Convergence of Engineering and Allied Disciplines through Symbiotic Course-Pairs

Kavitha Chandra, University of Massachusetts-Lowell; Christopher Hansen, University of Massachusetts-Lowell; David Willis, University of Massachusetts-Lowell; Yanfen Li, University of Massachusetts-Lowell


Proposed Transformational Approach:

The proposed transformative engineering approach integrates core engineering knowledge with allied disciplines, which are defined as disciplines that promote student development of professional skills/dispositions (humanistic and meta knowledge). Specific skills/dispositions the program addresses will include: ethical reasoning, communication, leadership, meta-cognitive skills, creativity, cultural awareness and teamwork. Examples of allied disciplines for engineering students include: humanities, social sciences, arts, and management and entrepreneurship.

The initial phase of this approach supports the development of symbiotic courses in engineering and allied disciplines to promote real integration of knowledge sets. In this symbiotic course implementation, two traditional 3-credit courses — one from engineering and another from an allied discipline — will be paired concurrently into a single 6-credit course (or two 3-credit co-requisite courses) available to both engineering and allied disciplines major students. In these classes, teaming will require integration of students and faculty from different disciplines. This structure will retain the current curriculum pathways while reinforcing the required learning outcomes — for example a philosophy major would earn credits toward both ethics (major requirement) and a STEM breadth of knowledge requirement (allied discipline in this scenario).

The development of an integrated course will be guided via a template to ensure that meaningful and cross-cutting course connections are made. Faculty teaching these integrated courses will be expected to teach convergent content that benefits both engineering and allied discipline students who are enrolled. A student enrolled in a symbiotic course will explore course concepts in this integrated manner, through active learning in team projects, discussion, examples, and reflection.

Future phases may include extending this deliberate connection to broader applications, including math and sciences, research experiences, longer-term projects, and community service projects. Longer term, we envision the creation of flexible engineering degree pathways allowing students (and their advisors) to personalize courses of study across majors, with less rigid credit structures, that may include partial credit modules as well as shared projects rather than entirely integrated classes.

The Workshop Deliverables & Symbiotic Course Development Template:

Our team identified the process of combining cross-disciplinary courses as the most challenging aspect of the proposed transformation. As such, the symbiotic course development template presents a guide for proposed course development in the context of a traditional higher education institution

Goals of the Program

  • The overall goals of the transformational program will be to develop an appreciation of the relationship between engineering and allied disciplines:
    • Foundational knowledge – students will be able to:
      • Relate fundamental concepts/understandings from two disciplinary areas, their own and their allied discipline.
    • Meta Knowledge – students will be able to:
      • Structure cross-disciplinary knowledge sets to make decisions and create new meaning/ideas. This is necessary to ensure students appreciate the nexus of all disciplines involved.
    • Humanistic Knowledge – students will be able to:
      • Exhibit/demonstrate professional skills and dispositions in a broader context. This adaptability is necessary to be contributing agents in a future world.
    • STEM Knowledge – students will be able to:
      • Exhibit/demonstrate quantitative literacy and problem solving in a broader context. This literacy is necessary to be contributing agents in a future world.

Learning Outcomes

Considering a symbiotic A-B course pair for this example (each course integration would introduce additional outcomes).

  • Student Learning Outcome 1 [SO1]
    At the culmination of the symbiotic A-B course pair, students will be able to analyze integrated foundational-humanistic-meta considerations in practice.
  • Student Learning Outcome 2 [SO2]
    At the culmination of the the symbiotic A-B course pair, students will be able to prioritize (aspiration: value) integrated foundational-humanistic-meta considerations in practice.
  • Degree Program Student Learning Outcome 1 [PO1]
    At the end of the undergraduate program, students will be able to seamlessly recognize, assess and integrate meta and humanistic considerations into new engineering designs/activities.
  • Degree Program Student Learning Outcome 2 [PO2]
    At the end of the undergraduate program, students will recognize the importance of meta and humanistic considerations.
  • Faculty Learning Outcome 1 [FO1]
    Engineering and Humanities faculty teaching in the program will be able to create convergent learning experiences/environments to achieve student learning outcomes 1 & 2 and program outcomes 1 & 2.
  • Faculty Learning Outcome 2 [FO2]
    Faculty advisors will advocate the importance of humanistic, meta, and foundational knowledge.

Assessing Outcomes

We consider both student and faculty assessment. Since the goal is promote convergence across disciplines, the assessment presented is general.

Assessing Students

A series of possible assessment methods are presented below. We have marked specific outcomes in square brackets.

Formative Assessment of Students:

Participatory action research [SO1, SO2, PO2]: This assessment type would involve video/audio recording student conversations around “focus group activities” via student led/moderated or faculty scaffolded/primed topics. Transcripts would be assessed by faculty for student attainment of outcomes with feedback being given to students.

