Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Subgroup on Engineering 100

Christine Cheng, David Luedtke, Niranjan Venkatesan


Engineering 100 (ENG 100) at the University of Illinois is a zero credit hour course taken pass/fail that serves to introduce new students in the College of Engineering to each other, to the resources on the Illinois campus, and to the many opportunities available after graduation; the course meets twice weekly for the first seven weeks of the fall semester each year. The course was created to meet the “University 101” requirement, which stipulates that each college on campus have an introductory course for new freshman students. As such, all engineering students are required to complete a University 101 course as one part of their degree requirements. For most students, this means taking ENG 100 their first semester; however, if they fail the course, they will have to retake it the next year. Students who transfer into a program from within the University will not need to take ENG 100 if they have completed a different University 101 class (e.g. a different section of ENG 100 or LAS 100). Transfer students from outside the University take a different class, Engineering 300, which is not discussed here.

ENG 100’s stated goal is “to catch the new freshmen students as they enter and instill in them high ideals, confidence, and the noble purpose of the engineering profession. With a solid understanding of the preparation required to ultimately achieve their goals, these students will very quickly become contributing members of the engineering profession and accomplished Illinois alumni.” This goal evolved from three main considerations: That new students may or may not know much about what the discipline of engineering actually entails; that the large classes that new students typically take are not conducive to the formation of relationships with professors, older students, or one another; and that an understanding of the tools and opportunities available on campus will help new students be successful even after ENG 100 has finished.

The structure of ENG 100 is instrumental in achieving these goals. Small sections of about 18 students are lead by Engineering Learning Assistants (ELAs), who are undergraduate upperclassmen who have demonstrated strong academic achievement, leadership and involvement in campus activities, and strong communication skills. Sections are divided by major so that students will take the course with other students in their field of study; typically, the ELA has the same major as the students. The ELAs are more than TAs: they also act as peer mentors for the students. In addition to forming relationships with the ELA during class, students are encouraged to meet with the ELAs outside of class if they have specific concerns, perhaps to review the students’ resumes or discuss possible major changes. ELAs are trained in a six hour session prior to the beginning of the course, and given materials that will help them prepare lesson plans for the class sessions. The topics for each lesson, as well as the short homework assignments for each lesson, are all proscribed by a detailed course manual.

The topics covered include:

1. Introduction to Engineering 100 + Why Diversity Matters on Campus

2. Navigating the Illinois Campus

3. The College of Engineering

4. The Engineering Profession

5. Your Engineering Major

6. Developing Professional Skills

7. ECS, Career Fairs, & Internships

8. Habits of Effective Engineering Students

9. Options for Engineering Graduates

10. Multidisciplinary Engineering Challenges

11. Setting & Achieving Goals

12. Building a Powerful Network

13. Teamwork

After the course is completed, ELAs are invited to provide feedback about the course to the course’s administration, comprised of the Program Director, Assistant Dean Susan Larson, as well as two Engineering 100 Student Co-Directors, Amanda Burns and Claire Joseph. The Student Co-Directors are also known as “Head ELAs.” The feedback provided by the ELAs is used to develop the course’s content and syllabus. Student feedback was not collected this year because in past years it was not influential in any way after being compiled. Some ELAs independently surveyed their sections mid-course to improve their teaching, but this was not done on a course-wide scale.


Engineering 100 Fall 2009 Engineering Learning Assistant Teaching Manual, ©2009 College of Engineering, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Engineering 100 Course Book, ©2009 College of Engineering, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Dialogue with Claire Joseph, Engineering 100 Student Co-Director

Discussion on Potential Administrative Course Changes

One change that is currently under examination is to make Engineering 100 worth one hour credit for a grade rather than the current zero credit hour and pass/fail system. The general consensus often seems to attribute student disengagement to whether a class has credit assigned to it or not. It is thought that students are more likely to value the course and take it seriously if they receive credit for it; however, just because a course contributes one hour to an engineering student’s major does not guarantee improved student engagement or necessarily make the course more significant to the student.

