Electrical and Computer Engineering transforms undergraduate programs to boost student success

The picture didn’t need to say a thousand words. It was an image of undergraduate students sitting slumped in their chairs in a lecture hall, and it really conveyed two things: The students were bored and unengaged with the lecture.

The faculty of the Charles L. Brown Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering wanted to change that scene, so in 2013, the department’s undergraduate programs committee undertook an overhaul of the undergraduate curriculum. The effort was led by Virginia Microelectronics Consortium Professor Lloyd Harriott, who was appointed the department’s Associate Chair for Undergraduate Programs in the fall of 2013.

“We began our work by trying to start from scratch and asking the question: ‘What does an Electrical Engineering undergraduate need to know, or know how to do, when they walk across the stage at graduation?’” Harriott said. “We gathered information from multiple sources to try to get an accounting of what the students need in order to be successful. We then compared it to our current curriculum to see what needed to be changed.”

What emerged is something affectionately dubbed the “FUN” curriculum – Fundamentals in Electrical Engineering – which combines lectures and hands-on lab work in studio style.

In the past, Circuits, Electronics, and Signals and Systems were taught as separate courses spread over two years, and lectures were held separately from the labs. Faculty members snapped a picture of a lecture scene to illustrate how students sometimes reacted to the old-style lectures.

One of the problems that the undergraduate committee identified in the traditional curriculum was that only after students took the first three courses for the major — Circuits, Electronics, and Signals and Systems — did they develop a systems-level appreciation for electrical and computer engineering.

“Students had a tendency to view the material in each course in isolation,” said Associate Professor Harry Powell, who also serves as the Director of Instructional Labs. “We reinvented the fundamental courses as a sequence that spans all three disciplines, giving students the systems view much earlier.”

The committee learned from faculty members who had already adapted their teaching styles, such as Powell and Professors Scott Barker and Joanne Bechta Dugan. For some of their courses, they had integrated lectures and laboratory activities in studio style to better connect theory and practice.

Associate Professor Ronald Williams had developed a studio format for an Introduction to Engineering section in the fall of 2012 and had become a vocal advocate for the approach. His experience helped to identify characteristics of the classroom and equipment needed for success in a studio class. He worked with Professor Robert Weikle to develop the first offering of a “FUN” course.

The department also developed a powerful partnership with National Instruments to supply the department, at low cost, a “VirtualBench” that provides all the parts students need to design, build and test circuits. National Instruments, donors, and M. Wynne Stuart, UVA Associate Vice Provost for Academic Support and Classroom Management, also helped develop a collaborative learning space for the courses.

“Enrollment in Electrical Engineering has been on a steady decline not only at UVA but nationwide,” said Professor and Department Chair John Lach. “This is due – in large part – to the fact that the core electrical engineering curriculum hasn’t adapted to this generation of students and their heightened interest in direct engagement with disciplines that benefit society. Electrical engineering of course benefits society, but the traditional curriculum didn’t reflect that and didn’t provide students the opportunity to pursue socially relevant activities until the 4th year.”

Electrical systems are fundamental to modern life, from smart energy management to wireless communications to life-saving healthcare devices. Electrical engineering education also provides a foundation that enables students to succeed in many different fields. Once students experience the hands-on potential to use their engineering knowledge to make a difference in the world, they are hooked, Lach said.

Faculty members also observed that when students began their fourth-year capstone projects, they had difficulty synthesizing the material from the various courses in order to pull together a system design, Lach said. The students had difficulty connecting theory and practice.

The new Fundamentals curriculum is three semesters. Students start by learning broadly about Circuits, Electronics and Signals and Systems. In their second and third semesters, they dive deeper on all three subjects and see how the subjects tie to other courses, such as Embedded Computing. Multiple professors bring their teaching and research expertise: Powell, Harriott, Williams, Weikle, and Maite Brandt-Pearce.

“Students don’t truly understand a topic until they have seen it several times, in various contexts,” said Brandt-Pearce, who recently was named Executive Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in the Engineering School. “The FUN series of courses gives a framework for doing that.”

Noah Sauber is a third-year student, double-majoring in electrical and computer engineering. He is just finishing with the first cohort of students to try the new Fundamentals curriculum. When he was first asked to join the cohort, he wasn’t sure how it was going to work, “but I like it now. I like that it’s a class and a lab al in one.” In each class, at least two professors play off of each other’s teaching and research strengths, and help students through the labs.

“It’s very comprehensive,” said Sarah Liu, a third-year computer engineering student. “We learn the theory behind what we are working on in the labs. It’s also fresh in your mind, and the exact same professors who taught you the theories are there to answer your questions during the labs.”

Christopher Moore, a fourth-year electrical engineering major, experienced the old model of lectures separated from the labs. He had transferred to UVA from a community college, and his first lecture course was with 65 students, the professor flying through a huge textbook and handing out quizzes and tests. “That class was definitely a firehose of learning,” Moore said. “And each test, the grades were not as high as we wanted them to be.”

Later, he had an opportunity to experience one of the courses in the new curriculum model, so he felt the difference.

In the Fundamentals curriculum, the level of difficulty of the material is the same, he said. However the concepts are easier to grasp because of the opportunity to apply the theories, working with peers and using real hardware, Moore said. At least once a week, professors stay back in the evenings to answer student questions about their homework. “It is a real asset.”

Dustin Widdman, a fourth-year electrical engineering student, said he and other students are provided the opportunity to give feedback to the professors about the revised curriculum, so that it can grow and get stronger over time. “They’re constantly looking for suggestions,” he said. “It’s going to be good.”

The faculty involved with the new curriculum model are disseminating the innovations to other universities through publications, course modules, and workshops. The aim is to have a very broad impact on undergraduate engineering education. The innovations have earned two Best Paper Awards – one each in 2014 and 2015 – at the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) Conference.

Harriott said the department now has extended the new curriculum approach to other courses including Electromagnetic Fields. “This is a standard course that is generally taught in a very mathematical, abstract fashion. We have transformed it to a studio class with many hands-on experiments and demonstrations to help make the abstract concepts real for the students.”

The Embedded Systems course has also been changed to the studio style.

Williams taught the very first new class in the “FUN” series, and he was so impressed by the student interest and engagement that he changed his fourth-year Computer Architecture and Design class to the studio format in the fall semester of 2015. The laboratory experiences in that class were similar to earlier offerings, but student performance was better. The immediate coupling between lecture topics and lab experience appeared to help with both interest and learning.

Harriott said the faculty hope to extend the new model to elective courses in the next phase. “The committee has also worked on many other aspects of the undergrad program, including recruiting, advising, enhanced internship and co-op opportunities, space renovations and social activities,” he said. “We are committed to providing an excellent educational experience so that our students are fully prepared to be successful in their future careers, even as their interests evolve and society’s needs change.”