Seeing 20/20

Through a grant and the use of case studies, a Purdue research trio is turning the classroom into a real-world training arena for business-minded engineers.

They say hindsight is 20/20, but in the eyes of the School of Civil Engineering, clearer vision will come with foresight and planning. An interdisciplinary team of thinkers is hard at work utilizing a grant from the Purdue Engineer of 2020 Seed Grant Funding Program. The program responds to the call of the profession to prepare future graduates to succeed in an increasingly complex work environment.

That team is composed of representatives from three complimentary backgrounds: Joe Sinfield, assistant professor of civil engineering; Aman Yadav, assistant professor of educational studies; and Robin Adams, assistant professor of engineering education.

Adaptive Expertise
The three members of the grant team were having lunch to discuss how to best serve the educational needs of their engineering students, when, according to Sinfield, “one point kept resonating with us—adaptive expertise. We wondered: When does what you learn in one context become transferable to other inevitable contexts?”

Engineering students spend a lot of time poring over books that feed their need for technical information. But once they leave the books and the predictable environs of school, these new engineers will enter an “ever-changing, interdisciplinary field,” according to Yadav. More than just book brilliance, says Yadav, “Engineers will need to have entrepreneurial skills. We argue that using case studies would be a good way to allow students to experience these complexities.”

Sinfield also believes that the engineer of the future will be more successful the more adaptive he or she is. “Technical skill and talent are on the rise, but that technical skill has the potential to be commoditized,” he says. Sinfield and his team are developing core case content for students to pursue open-ended problems. A one-time management consultant himself, he looks to the business side of engineering to find interesting and compelling case studies. “The case method is broadly employed in business and law school,” Sinfield says. “Engineers traditionally do not have significant exposure to this kind of learning, especially in settings that bring together perspectives on technology, business, and society.” So in the fall he launched CE 597B, “Entrepreneurship and Business Strategy in Engineering,” to help the students grow their professional skill sets.

Sinfield’s students become immersed in a project-oriented class and gain practical experience about being resourceful, managing uncertainty, and merging their talents with the needs of society. Sinfield plans to use the course as a testbed for the case studies that will be developed through the Engineer of 2020 grant and will roll out in the fall.

“Success in any field,” says Sinfield, who himself has earned success as an entrepreneur, an engineer, and an educator, “is about well-structured, organized thinking.”

In With the New
The Engineer of 2020 grant aims to stimulate a new vision of engineering education, and although getting from here to there will not be an overnight journey, some first steps have already been taken. Adams clarifies that case-based learning has a pre-existing foothold in the engineering education tradition: “Case-based and problem-based learning are well established in engineering education—particularly in the areas of professional ethics and science concepts. As such, the pathway to including new cases in engineering classrooms exists and can be leveraged. What have been lacking are cases that represent new ways of understanding entrepreneurship and interdisciplinary thinking.”

The shift to more case-based learning for engineers hinges on this interdisciplinary open-mindedness, right down to the metaphors educators like Adams use to discuss the concept. When Adams talks about developing good “stories” for engineers to explore, old ideas of the numbers-driven, formula-dependent engineering mindset begin to give way. But good stories of any kind are not easy to write. “A considerable level of work needs to go into creating a ‘story’ based on real experiences that allow students to delve deeply into important aspects of the case,” Adams says.

Adding legitimacy and relevance to these educational engineering narratives is the team’s interface with industry. “Our relationship with industry partners is a real strength of our project,” Adams says. “While we will likely develop a case from existing stories, such as the development of the iPod, most of our cases will emerge from people we personally know. This provides us the opportunity to play an active role in eliciting information about the case [rather than relying on existing resources]—in particular, eliciting information that might challenge some ideas about entrepreneurship and encourage new ways of thinking.”

An additional challenge is how eventually to prepare other engineering professors with the tools they need to implement these general principles in their own classrooms. “Personal experience has shown me that broadening the base of people interested in using cases in their classrooms is very possible. Many faculty are looking for ways to bring in more contemporary ideas but lack the resources for creating such curriculum,” Adams says. “However, while I anticipate interest, I should note that using cases in classrooms is a very different style of teaching than lectures.”

As it is, professors are strapped for minutes when it comes to navigating their syllabi. Case-based learning will not replace all classroom experience, but faculty will be given support to learn how to weave open-ended education into the experience of Purdue’s young engineers. “We plan to offer workshops for faculty to learn about the cases, how to use them, their impact on learning, and lessons we’ve learned from using them in specific classes. In this way, we hope to build a collaboration network with those who are at the heart of making decisions about teaching.”

Not Just Engineering’s “Softer Side”
If the new methods proposed for teaching the Engineer of 2020 sound like they are out of the playbook of the College of Liberal Arts and the Krannert School of Management, that’s intentional. Educators like Sinfield, Adams, and Yadav see great value in the intellectual cross-pollination of their students to prepare them more globally for their careers. At the same time, the process by which these new methods will be implemented will be rigorous and researched.

“Piloting these cases for their effectiveness is part of this process—and is quite time consuming,” Adams says. She explains the team’s plan to pilot the cases in a variety of venues that differ in scale (very large classes to more intimate classroom settings), focus (freshman year to specific disciplines), and intended learners (freshman to seniors). The team will study the variations and find out how their cases work in different situations. From there, they will develop an understanding of how the curriculum they develop could be used broadly across campus.

They predict it will catch on. In fact, case-based classroom engineering is already proving to be a popular and well-received innovation. Initial feedback from students who took Sinfield’s new course was highly positive. Could the new pedagogy be…fun?

“Students will get to play around with what engineers actually do,” says Yadav, who will contribute his expertise in instructional design and research. But “playing around” won’t be all fun and games. “We’ll be looking to see if their analytical skills develop,” he says.

Yadav is working out rubrics for assessing the effect that the case-based classroom approach will have on its students. “We want to know if this new approach has a positive impact on conceptual understanding and problem-solving skills,” Yadav says. As he designs his assessment tools, Yadav plans to measure performance a few different ways. Not only will he note students’ subjective perceptions of how effective they believe the new methodology to be for their own learning, but he will also implement quizzes to measure learning outcomes.

The team plans to publish their findings. Preliminary empirical data will enable them to pursue further research studies and apply for larger grants, such as those offered by the National Science Foundation. The goal will be to get a good picture of the most effective way to educate engineers for their careers. Says Yadav, “I’m interested in how best to prepare engineers for the real world.”

- Gina Vozenilek