The Engineering 100 course website briefly addresses this issue in its Frequently Asked Questions section. Its reason for the zero-credit hour assignment is that “it does not require an out of class intensive workload.” In our research, we looked up what the basic definition was for “academic credit hour.” While every university calculates it differently, an academic credit hour is defined generally as “the unit of measuring educational credit usually based on the number of classroom hours per week throughout a term” (Merriam Webster). By this definition, Engineering 100 should count for 1 credit hour, but the College of Engineering seems to have a different means of measuring academic hours.

If we go by the College’s definition, it is true that the students do not have a lot of workload outside of class. Almost all the assignments are low key and require menial work. It might be interesting to compare this course to Engineering 101 entitled “Engineering at Illinois.” ENG 101 is approved for 1 credit hour though it still uses pass/fail grading. Based on its course catalog description, that course seems to focus on introducing students to engineering majors and careers. While engineering students can take it, the description seems to indicate that this course is intended to help those who may want to transfer into the College. In particular, the course is tailored towards those in Division of General Studies. Students enrolled in DGS are ones who have not declared a major or who are in transition between colleges or majors. The DGS website claims that its students make up 10% of all Illinois undergraduates – approximately 3,100 students.

Since ENG 101 is intended to help students make a significant college decision, it may have students do more work than in ENG 100. Given that ENG 100 is a requirement for all Engineering freshmen, the student might prefer to have it counted as pass/fail. It is one less course to worry about during the first year of college. This kind of reasoning is found in other universities such as MIT where freshmen have all pass/fail courses during their first semester. The argument for this system is to aid the freshmen as they transitioned from high school to college. Before, the pass/no record system applied for the entire year since 1973 when it was established by MIT faculty, but in 2003, the administration changed the freshman spring semester to be on the A/B/C/D grading scale. Studies have been done to see whether this increased the students’ scores in later years, but the results were inconclusive.

All in all, the College of Engineering should think carefully through the potential impacts of changing the credit hour for ENG 100. The benefits may not outweigh the costs of implementation such a system change.

Besides the course credit issue, we also researched other potential changes for ENG 100. We came up with the following recommendations.

1) Training sessions: In our interviews with ENG 100 students and ELAs, we observed that the success of the class depended largely upon the ELAs’ teaching methods and creativity. One ELA said that the biggest challenge was keeping the course material interesting. His strategy was to include “active games or challenges so that they would have to pay attention on some level.” One of the ENG 100 students said that most of the class sessions were engaging, but that was due to the ELA’s direction rather than the course material. These comments seem to indicate that the College is recruiting the right kind of students to be ELAs. The ELAs are willing to give some effort towards the class and to think outside the box. The College should be more supportive and give more guidance to these upper level undergraduates. Currently, ENG 100 offers only a 6 hour training session. In other similarly run classes such as Business 101 or programs like the Writer’s Workshop, student teachers take semester long courses in the semester preceding the teaching period. The College might consider lengthening its training sessions, so that ELAs are even more prepared. More preparation will enhance the independency of the ELAs and the quality of the program. During those sessions, the College should ask the ELAs what they think should be incorporated into the ENG 100 class for that year. Since most of the ELAs are past students, they would be good sources of feedback.

2) Follow up sessions: ENG 100 not only introduces the students to the Engineering College and university, but it also introduces engineering students to each other. The College was wise to group students by major and to assign ELA with the same major to each section. The entire group already has a common point to start out together. Some students in ENG 100 who we interviewed still remember the class as a time when they built friendships with those in their respective majors. One ELA also thought that the course material could be improved with lessons that centered on connecting the students and allowing them time to get to know each other. Given that sections share the same major, this is a valid point that can be acted upon in the future. One suggestion is to have the school conduct two or three short follow up sessions either during the second half of the semester (when the class is over) or the following semester. Some leadership conferences incorporate this for their participants after the conference has occurred. The sessions do not need to have to be elaborate, but they would just provide a time for people to reconnect. The college could also invite guest speakers to these sessions, so that the students could have a chance to interact and ask questions based on what they learned during the course.

