New first-year program is re-engineered for student success

Featured in the latest issue of Thorough magazine: The University of Saskatchewan College of Engineering is seeking to create the most effective first-year program in Canada.

The University of Saskatchewan (USask) College of Engineering is seeking to create the most effective first-year engineering program in Canada. Dubbed “RE-ENGINEERED,” it will welcome its first students in fall 2021.

When that happens, it will mark the end of a process that began in 2016.

“We asked ourselves, ‘What if we started from a blank piece of paper? How would we do it?’ ” says Associate Professor Dr. Sean Maw, one of the leaders of the team transforming USask Engineering’s first-year program.

Today’s engineering grads need a more robust and diverse skill set than ever before. But for the most part, engineering education hasn’t fundamentally changed in 100 years or longer, according to Maw, the Jerry G. Huff Chair in Innovative Teaching and a faculty member of the Graham School of Professional Development in the USask College of Engineering.

The team looked at curriculum and also focused on better supporting students’ mental and physical health, while keeping them excited about engineering and giving them a solid foundation for upper-years courses. As they built the program, designers were informed by extensive consultation with faculty and students, as well as research on effective instruction, principles for teaching and learning in higher education, and practices that support student success.

The RE-ENGINEERED curriculum was made possible by Ron and Jane Graham, whose generous donation allowed the hiring of a new team of engineering education specialists to develop the curriculum. As the program is implemented, many alumni continue to support equipment and software costs through gifts to the Engineering Advancement Trust. 

RESTRUCTURED for student learning and wellness

While engineering students currently have five or six courses that run the length of the semester, RE-ENGINEERED classes will vary in length and intensity, with material sequenced so when students learn knowledge in one course, they can immediately apply it in another. “Think of TV shows that have crossovers. It’s going to be like that with the courses,” says Maw.

“We will also be pacing things better,” he added, noting that the team of first-year instructors will communicate regularly and co-ordinate assessments so students won’t have one jam-packed week followed by another in which they have nothing due.   

First-years will also have a consistent schedule with a common lunch hour so it will be easier for them to schedule community-building extra-curriculars and social events, or simply fit in a workout. “This predictability is good for mature students, people who are working in the evening and for those who have a family,” says Maw.

Optional help sessions are also built into each day, so students can work with their peers and get help from teachings assistants on specific topics.

REVITALIZED curriculum for a stronger foundation

The first difference is the addition of online Summer Top Up courses, so students can identify and address any gaps from their high school classes – including chemistry, math and physics – before starting first-year. In fact, the college rolled out Summer Top Ups in 2020, a year earlier than planned, because in-person learning ended abruptly for Grade 12 students as the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Thanks to the inclusion of shorter courses in RE-ENGINEERED, a broader range of material will be covered, making students more employable after their first year. For example, content covered in students’ first semester, in addition to basics like mechanics and electrical circuits, will include:

  • Introduction to the profession and communication
  • Calculus; linear algebra, applied to engineering problems
  • Short courses in chemistry, biology, physics and geology and how they relate to engineering
  • Indigenous cultural foundation
  • Design; drawing and sketching; computer-aided design
  • Computer programming (Python and Matlab)
  • One-day labs introducing students to each of the engineering disciplines

Early in the program, students will also learn about peer teaching, so they will be equipped with the tools to help each other during their program.

“The best way to learn is to actually teach the concepts. We think it will have a powerful impact on the way students work together,” says Joel Frey, an assistant professor who is jointly appointed to the Graham School and the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

As well, an Indigenous cultural contextualization course will be taught during the first month of the program.

“We want all of our engineering students to understand the unique relationships that exist in Canada and certainly within Saskatchewan. The U of S, especially on Treaty 6 Territory and the Homeland of the Métis, has a unique place in the world,” says Frey, who with Maw and assistant engineering professor Shaobo Huang, led design of the RE-ENGINEERED program.

REFOCUSED grading to build a stronger foundation

Students won’t find the work easier, says Maw, but the environment will be more supportive. Although there are no final exam periods, students will be tested on modules of content throughout their courses using competency-based assessment, something pretty new for Canadian engineering education. The final exam periods in December and April will be used for discipline-specific, hands-on learning. 

