Engineering News

At Illinois, we are innovating engineering education

2/5/2019 Rashid Bashir, Dean, College of Engineering

Illinois has long been a place for innovation. It is no secret that one of our strengths is collaborative research across disciplines to create solutions to global issues many can’t even imagine. Our ability to engineer solutions at scale has been described as “Doing the Impossible Every Day.”
Over the last decade or more, however, Illinois engineering has been intentional about another form of innovation – undergraduate education. After all that is the core of what we do – prepare students to become the next generation pioneers. 
We have been at the forefront of computer science education, which has included the design of the CS+X as a model of interdisciplinary education. It allows students to incorporate a strong grounding in computer science to the technical or professional preparation in the arts and sciences. 
Our excellence in a number of engineering disciplines, our collaboration with leaders across campus, and an ambition to form a different model for educating medical students has resulted in the first engineering-based College of Medicine.
Building on our strength as a place where students and faculty can commercialize ideas and form successful startups, we are affirming that pursuit through the Innovation, Leadership, and Engineering Education (ILEE) program.
Through the Academy for Excellence in Engineering Education (AE3), we are changing what undergraduate education looks like. College of Engineering grants through the Strategic Instructional Innovation Program (SIIP) have enabled an overhaul of core courses, which benefit nearly every student coming through our doors. These courses have often before been stumbling blocks for student success. In the six years of the program, the College has awarded 28 grants to nine departments totaling $3 million.
A byproduct of that success has been more faculty collaboration. Innovative solutions to changing these courses have developed in teams and as a result a number of faculty have stepped up to become resources for other faculty members. The Education Innovative Fellows (EIFs) program has sparked a network of faculty dedicated to exploring, implementing, and validating sweeping changes to the education process. 
This month a cohort of Illinois engineering faculty described the transforming needs of next generation students and how we are facilitating change through an article titled “Keep Your Friends Close and Your Colleagues Nearby.” The article authored by Jose P. Mestre, Geoffrey L. Herman, Jonathan H. Tomkin, and Matthew West appeared in the latest edition of Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning. The quartet of writers come from different disciplines – physics, computer science, mechanical science and engineering, and the School of Earth, Society, and the Environment.
They describe the positive results from a culture of evidence-based instructional practices (EBIP) across large introductory courses over 13 science and engineering disciplines, which impact more than 17,000 students each year at Illinois. In taking a closer look as to how this shift has taken place, the study found that “faculty members embedded in departmental Communities of Practice were the catalysts for the rapid spread of reforms.” They found that two types of interactions were crucial – “strong ties between small groups of people that promote learning and incremental improvement” and “bridging ties between disparate groups of people that promote the spread of new ideas and innovations.”
In short, where in the past many of the courses were taught by junior faculty, who often had to develop the courses themselves in isolation, we have developed a community of faculty members teaching the same courses, who collaborate and brainstorm how those courses can be improved. Through our Collins Scholars program, first-year professors are given not only resources, but a network of mentors to help them succeed early in their tenure.  Anecdotally, we are discovering that courses that once were the least favorite to teach are now some of the most favorite. That energy has translated to better results from our students. That confidence has in turn meant a higher retention rate. 
While SIIP has focused on programs within engineering, an NSF grant through its Widening Implementation & Demonstration of Evidence-Based Reforms (WIDER) program has expanded this idea across both engineering and LAS. 
I would like to emphasize that one of the major reasons for its success has been its structure. Faculty members are dedicated to meeting weekly and department administrators are committed to teaching the courses with the recommended reforms going forward. 
Of course, there are many other initiatives happening across our college. I want to applaud these efforts that are having a high impact. As Dean, I am committed to keeping this momentum going forward. We have succeeded because of our dedication to working together and supporting each other. It has helped to maintain the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign College of Engineering as a continued leader in Engineering Education. 
Rashid Bashir
Dean, College of Engineering
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign