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  • Federal Research Funding by Engineering Discipline in 2018


  • How to Introduce Computer Vision Basics to Freshmen
  • Study: Do Pathways to Assist Enrollment Diversity Work?


  • Making and Learning


  • Teamwork Makes the Dream Work


  • What’s On Tap for the March/April 2020 Issue of Prism?


  • The 2020 Collaborative Network for Engineering and Computing Diversity (CoNECD) Conference


By Angela Erdiaw-Kwasie

Federal funding for engineering research increased by 5.5 percent, from $6 billion to approximately $6.4 billion, between 2017 and 2018. This marked an improvement over the 2.5 percent increase between the 2016 level—$5.8 billion—and 2017.

Among all the engineering disciplines, electrical and computer engineering accounted for the largest share (15 percent) of all the federal spending throughout this period. It is worth noting that architectural engineering only accounted for 0.3 percent of the total federal funding amount in 2018 but increased by the highest percentage of 1,249.9 percent—from $1.5 million to $20.8 million—between 2017 and 2018.

Most other major disciplines experienced increases, with the exception of electrical engineering, chemical engineering, and aerospace engineering.

Federal Research Funding by Engineering Discipline: 2017–18 (in Dollars)

Source: ASEE’s Profiles of Engineering and Engineering Technology Colleges


Computer vision is central to enabling many important, fast-rising technologies, including autonomous vehicles, machine learning, and image recognition. It’s a complex technology that many undergraduate electrical- and computer-engineering students find difficult to comprehend. But in a paper presented at ASEE’s First Year Engineering Experience (FYEE) conference last fall at Penn State University, a team comprising three University of Maryland students—a senior and two graduate students—described how they successfully inserted a computer vision module into Maryland’s introductory electrical- and computer-engineering class last year. They wanted to see if they could “gently but purposefully” introduce the basics of computer vision in a way that would “captivate and inspire” a class of first-year students who mostly had no knowledge of even basic programming. It was one of 12 modules in the class. What they devised was a module of three hands-on labs that used Microsoft Kinect hardware (an Xbox 360 and Windows 10 PC) and open-source computer vision software libraries. Topics covered in the labs included the basics of depth-sensing, hand-tracking, facial recognition, and body detection, and the students completed a C++ template with simple, elegant solutions executed with Microsoft Visual Studio. The labs used real-life scenarios to help the students understand the various applications of the technology. For example, the depth-sensing project made clear how computer vision can enable such things as self-driving cars, smart surveillance, and programming that allows robots to position themselves.

After the semester ended, 90 students completed an anonymous survey and ranked the course’s 12 modules from most to least favorite. The computer vision module was the second most popular; it was narrowly beaten by an Android app inventory module. The survey results, the young instructors write, prove “that the module made the complex topic of computer vision fun and accessible.” LINK: https://peer.asee.org/an-introduction-to-computer-vision-for-first-year-electrical-and-computer-engineering-students


Many engineering schools offer multiple introductory enrollment pathways in hopes of making their programs accessible and affordable to a more diverse group of students while enabling them to retain these students. These pathways can include honors versions of introductory courses, community-college classes, and alternative math starting-point programs. But are they effective? Two assistant professors of engineering education at Ohio State University’s College of Engineering were recently awarded a three-year, $574,270 National Science Foundation grant to find out. “The assumption is that these pathways are helpful and productive, but there’s not much research about whether or not they work,” Emily Dringenberg, one of the two co-principal investigators says in a press release. In K-12 education, she explains, there is extensive research showing that placing students on separate tracks isn’t productive and can perpetuate social inequity. The worry is that students on less prestigious tracks often start believing they’re not “smart enough” to study engineering, and that those self-doubts can affect how successful they are in class. The Ohio State study will collect data from freshman students on their beliefs and identities in respect to smartness and engineering. All will be enrolled in the same introductory engineering courses, but will enter via different pathways, including an honors program, a residential program, and a community college. The goal, says Rachel Kajfez, the  co-PI, is to look for weak spots in the pathways and then come up with supplemental supports to help students overcome them.