Assessing student active learning/responsive teaching via capturing activity [SO1, SO2, PO2]: This assessment type would involve capturing (video or audio) group activities to assess how well students are constructing knowledge, meaning and skills. This would include assessment of student prioritization of humanistic and meta knowledge in the context of the discipline.

Assessment of compiled student works (portfolio/project report rubrics) [SO1, SO2]:This assessment type would involve students constructing physical/electronic portfolios of project activity wherein humanistic, meta and disciplinary knowledge is synthesized and presented.

Concept mapping [SO1, SO2]:This assessment type would determine how well students are connecting disparate ideas and knowledge into a synthesized whole (e.g. a meta view of ethics + discipline).

Self reflection (individual and group) [SO1, SO2, PO2]: Students reflect upon their understanding, comfort with, and importance of humanistic, discipline and meta knowledge.

Note: In recognition of the added workload associated with these assessment types, we identified machine learning as a potential supporting technology in the transcription and analysis of video/audio recordings.

Summative Assessment of Students:

Senior Design Culminating Experience/Capstone/Senior Directed Study [PO1, PO2]: A senior project is an opportunity to incorporate humanistic and meta knowledge into a creative design where students from multiple disciplines contribute to the project.

Portfolios (i.e., collections of student work) [PO1, PO2]: Students will be encouraged to develop portfolios over their degree studies. These portfolios will be assessed for humanistic, meta and foundational knowledge.

Responsive Teaching Video Assessments [PO1, PO2]: The incorporation of humanistic and meta considerations as well as the student emphasis of this incorporation into the active learning process will be assessed.

Longterm Summative Survey Assessment [PO1, PO2]:A survey instrument will be developed to assess the longterm success and career trajectories/responsibilities.

Assessing Faculty:

Tracking Course Outcomes [FO1]: Evaluate and track whether students are achieving desired course learning outcomes and providing meaningful continuous improvement feedback.

Tracking Teaching and Learning Outcomes Rubric [FO1]: We will create a rubric to directly assess both the teaching, course outcomes and continuous improvement for a course.

Survey [FO1, FO2]: Motivation, experience, time investment, how is time focused (design, collaboration, etc.), active response to gaps in outcomes.

The faculty will take the history of formative and summative assessment data and analyze that for program improvement.

Additional Program Details

  • Program level: there are many allied disciplines (e.g., humanities, social sciences, business) which offer courses that could be integrated into a paired-course design. The goal for any implementation would be to identify a minimum of 4 symbiotic course pairings that would allow continuity throughout a student’s pathway. Examples might include:
    • Introduction to Engineering & College Writing I
    • Engineering Design Course & Ethics
    • Instrumentation Lab & College Writing II
    • Senior Capstone Experience and Entrepreneurship
  • Other possible course pairings are listed below:
    • Ethics + Quantitative Physiology
    • Technology and Society + Systems, Controls & Automation
    • Economics + Biomaterials
    • Economics + Manufacturing
    • Entrepreneurship + Intro to Biomedical Engineering
    • Entrepreneurial Product develop — Entrepreneurship & Design/Manufacturing
    • Project Life Cycle Management + Entrepreneurship & Applied Project Management
    • Math Methods (for engineers) and Music

Product: Symbiotic Course Development Questionnaire

Our approach begins with a questionnaire for faculty use to develop a paired-course design, in which an engineering course and an allied discipline course are paired and have students enrolled in both courses simultaneously.

Symbiotic Course Development Questionnaire

Kavitha Chandra, University of Massachusetts-Lowell; Christopher Hansen, University of Massachusetts-Lowell; David Willis, University of Massachusetts-Lowell; Yanfen Li, University of Massachusetts-Lowell

Our team developed a questionnaire to guide a symbiotic course-pair design to help facilitate faculty implementation of this transformational change. Symbiotic courses are those in which an engineering course and an allied discipline course are integrated and have students from both disciplines enrolled in both courses enrolled simultaneously.

We include here a reference to a publication describing a similar concept through an Olin College implementation: Pedagogical Fusion: Integration, student direction, and project-based learning in a Materials Science-History of Technology course block, J Stolk, R Martello – International Journal of Engineering Education, 2006

Questions to Guide the Development of Symbiotic Course Pair

The following questionnaire should be filled out by the instructor pair contemplating the development of a symbiotic course effort. The outcome of this process will be a decision on whether a course pair will be worth transitioning to the implementation stage.

