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February 2015 Subscribe
In This Issue: Products & Programs

Find out how your students stack up with an NCEES institutional report

LSU College of Engineering
Establishes International Program in Jakarta, Indonesia

Educational Testing Service
Recruit GRE® test takers ready for Engineering Programs.

Rigol Technologies
Learn about our RF Portfolio for Education and the Advanced Education Branch

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The American Society for Engineering Education annually collects student enrollment and graduation data from over 360 engineering schools and departments that have at least one ABET-accredited program. Undergraduate engineering is generally viewed as a field that requires students to study full-time, but a variation exists among disciplines in the percentage of students with part-time and full-time status. The table above shows the three engineering disciplines with the most full-time students and the three disciplines with the least full-time students out of the 22 disciplines that schools report to ASEE. Biomedical engineering, biological engineering and agricultural engineering, and metallurgical and materials engineering have the most full-time students. Mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and computer science (inside engineering) have the lowest percentage of full-time students.






Science characterized the release of a draft 21st Century Cures Act as “a bumpy rollout.” It "would overhaul many policies at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) had been working on it with Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), but she declined to endorse the draft. Kay Holcombe of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, was more enthusiastic, particularly about "directives to incorporate new kinds of data into the drug evaluation process." The draft would also set aside funding for younger scientists and press NIH to develop a strategic plan. In the Senate, Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) are taking an approach similar to Upton's.


Engineering elder statesman Norman Augustine used a House hearing on supercomputing to raise anew his call for more government-funded research. "The extent of America's disinvestment in research is such that American now ranks 29th among developed nations in the fraction of research that is government funded," he told the House Science panel's subcommittee on energy. He also said that while a large body of research at national labs has potential application well beyond energy and national security, "relatively little of this potential is being realized by American industry . . . ." Why? One reason is that industry, "especially small firms, has little idea what research is being conducted" at the labs. Also, "well-intended conflict-of-interest rules make it difficult for the laboratories to work closely with industry and also discourage . . . the movement of people between government and industry."


The Senate debate on the Keystone XL pipeline put 15 Republicans on record in support of an amendment stating "it is the sense of Congress that (1) climate change is real; and (2) human activity contributes to climate change." The amendment fell short of the 60 votes needed for adoption, but it revealed a division among Republicans, many of whom reject a connection between human-generated greenhouse gases and climate change. Five GOP senators -- Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Susan Collins (Maine), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), and Mark Kirk (Ill.) -- joined Democrats in supporting stronger language stating that "human activity significantly contributes to climate change."



III. LSU College of Engineering Establishes International Program in Jakarta, Indonesia
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Strategic Alliance Heralds Opportunity to Extend Academic Opportunities Abroad

Through an international alliance, LSU’s College of Engineering has partnered with the Lone Star Community College System and the Putera Sampoerna University to deliver a U.S. accredited engineering degree program in Indonesia. Through an articulation agreement with SACSCOC accredited Lone Star Community College, students who satisfactorily complete the LSCC pre-engineering associate degree program will be granted admission to the LSU Indonesia engineering programs in computer science, electrical engineering, industrial engineering, or mechanical engineering offered at the Sampoerna University campus in Jakarta, Indonesia starting in Fall 2015.

H.E. Robert Blake, the U.S. Ambassador for the Republic of Indonesia, participated in a ceremonial signing signifying the partnership late last spring. “Education is a top priority of the U.S. Mission to Indonesia and is a key component of the U.S.-Indonesia Comprehensive Partnership. Greater cooperation between Indonesian and U.S. universities advances educational and bilateral relationships that move forward the full scope of our wide cooperation, directly benefiting Indonesian students and providing a real win-win for both of our countries,” said H.E. Robert Blake.

Aligned with LSU’s overall strategic plan, LSU is committed to ensuring that students graduate with an appreciation of the issues and cultures of other regions of the world, as well as the international forces that affect their lives and livelihood – all to better prepare the LSU engineers of today to become the global leaders of tomorrow. The opportunity to partner with USBI and the Putera Sampoerna University for the benefit of both Indonesian and U.S. students is indeed a unique privilege.

