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Professor helps revolutionize engineering education

May 25, 2010

A five-year project that is exploring how personal motivation and a vision of the future affect students’ abilities to make connections between their college coursework and career goals recently received a supplemental $120,529 award from the National Science Foundation (NSF), in addition to a previous $711,437 in NSF funding. The additional funding covers the training and support of undergraduate research assistants in the lab.

The research study called “Career: Connecting with the Future: Supporting Identity and Career Development in Post-secondary Science and Engineering” tracks engineering students through their undergraduate coursework to examine motivation, self-regulation and their sense of their own future.

Jenefer Husman, associate professor at ASU and one of the nation’s leading researchers on future time perspective, has discovered that “future thinking” is linked to a student’s decision to stay or leave engineering studies.

“When students enter engineering, they don’t necessarily understand what it means to be an engineer, that engineering is a discipline with roles and norms,” Husman said. “We want to target those students who may not feel connected to engineering in their future and help them develop that sense of what it means to be an engineer as part of their individual identity.”

Meanwhile, Husman is a key player in another project to develop what the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has described as a “revolutionary approach” to teaching aeronautical engineering. Valana Wells, an associate professor of aerospace engineering, is leading NASA-funded work to modernize teaching in aeronautical education to incorporate the use of computational tools for aircraft analysis that weren’t available when many of today’s textbooks were written.

These software tools introduce basic engineering concepts by enabling students to use computer simulations to evaluate airfoils, wings, aircraft dynamic behavior and flight control. It’s a more interesting and engaging approach than the traditional method, which begin with teaching mathematical derivations of general theories, and leaving practical applications for later. The new teaching methods were first implemented in an Aerodynamics class (MAE 360) last fall and are now part of Aircraft Dynamics and Control (MAE 313).

Wells’ co-investigators for the project are Kyle Squires, director of the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy, and Praveen Shankar, a lecturer in the school. Husman is evaluating the courses to determine the effectiveness of the new teaching approaches for students.

“In engineering, we tend to think about the math and problem-solving rather than how to teach someone to do the math and problem-solving,” Wells said. “Jenefer helps us to think about how to teach people to teach themselves in a field of technology that is changing all the time.”

Wells and Squires say Husman brings a wealth of new and innovative ideas to the project, titled “Comprehensive Transformation of Junior-year Aeronautics Instruction.”

“Jenefer gives us creative ideas about styles and pedagogy – the psychology of learning,” Squires said. “She has given us a glimpse of the forefront of research in education, and that has stimulated our thinking on how to train our Ph.D. students. They’re learning communication and approaching problems from a different angle than would have traditionally been the case.”

Written by Lori K. Baker