This paper describes a team's efforts to transform the educational experience for electrical and computer engineering (ECE) students by demonstrating the importance of mathematics and the power of mathematical thinking. Math is a mainstay in ECE education. A holistic understanding of ECE concepts is highly dependent on students' grasp of key topics in mathematics, yet students are often intimidated by the mathematics required for the major and struggle to see why math matters. The dismal consequence is that students lack motivation and confidence, and eventually abandon the major.
In 2015, the ECE department received a five-year RED (Revolutionizing Engineering Departments) grant from the National Science Foundation to revamp the current engineering educational system. Performing research that leads to scalable and sustainable change in engineering education, the department is, in effect, throwing away courses to help students learn more meaningfully and effectively. The new pedagogical and organizational model treats the undergraduate degree as a complex system, giving consideration to the interconnectivity and integration of fundamental concepts across the program. This holistic approach emphasizes knowledge integration and weaves key threads (creativity, foundations, and professionalism) throughout the curriculum, stitching together and reinforcing relevant themes from the freshman to senior years.
With the goal of showing students why math is critical to becoming a successful engineer, this paper focuses on the foundations thread of the RED project. Even though the foundations thread encompasses topics in both math and science, this paper shines a light on mathematics and the role it plays in retention. The paper highlights the importance of the foundations "thread champion," a newly assigned role held by a faculty member who teaches subjects in the technical core of the ECE junior year and holds a joint faculty appointment in the Department of Mathematics. Working in concert with a Graduate Teaching Fellow, the thread champion and fellow faculty are garnering interest and building motivation by showing students that almost every calculation they perform is critical to solving real-world engineering problems. Whether putting a problem into the context of an engineering application such as the smart phone, or highlighting the fascinating history of mathematics, this paper explains the process the team is using to demonstrate why math matters – now and in the future. The team will know they are successful when students begin to view courses such as calculus as a building block for deeper learning instead of a subject to endure and disregard.
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