Excelling in the areas of energy, infrastructure, manufacturing, computation, and biotechnology, LSU delivers innovative, international solutions to transform lives.





Cheap yet Sophisticated Personal Robots Enliven an Introduction to Engineering

By Mary Lord

They clean floors, deliver drinks, fetch like puppies, even tell jokes. But can personal robots improve engineering education? James McLurkin, an assistant professor of computer science at Rice University, certainly thinks so. And no wonder. The pioneer of swarming robotics has seen his bagel-size ’bot transform an introductory engineering course into an unabashedly fun way to convey circuits, mechanics, and other core concepts.

“My deep, secret mission to take over the world,” says McLurkin, is to make cheap, high-performance robots as ubiquitous in classrooms as scientific calculators.

His course taps into a surge of student interest in robotics, starting at the K-12 level and continuing into college. Witness the enthusiasm surrounding VEX Robotics programs, which could attract as many as 13,000 competing teams worldwide this year — up from 10,000 last year. Demand from students eager to pursue VEX in college prompted the recent launch of a postsecondary program that now counts 300 universities, a burgeoning scholarship program, and partnerships with student chapters of professional groups such as the National Society of Black Engineers. “If they offer it, it makes their engineering department more attractive,” contends Jason Morrella, president of the Robotics Education and Competition Foundation, which runs VEX.

In classrooms, however, robots typically crop up as projects in electrical engineering and computer science — not as teaching tools. Cost has been a major barrier; sturdy, sophisticated robots like those used in research labs are too expensive to equip each student. McLurkin, director of Rice’s Multi-Robot Systems Lab, aims to flip that calculus along with the curriculum by using small, mobile robots to teach foundational theory in an engaging, hands-on way. Now in its fifth year, his introductory course was a “smashing success” from the start, says McLurkin.

The class was specifically designed for all experience levels — including students who had never used a screwdriver. “We want the students who’ve got the talent and the ability… but may not see themselves as engineers.” He particularly wants to open the door to students who didn’t have much opportunity in high school, “or maybe they’re brown, or female, and society told them they weren’t smart enough to be engineers.”

That warm welcome for newbies partly reflects McLurkin’s own odyssey into engineering. Growing up in Baldwin, New York, in the 1970s and ’80s, he quickly learned that geek wasn’t chic, particularly for an African-American male. He was bored at school, and his grades suffered. But his parents encouraged his inventiveness, buying him a “world-class” collection of LEGO sets. McLurkin built his first robot, Rover, in high school and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and a master’s and Ph.D. in computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Along the way he earned a master’s in electrical engineering from the University of California, Berkeley, and won the Lemelson-MIT student prize for innovation in 2003 for small, collaborative robots inspired by his own pet ants.

McLurkin developed “swarmbots” while working as lead research scientist at iRobot Corp. The cost — $2,000 each — made them prohibitive for a classroom. Shortly after arriving at Rice in 2009, he worked on a lower-cost version that could be built in his lab. The resulting r-one costs about $250 and packs almost the same research-caliber performance as the old model. At the same time, Rice opened the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen, a 24/7 maker space full of state-of-the-art, real-world tools, which created demand for just the kind of experience McLurkin wanted to offer his students.

To develop the course, he collaborated with colleague Scott Rixner, a professor of computer science. Their goal was to present a broad, interesting introduction to electrical and mechanical engineering and computer science, so even students – especially women and minorities – who may not have known they were interested could make a better-informed choice of major. They combined r-one with Python, now the premier teaching language, which allows students to produce sophisticated software and commands, such as velocity control loops and simple light-sensor behaviors.

Their course, ENGI 128, includes control theory, gears, torque, thermodynamics, voltage, infrared systems, current, distributed algorithms. All are learned in the context of programming a robot to accomplish such real-world feats as lining up in numerical order or circling a stationary ’bot in a design project called the IR Olympics. Systems engineering is “the glue that ties everything together,” McLurkin says. Programming robots helps students see how the basics of each discipline “fit in at that 10,000-foot level.” Unlike most educational robots, which have limited hardware, the r-one lets students work with an advanced multi-robot system.