  • Questions related to university structural issues:
    • Determine Scheduling Approach: Does the university scheduling system have the flexibility to deliver 6-credit courses? If not, can 2 x 3-credit courses be “hard” (i.e., required) co-requisites?
      • 6-credit course: These courses represent a complete merging of the learning experience — and are expected to by design implement the integrated knowledge experience. The course is co-taught by faculty from each discipline — with the intent that faculty will also have a valuable learning experience and increase cross-disciplinary confidence. The fully merged format provides instructors the freedom and flexibility to develop the course schedule as needed — allowing intense periods of focus within the course. The merged course also promotes greater integration due to removal of artificial “credit” or “course” boundaries. This approach may be more complicated to divide the disciplinary credits for accreditation purposes. This approach may also increase potential for conflict around course credit allocation between faculty as well as between departments.
      • 2 x 3-credit symbiotic courses: This implementation allows faculty to explore this concept without committing to a substantial structural redesign — independently scheduled courses and times maintain meeting times through the week. While the course delivery is discretely divided between the two disciplines, the expectation is that faculty will integrate the learning experience as completely as possible. The scheduling structure provides instructors less flexibility to creatively develop the course schedule to focus on topics in one discipline or another in blocks through the semester due to rigid schedules. This may also, inadvertently result in more siloed courses. This approach, however, also reduces challenges associated with assigning credit to faculty/programs/accreditation as well as determining fair distribution of content and time devoted to it.
      • Future thought: if this model were to take hold, then consideration of courses with flexible/alternative course credit compositions might become possible. For example, a 5-credit course comprised of 3 credits of humanistic knowledge and 2 credits of engineering knowledge. This sub-course credit level allocation would require breaking through additional barriers in the traditional higher ed environment.
    • Addressing increased time investment & effort with respect to development & teaching
      • Acknowledgement: Faculty should acknowledge that symbiotic courses by nature will require a greater faculty time-investment, especially during the design and development phases; however, there are intrinsic benefits to both students and faculty that may offset this. Faculty may want to also consult with their mentor/department head/dean to inform their intent and to determine whether this additional time investment will be supported and recognized.
      • Course personnel resources: Can the University provide additional personnel (learning assistants, teaching assistants, research assistants to pull in best-practices/study outcomes, etc.) to offset the increased workload related to initial development/design of symbiotic courses. Does the university offer course reductions for novel course development opportunities?
      • Course funding: Does the course require funds for materials and supplies or other resources? If so, can the faculty team/departments/colleges identify a source?
  • Questions related to managing cross-disciplinary relationships
    • What is the proposed distribution of teaching & departmental credit?
      • Do departmental/college/university academic leadership agree on the credit (re)distribution
      • Recognize that this may increase engineering “service-course” contributions to the university.
    • How might the allocation and distribution of faculty and financial resources impact inter-departmental/college relationships? Are there imbalances to be aware of?
    • Are there any prior inter-departmental/college relationships that need to be treated with care?
    • Is there a possible departmental cultural power dynamic/imbalance (e.g., does one discipline have the perception of greater institutional power/influence in the relationship)
    • Are there clear processes in place for dispute resolution across departmental/college boundaries? If not, how could the development of a who/how to resolve disputes be pioneered?
    • Physical location of classes: Are there potential challenges with where and when classes are held — i.e., different parts/locations on campus? How does this impact the balance of the relationship?
  • Questions related to enhancing the student experience
    • What are the processes for students to resolve team conflict? Particularly important is teaming across disparate disciplines.
    • Fostering inclusivity around disciplinary culture differences:
      • The faculty team should identify and discuss the different student cultures and ways of thinking in each discipline to promote an inclusive and positive learning environment.
      • Can the faculty team develop a shared vocabulary to facilitate teammate communication
    • How will assignments be developed to account for student work expectations of different disciplines?
      • Homework expectations (reading vs. problem solving)
      • Active participation in class activity
    • Consider identifying areas of mutual student interest
  • Questions related to pedagogical design of a symbiotic, convergent course
    • Content coverage and depth
      • Before starting to design learning activities, there should be clear student outcomes and level of depth reached in both disciplines
    • Alignment of course learning outcomes with learning activities
      • Consider using a backward design process to develop aligned learning activities and assessments.
    • Norms of learning: Instructors should be aware of, and incorporate, elements of norms of learning from both disciplines.
      • Examples: An engineering student may expect learning activities to include problem sets, binary outcome questions; whereas, a humanities student may expect learning activities to include readings and discussions.
    • Disparate underlying foundational knowledge in each discipline
      • Faculty should identify likely pre-requisite knowledge of students entering the course from different disciplines and consider strategies for student growth in their allied discipline.
    • Have the instructors discussed their preferred teaching styles and instructional strategies?
      • How will the course be developed to account for both instructors’ styles?
      • How will instructors discuss these strategies on an ongoing basis during the semester?
    • Have the instructors discussed their preferred assessment styles and strategies?
      • How will the course be assessed to account for both instructors’ styles?
    • Evaluation challenges: have the instructors considered a diverse and inclusive approach to evaluating student progress? This could include provision of opportunities to choose from multiple evaluation options associated with an assignment.
  • Questions related to effective instructor teaming 

Questions to Guide the Implementation of Symbiotic Course Pair

A future guide will be created for the instructor pair to fill out if, after the development questions are answered, they decide to implement a symbiotic course effort. The outcome of this process will be to implement the concrete steps necessary to create a course pair.

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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant #1935479: Workshop on the Substance of STEM Education. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.