Not all faculty recognize a connection between the two.

By Chris Rogers

Maker spaces are popping up on most college campuses as a way to promote students learning with their hands and learning from one another. They are being built in K-12 schools, libraries, towns, and even some hotels. They can act as a physical anchor for a learning community led by enthusiastic members. In Boston, we have one that is the size of a large market (Artisan’s Asylum) and one that is just a small space where a number of neighborhood craftspeople have pooled their tools. In every maker space I have visited—from Israel to Australia—they seem to be driven by passion and a desire for people to learn from each other.

Last year Tufts opened its first college-wide maker space aimed at bringing together students of all ages, disciplines, skill sets, and interests in an effort to create a physical location that promotes failing, iterating, and learning from (and teaching) others, thereby creating a student-driven informal learning space. For the past 15 years, we have had a number of different maker and craft spaces on campus, but they were all geared toward a certain segment of students. So, as we started to design this one a few years ago, we wanted to find out what faculty knew about maker spaces, who would use it, and—more interesting—why some would not want to use it. Milan Dahal (one of my graduate students) decided to ask.

Luckily, the university never had to face the question “What if they created a maker space and nobody came?” But initial responses were not universally encouraging. As one might expect, a much higher percentage of engineering faculty were interested in the space than were faculty members in arts and sciences. While many within engineering thought they would use it in teaching, a few—especially in computer science—did not see any advantage in working fabrication into their curriculum. Once we moved out of engineering, though, the opinions became more diverse. Many arts and sciences faculty members had not heard about maker spaces. Some had heard of them but felt they were only for engineers and artists. Others saw them as places where they or their teaching assistants (TAs) might go to build artifacts for class but did not see the value of having their students use them. Some were fans, or at least interested in trying out the maker space. Only a small number believed that making would help their students learn.

What surprised me was the number of people who thought it would be good for their TAs to make artifacts to show students instead of letting the students make the artifacts themselves, missing the point that in the making of the artifact, you are forcing the student to think about and reflect on the artifact. If the artifact is a period piece in a history class, then they are wondering about design choices made by their ancestors. In a geology class, they may wonder about the purpose of a tool, and through that, think more about how best to analyze rocks.

A friend of mine on the political science faculty teaches race and conflict in the American South in the late 1800s. How does a maker space fit in there? If, as so much research suggests, we learn through using our hands, how can the hands help us learn political science? We plan on collaborating to experiment with novel ways of hands-on political science—although right now our ideas are mostly around using the space to build 3-D representations of students’ thoughts and their data (similar to LEGO Serious Play). Our hypothesis is that in physically building the data visualization sculpture, students will think more critically about the data. But that remains to be seen, as the test will not happen until next year.

In the meantime, our new space flourishes. While it draws a disproportionate number of engineers and scientists, we hope that will change in time as we continue to lower the barriers of entry. Safe tools help, including 3-D printers, laser cutters, computer numerical control routers, and oscilloscopes, as do augmented-reality user guides, friendly staff, classes, hack-a-thons, and waffle nights. I am always excited to see students leave the conventional “I am doing homework” for the more exciting “I am making my new invention for class.”


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



Having students enter a Rube Goldberg contest helps develop skills in manufacturing, design, and collaboration.

By Marisa K. Orr and Shawn S. Jordan

Project-based learning has become popular over the past couple of decades, primarily due to its potential to increase motivation, engagement, and teamwork. This is especially true in first-year and capstone courses. However, the middle years of engineering programs have seen far less innovation. We had students participate in the Rube Goldberg Machine Contest as part of a junior-level mechanical engineering Dynamics of Machine Elements course. The projects that students created in the contest gave them the opportunity to gain experience in designing, analyzing, implementing, and integrating a variety of machine elements to accomplish a task.