The debut went so smoothly that “I got a little spooked out,” McLurkin recalls. The course has since evolved. Most of the problem sets have design challenges, and striking the balance between ambitious and achievable can prove daunting. For example, there’s been a new version of the IR Olympics every year. The first year, students “hopelessly ran out of time” and had to take the design challenge home. It was simplified, but time remained an issue. Doing the code in pieces made the third iteration too easy, and the fourth version had errors in the code. This year, it became a planned take-home design challenge, but with a limited number of days the students could work on it. “There’s so many things you can do with robots, but you still only have 10 hours of time a week,” observes McLurkin.

To maintain students’ interest “you need to shock them every now and again,” McLurkin maintains. While the activities are fun and the course is not intended to weed out less-prepared students, it’s no easy ride. Students learn this with a jolt during their first programming problem set: creating software so their robots can move toward light and avoid obstacles using infrared and bump sensors.

Competition and the ability to be creative prove highly motivating. A tic-tac-toe game, in which teams of four program a donor-robot to win, often see “great reversals of fortune” when the robot doesn’t go or collides with another, forfeiting a round. McLurkin awards $10 gift certificates and coupons for chocolate bars or to the LEGO store over the semester, around $250 in total — “not enough to notice in any budget, but it’s fun!” Also empowering is being able to customize a robot, changing the color of its lights, for example, or programming it to play music.

One challenge for instructors — and with four teaching assistants, ENGI 128 is labor intensive — is ensuring the technology doesn’t outpace the students’ ability to use it. As McLurkin notes, “real hardware is unforgiving,” and because robots do what you tell them to do, not what you want them to do, things can “go off the rails very badly.” For example, getting the math wrong on the velocity controls will send the robot spinning out of control. Assignments, he cautions, “have to be designed so when [students] get it right, they can see it.” It can be difficult for students to figure out what’s going on with embedded systems, like Python, because they can’t check the robot’s program for bugs as easily as when programming their laptops. “It’s like looking at a map through a drinking straw,” says McLurkin.

Another challenge has been the students’ lack of experience using tools. Unlike the Sputnik generation, whose schools had shop classes, many of today’s freshmen arrive not knowing they must push down on the screwdriver to loosen a screw. Despite such hurdles, however, most students remain undaunted and go on to study engineering, McLurkin says.

Instead of a single capstone assignment, a series of projects culminate in a final 30-robot design challenge, such as “quaffling up” like Harry Potter for a spirited match of Quidditch, performed with robots rather than student-wizards on broomsticks. “They should get their hands dirty right away,” argues McLurkin.

Citing student surveys, McLurkin and his colleagues reported in a 2012 paper that ENGI 128 increased engagement, motivation, and desire to major in engineering. Students bonded with their robots. Many gave them names and were sad to return them at the end of the semester. Tough homework made most students work harder to ensure their robot’s success.

While educational robots like r-one are uncommon, entrepreneurial educators detect opportunity for more use of robots in the classroom. Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE lab, for example, has developed a $100 programmable, mobile robot to teach computer science to students as young as eight. The result of a four-year study, the bird-shaped Finch has light, temperature, and obstacle sensors, accelerometers, and support for a dozen programming languages. And Harvard researchers are coming out with a $10.70 AERobot — for Affordable Education Robot — designed to introduce the fundamentals of programming, logic, and robot controls to students of all ages.






What can we learn from engineering dropouts who succeed in other fields?

By Matthew Meyer and Sherry Marx

University engineering programs in the United States typically have high dropout rates, ranging from 50 percent nationally to 75 percent at the university where our study took place. Whereas many previous studies have used large surveys to quantify the dropout problem, we sought to better understand why undergraduates leave engineering qualitatively, from their own perspectives. We recruited volunteers who had recently left the program at our university to talk about their experiences, sending an invitational email to the 120 students who had migrated out of engineering during their sophomore year in 2012. Very few responded, perhaps illustrating how painful it must have been for these recent dropouts to talk about their experience. Four former engineering students participated in our study. Here is the story of one participant, Zach.

