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E-news Online February 2014



Engineering Faculty are Pioneers of Engineering Education

By Amanda Cane

Image of Ghosh, Sheriff, Powell
Associate Professors Harry Powell, Mark Sherriff, Avik Ghosh

The U.Va. School of Engineering and Applied Science is a place where innovative teaching methods are nurtured and thrive. This pioneering spirit was recognized in October 2013, when three SEAS faculty members were selected to participate in the National Academy of Engineering’s fifth Frontiers of Engineering Education symposium. The event, held in Irvine, Calif., brought together 73 of the nation’s most innovative engineering educators, selected to share ideas, learn from each other’s research and develop a charter to bring about improvement in their home institutions.

Avik Ghosh and Harry Powell, associate professors, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Mark Sherriff, associate professor, Department of Computer Science, were nominated by fellow engineers and deans and selected from a highly competitive pool of applicants.

Ghosh’s focus is on hierarchical learning, introducing basic engineering topics in a way that is cross-disciplinary and accessible with minimal prerequisites. He presents subjects from quantum physics to electronic switches through “toy” models, each course requiring limited knowledge of algebra. He supplements them with hands-on coding, simulation and animation software.

“Many of our textbooks are becoming increasingly obsolete and disconnected from topical research,” says Ghosh. “Our understanding so far has been ‘top-down,’ but turning this on its head and proceeding ‘bottom-up,’ from an atom to a switch, makes the learning process more systematic, proceeding from quantum to classical.” While student response to Ghosh’s courses is overwhelmingly positive, he admits that it is difficult to find textbooks and resources in the literature for teaching quantum physics this way.

When asked about the future of engineering education, Ghosh points to the oft-maligned Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). While aware of the arguments against MOOCs, Ghosh believes that such forces will encourage educators to be more innovative, using technology and online resources judiciously to reach students who are tech savvy, yet operating under increasing time and financial pressures.

Mark Sherriff’s methods are as nontraditional as they come. He believes that students retain more information when active, so he gets them out of the classroom as much as possible, designing “elaborate cryptographic scavenger hunts around Grounds for students to solve using programs they have to write on the fly.”

For Sherriff, mobile computing is the wave of the future. He was the first in his department to bring mobile devices into the curriculum, and now there are more than 300 second-year programming students learning to program on Nexus tablets. Says Sherriff, “We need future engineers who can recognize the power of what mobile devices can bring, not just in computer science, but across other engineering disciplines, such as remote heart monitors for biomedical or the ability to analyze soil samples for civil and environmental.”

Harry Powell had a long career in industry before entering academia. It is this experience, he says, that inspires him to combine hands-on and real-word industry work with lecture materials. “You can draw equations on a board until the cows come home,” he says, “but it doesn’t implant until you actually do the work.” Powell conceptualizes, designs and often builds experiments for his classes. While this creates extra work for him, Powell says it’s worth it “when you see a light bulb go on.” The workload is also intense for the students but there is a payoff. Powell says former students often tell him they’ve run into situations at work that they knew how to handle because of experiments in his class.

Powell hopes that engineering education will continue to move toward more project-based learning and classes that cut across the boundaries of subject matter. Currently, he says, separate courses are completely isolated from one another; but he envisions them becoming integrated so that students can see the way a specific concept cuts across disciplines.

The NAE symposium was an opportunity to experience widely different perspectives, given the presence of educators from large public institutions and the smallest of private schools, says Powell. “It was a good chance to learn and convey information that isn’t teachable via textbook.”