Most tasks would traditionally have a simple, closed-ended solution, so a Rube Goldberg-style approach was used to maximize the design space and promote creativity. Since the Rube Goldberg Machine Contest rewards excessive complexity and unusual steps, students have an added incentive to divergently explore a variety of ideas.

The Rube Goldberg Machine Contest is an international competition devoted to the design and demonstration of contraptions that complete a simple everyday task in an absurdly complex manner. The contest promotes STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) education in a team project-based competition. The competition was inspired by Rube Goldberg, a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and engineer who was best known for his sketches of crazy inventions that parodied how technology and government sometimes unnecessarily overcomplicate our lives.

The competition rules require that all machines have an observable theme and/or story integrated throughout the machines. Stories provide a narrative helpful in describing machines to audiences, in addition to providing an additional design constraint. Student teams were asked to compose the “story” of their machine by starting at the end. In class, each 16-person team was given a giant notepad and marker and asked to brainstorm as many types or uses of zippers as they could. Once each team had a list, they were asked to pick one zipper idea around which to build a story. Next, they were asked to come up with an event that might have immediately preceded the zipping of their chosen zipper. The process of picking an event that immediately preceded the previous event continued until each team had constructed an entire story from the end to the beginning, with at least 20 steps. The work of designing machine modules to represent the story was divided among four subteams.

Teams reported their progress on a class Google site. Each team was given access to a page from which they could create and edit subpages as desired. Teams were asked to include descriptions, pictures, and short videos documenting their progress. All the projects can be viewed at https://sites.google.com/a/email.latech.edu/dome/home,

Students evaluated themselves and their team members in five categories of team contribution on the CATME (www.catme.org) peer evaluation system. Students showed meaningful improvement in several categories: contributing to the team’s work, interacting with teammates, keeping the team on track, and expecting quality.

In a survey afterwards, many students reported that the open-ended nature of the project was very challenging. They reported that it helped them develop skills such as manufacturing and design, and helped them learn to work with new people. For most students, this was the first project where they were not allowed to select their own teams.

Feedback from the anonymous end-of-course survey included: “I love the project, and I learned many things” and “Despite how much time and effort this project required, I enjoyed crafting it and was very proud of the end result.” The instructor also learned many things and was very proud of the end result.

Adding a Rube Goldberg machine design project to the Dynamics of Machine Elements class was a valuable learning experience for both the students and the instructor. As there are few papers describing Rube Goldberg projects at an upper-class level, this paper contributes to the project-based learning literature by providing evidence-based best practices for successful implementation that could be used at other institutions.


Marisa K. Orr is an assistant professor of engineering and science education and mechanical engineering at Clemson University. Shawn S. Jordan is an associate professor of engineering at Arizona State University. This article is adapted from “A Rube Goldberg Approach to Teaching Dynamics of Machine Elements,” in the fall 2019 issue of Advances in Engineering Education.

Image courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory


Job-hunting? Check out scores of openings geared to engineering education on ASEE’s Classifieds Website, including these:

1. Associate Dean -- 1 opportunity

2. Dean, College of Engineering & Applied Science -- 1 opportunity

3. Professor of Practice in Engineering -- 1 opportunity

Visit here for details: http://https://www.asee.org/sales-and-marketing/advertising/classified-advertising/job-postings


FEATURE: NEW DIRECTIONS—This issue is devoted to innovation in engineering education, featuring lessons learned from research, reforms in admissions and departments, starting new engineering schools, tackling climate change, and teaching incarcerated students.



The vision of the CoNECD (pronounced “connected”) Conference is to provide a forum for exploring current research and practices to enhance diversity and inclusion of all underrepresented populations in the engineering and computing professions including gender identity and expression, race and ethnicity, disability, veterans, LGBTQ+, first generation and socio-economic status. Marriott Crystal Gateway, Crystal City, Va., April 19–22, 2020. Click here to make a reservation.


Do you have a comment or suggestion for Connections?

Please let us know. Email us at:connections@asee.org. Thanks!


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