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Portrait of Anna Liuzzo in her school classroom.

Published April 2, 2019

GSE receives grant to improve engineering education

New Department of Engineering Education takes leadership role

Randy Yerrick, professor from the Department of Learning and Instruction, and Andrew Olewnik, an adjunct assistant professor from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, have received a two-year grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to help engineering students become better problem solvers. The grant also helps students connect their coursework and their professional preparation, and GSE will measure whether the project has lasting effects.

Yerrick and Olewnik recall instances when an outstanding student would complete a successful internship, but not do well in a corporate interview due to the lack of professional competencies, such as working on a team, time management and communication. Their research grant aims to help the students solve these professional, in-the-field problems.

This grant gives engineering students a way to recognize the nature and structure of a problem to be solved, then apply an appropriate method or set of strategies that fits the problem they face, rather than a pre-existing formula that’s too narrow in its applications. “Very few problems in the world, engineering or otherwise, are limited to one discipline,” said Olewnik. “We have this opportunity to give authentic problems to students as part of their academic experiences.”

GSE’s role is to help design the intervention and assessment measures to determine whether the new educational programs for engineers are accomplishing their goals. “Designing high-quality social and behavioral research is not as easy as most people think,” said Yerrick. “Design is as important in educational research as it is in engineering.” Yerrick also emphasizes that the faculty in GSE have significant expertise in designing educational research studies, and assessing the effectiveness of innovation in the field of pedagogy.

“We in GSE love these opportunities to work in an interdisciplinary fashion, as we learn from each other how to ‘raise all ships with the tide,’” said Yerrick. “Our two deans work very closely together and share many of the same goals.” According to Carl Lund, SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor and chair of the new Department of Engineering Education at UB, there is a great opportunity with engineering education to make a real national impact, as there are only a few formal engineering education departments in the nation.

“The predominant approach in engineering education involves lectures and homework,” Lund said. “Lectures typically present information and illustrate how to use that information to perform engineering tasks and homework, then allows students to practice using the information they learned.” Lund further explains that this approach helps show students what to do and how to do it, but it fails to show students how to recognize what they need to do for a problem when it is encountered in a context different from that lecture and a follow-up homework assignment.

The NSF grant of nearly $200,000 will support GSE researchers in evaluating the new engineering education program and help design a study that measures what engineering administrators would like to be measured. Yerrick and Olewnik are hopeful that students will grow professionally at UB to prepare them to be real engineers after their internship experience and coursework preparation.

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