The idea is to ensure students have a stronger foundation in the basics they’ll need for the rest of their degree. For instance, they will need to achieve a mark of at least 70 per cent on material involving facts, concepts, basic computations, and procedural steps, as well as basic integrative problems in the course. There will be no minimum standard for the very advanced material. “They have to do pretty well on the foundational material. If they don’t do well on an early test of a learning outcome, they will get a second or third chance to do better,” Maw says.

Overall, it will be a more constructive environment for learning. 

“We want to minimize the academic attrition by supporting the students better and by co-ordinating what we’re doing across the courses better. It won’t be easier, but it will be more supportive and thorough,” says Maw.

It will also ensure students have the information they need to determine if they’re making the right career choice.

“If they know what engineering’s about and they know what the related sciences are about earlier, they can make a better decision earlier whether engineering is for them.”

The overall goal will be preparing a stronger crop of USask Engineering grads.

"There are really no finals?"

Competency-based assessment helps students acquire key skills, without high-stakes exams

Competency-based assessment was piloted in the GE 124 Statics course during the 2020-21 academic year.

Competency-based assessment, or CBA, is a pillar of the RE-ENGINEERED first-year program, Though CBA has been used in medical and teacher education, it is new for engineering education in Canada and its implementation at USask is being observed with interest.

At the June 2021 Canadian Engineering Education Association (CEEA) conference, USask Engineering presented the paper Lessons Learned from Using Competency Based Assessment (CBA) in a First Year Engineering Statics Course, which related its experience piloting CBA in an online GE 124 Statics course in 2020-21. It was awarded Best Engineering Education Practice paper at the conference.

These are some of the key points from the paper, authored by Sean Maw, Shaobo Huang, Duncan Cree, Glyn Kennell, and Wendy James. Read the full CEEA paper here.

Assessment in a typical Canadian undergraduate engineering course

In most courses, classic summative assessments are used: assignments, quizzes, mid-terms and final exams; grade weightings are applied to each assessment, e.g., the final exam is worth 50 percent of the course grade.

These traditional assessment methods do not clearly distinguish between skills or understandings that a student is proficient with, in comparison to those where they may have gaps. 

For instance, the final exam grade gives an overall picture of performance. However, for mid-range grades, it is not immediately clear what has been learned or how well it has been learned. In addition, many skills or processes are only assessed once in traditional models, and if a student does not understand something, the course (and the student) moves on.

Using a competency-based system

Determining what students need to learn

Once overall goals for a program are agreed upon, each course is closely examined through the lens of what is essential for students to know and do so they can be successful in later courses or in the profession. These competencies are written as learning outcomes (LOs) and can include knowledge, concepts, skills, and processes.

Structuring the assessments

In the case of the GE 124 pilot, the CBA version of the course was broken into three modules, each with a module test, superficially similar to a midterm, and there was no cumulative final exam. 

Within the modules, the assignments, quizzes, labs, and module tests consisted of questions and exercises that addressed a variety of the course’s learning outcomes (LOs).

The LOs were assigned weights within the overall course grade, as opposed to assigning weights to the assessments themselves (labs, mid-terms, final), as would happen in a conventional course.

Students could overcome poor performances in early assessments of LOs, as better later results on the same LOs would replace their earlier lower results.  A key feature of this approach was that students had at least two and typically three or more opportunities to exhibit competence with respect to the course’s LOs.

Another key aspect of this CBA implementation was dividing the course material into three levels or types.  Type A materials were the most basic building blocks of the course i.e., basic definitions, calculations, and concepts. Type B materials were basic integrative problems e.g., solving a basic 2D or 3D particle or rigid body equilibrium question, or solving a basic truss.  Type C materials were advanced or tricky integrative problems that probed deeper understanding and required more adaptive problem solving. 

Students were required to demonstrate a minimal level of competency in the LOs in order to pass the course. Specifically, they had to pass all of the Type A materials and achieve a weighted average of at least 70% on Type B materials. They did not have to meet any performance standard for the Type C materials.

How it went

Based on the experience gained, it is believed that CBA is feasible and likely has tangible benefits in a large-class first year engineering context in Canada.  Challenges are present, but they appear to be manageable.  As expected, staff workload is the primary challenge.  However, the flexibility in the system can work well for accommodating life challenges that students may experience and evidence suggests they appreciate the forgiving nature inherent in CBA.  It is also inherently fairer in that it gives students more time to show they can do the work required of them.

While this is only anecdotal evidence, three of the instructors had taught GE 124 before, multiple times, and they were all in agreement that the quality of the final work in each module was superior to final exam results of past years.