one section of a sophomore-level electrical circuits course at the University of Iowa was transformed from typical, lecture-based instruction to a student-centered instructional approach to provide a rich learning environment for students to practice this core skill effectively under expert guidance. Our study examined the effectiveness of student-centered learning on achievement and engagement in a transformed electrical circuits section compared with the same course taught in a typical, lecture-based section.

The transformation had two major goals. The first was to provide more problem-solving practice and, whenever possible, give students immediate feedback about their answers and alternate approaches.

The second was to promote collaboration among peers during problem-solving processes. To accomplish these goals without reducing the content or increasing the student workload, the course was redesigned in the following ways. Lectures were limited to a 10-minute summary of key concepts, freeing up 40 minutes per class for problem solving. Videos of all omitted lecture details and examples were posted online. Problems were delivered using a Web-to-student-smart-device platform to reduce in-class overhead. Answers were scored in real time and counted toward final grades to encourage attendance and problem ownership. Students were encouraged to collaborate with peers and seek help from classmates and instructional staff. Different parameterizations of each problem were delivered to each student. All learning materials were indexed on the course website to guide students’ in-class problem-solving preparation. To maintain course continuity, no changes were made to the content, difficulty, and frequency of homework or exams.

The result was substantially more opportunities for students to practice problem solving and richer availability of problem-solving support. Over the 15-week semester, undergraduates in the student-centered classroom had the opportunity to solve 442 more problems than those in the lecture-based classroom. Moreover, after every answer submission, students in the student-centered section learned immediately from the Web problem platform whether their answer was correct, enabling them to more quickly recognize when they were on the wrong track and seek help from peers, teaching assistants, or the instructor.

Some 243 students (79 percent of those enrolled in the two sections) participated in the study. Each participant completed three surveys during the course, and their demographic information, prior learning outcomes (ACT math scores and cumulative grade point average prior to this course), and course outcomes (two midterms and one final score) were collected after the course ended.

Study results indicated that those in the student-centered section achieved significantly higher scores compared with their counterparts in the lecture-based section on the same exams after controlling for students’ prior learning outcomes. Further, their self-reported surveys indicated that students in the student-centered section had a higher level of preparedness for class, perceived class meetings as being more helpful, and were more behaviorally and emotionally engaged in the class than students in the lecture-based section.

Engaging in classroom-based problem solving under expert guidance was effective because students received needed help at the precise moment they were struggling with problems. The results of our study suggest that the automated distribution and scoring of problems by Web-based delivery platform is essential to this process because its immediate feedback leads to the quick discovery of any misconceptions. Further, it enables instructors to create a learning environment where students strategically collaborate.


Jae-Eun (Jane) Russell is an instructional and research specialist and associate director of the Office of Teaching, Learning, and Technology at the University of Iowa, where Mark S. Andersland is an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. Sam Van Horne is a senior institutional research analyst in the Office of Institutional Research and Effectiveness at the University of Delaware. John Gikonyo is a graduate student in health informatics at the University of Iowa, where Logan Sloan earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical and computer engineering in 2016. This article is excerpted from “Large Lecture Transformation: Improving Student Engagement and Performance through In-class Practice in an Electrical Circuits Course” in the fall 2017 issue of Advances in Engineering Education.





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COVER: FOOD—Can vertical farms revolutionize U.S. agriculture?

FEATURE: FOXCONN—What the Asian giant’s new plant in Wisconsin means for engineering education and R&D.

PLUS: SCHOOLS—Does early college work in engineering?





The Executive Leadership in Academic Technology and Engineering (ELATE at Drexel®) program will accept online applications for the 2018-2019 Fellowship Year until February 23, 2018. Through ELATE, women faculty in STEM advance knowledge and skills in strategic finance and management, personal and professional leadership effectiveness, and academic organizational dynamics.


Recent high-visibility transgressions have brought special attention to harassment and bullying in the workplace. Everyone has a right to a safe, inclusive, supportive, and productive work environment. This webinar, led by David Mogk (Montana State University) and inspired by the National Academies’ Impacts of Sexual Harassment in Academia project, will explore components of professionalism, introduce topics that contribute to workplace climate, and suggest actions that can be taken to ensure everyone’s success in your department. The live webinar is March 14 from 1:00 PM–2:00 PM, ET. Register now!


This free, NSF-supported webinar series explores exercises and activities that faculty can implement in the classroom to encourage student professional skill development, focusing on leadership, ethics, and critical thinking/reflection skills. This series is inspired by the TUEE (Transforming Undergraduate Education in Engineering) Phase II workshop, during which students shared their insights on their education experiences. Read more and register: https://www.asee.org/webinars




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