The National Science Foundation (NSF) is funding a project in the Virginia Tech College of Engineering aimed at teaching freshmen that electrical and computer engineering is a creative discipline that directly benefits society.

Faculty in Virginia Tech’s Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) and Department of Engineering Education (EngE) will use the $160,000 NSF grant to develop a first-year course that will give freshmen the opportunity to work on projects based on solving real-world ECE problems.

A major goal of this initiative is to increase ECE student retention by demonstrating the discipline’s creative and beneficial aspects. The 600 students who will take the course during the 2007 and 2008 academic years will learn about contemporary problems that electrical and computer engineers tackle in their jobs, such as signal and image processing for biomedical applications and wireless sensor networks for environmental monitoring.

This NSF-sponsored project at Virginia Tech comes at a time when organizations including the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), major engineering schools, and engineering firms throughout the U.S. are concerned that the nation is producing far too few engineering graduates. One consensus among experts is that a significant increase in the number of women engineers could alleviate this problem.

However, according to national surveys released by the American Association of Engineering Societies Inc., the number of women completing bachelor’s degrees in engineering in the U.S. has decreased slightly from a high of 15,114 in 2003 to 14,654 in 2006. Meanwhile, the total number of engineering undergraduates completing degrees has increased nationally by only 100.

In 2006 women earned only 16 percent of the total number of bachelor’s degrees in engineering at Virginia Tech. The university has the fourth highest undergraduate engineering enrollment — and confers the fourth highest number of engineering bachelor’s degrees — in the nation.

“Women, as well as African-Americans and Latinos, have disproportionately low enrollments as undergraduate engineering students and earn a low percentage of bachelor’s degrees,” said Amy Bell, an associate professor of ECE at Virginia Tech and the principal investigator on the NSF project. “The leveling off of overall engineering enrollments and the under-participation by women and minorities in ECE and other engineering fields threatens the competitive vitality of the U.S.”

A 2003 study conducted at the University of Michigan indicated that women, especially, are often less interested in engineering as a profession because it does not seem to offer opportunities for service to other people.

Bell and her colleagues are designing their new course to provide illustrations of the ways in which electrical and computer engineering benefits society, in the hope of increasing retention and interest among all Virginia Tech ECE students, including women and minorities.

Bell will team-teach the course with Tom Walker, associate professor of EngE. Walker is a co-principal investigator on the NSF project along with Jenny Lo of EngE and Virgilio Centeno and Leslie Pendelton of ECE. Other senior personnel involved in shaping the project and working with the students are Mike Gregg of EngE and Masoud Agah, Luiz DaSilva, Allen MacKenzie, Leyla Nazhandali, Paul Plassmann, Sanjay Raman, and Chris Wyatt of ECE.

“This close collaboration between ECE and EngE faculty will help build a community of scholars through a series of professional development activities that are part of the NSF project,” Bell said. The project also includes an outreach component — university faculty will present hands-on engineering demonstrations at community colleges and high schools.

Bell and her colleagues will measure the success of the project by comparing the retention of the students who take the new course with the retention of all College of Engineering undergraduates. “We’ll also track the retention of women and minority students and use surveys to measure student satisfaction and confidence after taking the new course,” she said. “We hope these measurable outcomes will show that this project serves as an exemplary model for engineering education.”

After the two-year project is completed, results will be disseminated through journal articles and conference presentations, as well as a public web site.

The College of Engineering at Virginia Tech is internationally recognized for its excellence in 14 engineering disciplines and computer science. The college’s 5,500 undergraduates benefit from an innovative curriculum that provides a “hands-on, minds-on” approach to engineering education, complementing classroom instruction with two unique design-and-build facilities and a strong Cooperative Education Program. With more than 50 research centers and numerous laboratories, the college offers its 1,800 graduate students opportunities in advanced fields of study such as biomedical engineering, state-of-the-art microelectronics, and nanotechnology.


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