Hands-on curriculum to electrify undergraduate engineering

Sarah Small
March 19, 2021

UNIVERISTY PARK, Pa. — When Tim Kane, Penn State professor of electrical engineering, thinks about the important components of undergraduate engineering curriculum, he says keeping the big picture in mind is key.

“I did really well as an undergrad, and [yet] I had no idea what electrical engineering was by the time I was done,” he said. “I knew all the components. They taught us how to make a bunch of little Lego bricks, but no one showed us how to build anything out of the Lego bricks.”

Helping students understand how the material learned in one class applies to their other classes and to engineering as a whole is one of the goals of Kane’s curriculum restructuring project, "Ties that Bind: Integration of Hands-on Experiences across the Curriculum," which is supported by a $3,000 Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence grant. 

In order to help students better understand the interconnectedness of their coursework, Kane proposes implementing projects that begin in the introductory electrical engineering courses and carry through to the more advanced courses. 

For their first prototype, Kane and the graduate students working on the project are building a laser. The idea is that students would build their own lasers in one class, and then be able to use that same laser for research in a different class. They are using the spring 2021 semester to create and demonstrate this prototype through videos, and they hope to implement this project starting in the fall 2021 semester.

In addition to emphasizing the cohesive nature of the curriculum, Kane hopes this project will add an element of hands-on experimentation at all stages of a student’s undergraduate education. 

“We always have students who get 4.0s, and are really good at math, and have a good work ethic, but they’re kind of doing it because they’re good at it,” Kane said. “I’ve had plenty of students who are OK at that sort of stuff, but they’re really good with their hands, and if we give them extra opportunities, they can become very good engineers.”

Kane can relate to getting excited about engineering through hands-on experiments, as he says a childhood full of impromptu experiments helped guide his curiosity about and interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. 

“As a kid, I blew stuff up, I shocked myself, I burned out so many electronics, I can still smell the smoke,” he said. “But hands-on experiments get people — faculty and students — excited, and we need to have some projects like that in our curriculum.”

Kane also sees investing time and resources in undergraduate curriculum as beneficial to engineering education and research at all stages.

“If you inspire an undergraduate student, they may go on to grad school, and that helps with your research,” he said. “It’s all interconnected.”

The project will be implemented over several semesters. Kane said he hopes to build off this grant to receive future funding to continue to expand on the concept of interconnected curricula, whether it is within electrical engineering courses or even across related STEM fields. For him, the keystone of the curriculum redesign, more than illuminating the ways that class material is connected or the hands-on components, is getting students motivated.

“If you get a kid motivated, they can teach themselves all this stuff weirdly fast,” he said. “It’s 2021. They have access to resources that none of us ever had before. So we can’t keep educating like it’s 1995. They want to design new things, not just analyze old things. Our curriculum is good, but we can make it better.”

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Last Updated March 19, 2021