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Sparking innovation in engineering education

October 14, 2009

Dean and faculty member taking roles in national academy’s effort to bolster country’s competitive edge in engineering and technology

Winslow Burleson is convinced that budding engineers and scientists could be better educated if colleges and universities gave them more opportunities to fail. He encourages “failing early and often.”

It may be the most effective way of helping novices overcome the fear of failure that is “a significant barrier to learning,” says the Arizona State University engineer.

Some of the world’s most successful people and leading experts have excelled precisely because they have failed again and again, he says.

He also thinks students would be better served by pushing them to strive for solutions to the most complex and difficult problems, rather than letting them settle for taking small steps toward easy goals.

Burleson is incorporating that philosophy into his development of “motivational environments” – using interactive educational technologies that foster “intrinsically motivated mixed-reality cyber learning experiences.”

Such innovative work and unconventional ideas have earned Burleson an invitation to the first Frontiers of Engineering Education Symposium, organized by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE).

He’ll be one of about 50 of “the nation's brightest young engineering researchers and educators” attending the Nov. 15-18 event near Washington, D.C., to share ideas and co-author a charter for implementing new educational approaches at their institutions.

Deirdre Meldrum, dean of the ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering and director of the Center for Ecogenomics at the university’s Biodesign Institute, is on the symposium’s seven-member planning committee, along with leaders from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, The Boeing Co., and the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Burleson and other participants were chosen to participate from a highly competitive pool of applicants nominated by fellow engineers or deans.

"We want the young engineers involved in the Frontiers of Engineering Education program to become forceful agents of change in exploring and inventing new and effective teaching and learning approaches,” Meldrum says.

“It will require exceedingly well-educated and creative engineers to maintain our nation’s competitive edge globally in the coming decades,” she says. “That makes it critically important to find ways of improving engineering education.”

NAE leaders want to expand the endeavor beyond the university level.  Meldrum says fostering awareness of the importance of engineering, and recruiting and retaining the best students, “means this advancement of innovative teaching has to reach into elementary schools, high schools and life-long learning programs.”

Burleson is an assistant professor of human-computer interaction in the School of Computing, Informatics and Decision Systems Engineering, a part of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

He also is on the graduate faculty of the School of Arts, Media and Engineering, a partnership of the engineering schools and ASU’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts.

He is integrating engineering, science, design, entrepreneurship and industry collaboration in developing a learning-by-doing approach that couples classroom education with students’ exposure to research pursuits.

The overarching goal is to more fully prepare students “to pursue and excel at highly ambitious and profoundly meaningful activity,” he says.

He sees his work as one example of “radically transforming the university in ways that Dean Meldrum and others at ASU are calling for.  It’s about broadening of minds and making the next generation of engineers capable of facing society’s biggest technological challenges, and succeeding.”

The National Academy of Engineering is an independent, nonprofit institution that serves as an adviser to government and the public on issues in engineering and technology.

Its members consist of the nation's premier engineers, who are elected by their peers for their distinguished achievements. Established in 1964, NAE operates under the congressional charter granted to the National Academy of Sciences in 1863.