To gather participants’ stories, we asked them to draw and then discuss pictures representing their journeys into and out of engineering. Zach’s illustration shows him starting at a high point and then plunging downward. His switch in majors is represented by a rescue helicopter.

An engineer’s son with several years of work experience, Zach initially felt well prepared for and excited about pursuing a degree in engineering. At the beginning of his journey map, he shows himself as a happy surveyor on the top of the hill, seeing vast opportunities for the future. Zach and his wife had planned to purchase a home the weekend he decided to go back to school. “It was a choice between the house and school. We backed out of the house and chose school,” he said. Zach began his civil engineering curriculum at a branch campus of the university. Due to poor advising, he took three classes that did not count toward his degree and cost him an extra $1,000. He took all the engineering classes available to him at the branch campus, and then packed up his family to move across the state to complete his degree at the main campus.

After two semesters and several contentious meetings with the engineering advisers, however, his attitude changed drastically. As depicted by the deep pit on his journey map, he described the engineering advisers as very condescending. “They sat there with all their power deciding who would hold the title of engineer and who wouldn’t. . . . They need to realize that I write their check.”

Zach’s frustration with advising and mounting financial stress, combined with increasing difficulty in his classwork, led him to lose confidence in his academic abilities. His grades dropped, and his motivation to study diminished. Finally, Zach stopped referring to himself as an engineer, and began looking for a way out. Separating himself from engineering came at a high emotional cost. “I let myself down. . . . I used to make fun of other [non-engineering] majors, and now here I was one of them, a washout,” he said. He saw the business department (the helicopter in his journey map) as his savior from the quagmire of engineering. Zach transferred to the business department, where he is now earning straight A’s. He plans to graduate next spring, two full years earlier than he would have graduated from engineering.

While Zach’s journey into and out of engineering is unique to him, it illustrates the common challenges of other study participants, including institutional factors such as inadequate preparation for the difficulty of the engineering program and time commitment required, and individual factors such as a loss in motivation due to poor performance in classes. All participants felt a deep sense of loss when faced with the prospect of failure in the profession of their choice. Zach broke into tears when describing how he had let himself and his father down by “washing out” of the engineering program. Although all participants struggled in engineering, they were succeeding academically and satisfied with their new majors. The experiences of these four students could inform institutional efforts to retain engineering students.

Matthew Meyer is a doctoral student in engineering education at Utah State University, where Sherry Marx is an associate professor of qualitative research, ESL education, and multicultural education in the School of Teacher Education and Leadership. This article is excerpted from “Engineering Dropouts: A Qualitative Examination of Why Undergraduates Leave Engineering” in the October 2014 Journal of Engineering Education.




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Read the latest issue of the Diversity Committee's semi-annual newsletter, including its call for nominations for Best Diversity Paper.


The American Association of Engineering Societies (AAES) is leading the development of a competency model for the engineering profession in order to help build a broader understanding of the knowledge and skills needed by engineers to thrive in the workplace. Competency models currently exist for almost every industry in the United States except engineering. AAES has issued a broad invitation to the engineering community to participate in an initial survey to provide critical input of knowledge and counsel on this draft competency model for the engineering sector. You can participate in the survey on-line at: It should take about 25 minutes to complete.


U 2 CAN WIN 25K:

The March 2 deadline is fast approaching for the National Academy of Engineering video contest. Participants "review NAE’s 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering, then create and submit a 1 to 2 minute video that shows how achieving one or more of the NAE Grand Challenges for Engineering will lead to a more sustainable, healthy, secure, and/or joyous world!."


“Taking Stock of Industrial Ecology”

Conference July 7 to 10, 2015 at Surrey University, U.K., sponsored by International Society for Industrial Ecology. More information at







AFRICA: Historically, many African countries sent top students overseas to train in engineering and science. That’s now changing, and universities across the continent are expanding engineering programs and research.


Photo courtesy of Don Boroughs


ROADS: A university built its own road as a test-bed for transportation innovations.


STEAM: We look at schools that integrate arts into the science and engineering curriculum.

Read last month's issue of Prism magazine





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