3) Online availability of materials: Since freshmen students are taking ENG 100, they might not realize the importance of the information they are given until much later on in their college careers. One student remarked how he only realized as a senior that the information he got was valuable. He now applies the knowledge he gained as he is looking for internships and shaping career plans. Another student also said that he recalls very little of the information given during the course. As a sophomore currently, he believes that the information could be helpful. We suggest that if the student material used during the course was available online, students might benefit even more from it. Freshmen often are undergoing a big transition process during their first year, so allowing them to access the material afterwards when they have had time to reflect might be beneficial. The college would incur little cost to act on this recommendation.

Comparison Between Incoming Freshman Class in ENG vs. LAS Departments

To examine the reasons behind the varying success of ENG 100 and LAS 100 it is first necessary to look at the backgrounds of the students in each class. The freshman population entering into Engineering and LAS differ in many aspects. For our project we would like to focus on the class size and standardized testing scores. These are the two factors that we felt were most closely associated with student disengagement.

September 08, 2009

Large classes with many students promote student disengagement. The speakers who visited class often mentioned that many students stopped paying attention to the class when they realized that the teacher did not notice them. Looking at the incoming freshman class in the Engineering department and LAS department we can see that there almost 600 more students in LAS. With a larger student base it becomes harder to give personal attention to each and everyone one. Especially due to the recent budget limitations, it is very difficult to support breaking down a large class into smaller classes.

Standardized testing is often used as a measure to find a “good” student. A good student can be defined as someone who is attentive to class and strives to learn in school. We also expect students who perform well in high school to continue their performance in college. If there are more “good” students in our classes we also expect the success of the class to rise. We can see from the table above that the incoming engineering freshman class has a marginally higher test average than those in LAS. From this we assume that there is a larger percentage of “good” students who make up ENG 100. This leads to a better performance for the class as a whole.

We then compared this data with our findings from both classes. From our findings we were able to see that the ENG 100 programs had a marginally higher approval rating than LAS 100. This supports our assumptions made earlier. We can also say that a similar program has a better chance of gaining success in the Engineering department when compared to LAS simply due to the Freshman demographics involved.


1 comment:

  1. You discuss possible changes, but taking if it ain't broke don't fix it as an axiom, is ENG 100 broke? Truthfully, apart from the credit hour issue, which is a big deal, your other suggested changes seem sensible and non-drastic. So those likely make sense even if ENG 100 is working reasonably well.

    On the credit hour issue - your resolution is not really satisfactory. It is true that for courses that do give credit, the number of hours of credit is measured by the number of scheduled face-to-face hours. But there still is a presumed out-of-class effort that is necessary for a course that gives credit. And as we discussed in class the historic model is for 2 out of class hours to every in class hour. (Since you have MIT in this document for comparison, note that at MIT credit is based on a combination of in class hours and presumed out-of-class hours and that way they allow the ratio to deviate from 2 to 1.) So on this particular issue, based on how you reported the work for ENG 100 is, I'd say it should stick with the no-credit approach.

    On your comparison between Engineering and LAS, do note that General Studies used to be in LAS and indeed there are many vestiges of that. I don't have these data in front of me, but I'd wager that disproportionately General Studies students end up in LAS.

    On the standardized test score comparisons, again I don't have the data but my guess would be that Engineering students have more consistently high math and science scores and if they in aggregate do less well on the tests that would be because of comparatively poor verbal results. With LAS students, the strengths and weakness can be more varied. This supports your discussion that that Engineering students are more homogeneous in their interests than LAS students but it might cut against your saying that the test score differences don't amount to much.

    I don't know if such data exist, but the final type of data analysis that might be done would be some comparison of result since Eng 100 has been instituted with like results from before the program. For example, it is known that many students transfer out of Engineering and that individual Engineering classes have high drop rates relatives to the rest of campus. Potentially one might look at those data to see if there have been any changes as a consequence of ENG 100.

    It may be that other factors matter more. We were told at a recent meeting of Deans and Dept Heads in Business that students who would have applied to Business a year or two ago are now applying to Engineering, which seems safer in the current economic climate. People who do make that sort of choice are doing it for practical reasons, but loving the discipline is not high on the list. They may not know a lot about what Engineering is really about and make come to a rude awakening when they find out.