Big guns advise on engineering education

24 October 2006

Engineering education at UCT came under the spotlight at a recent workshop hosted by the Centre for Research in Engineering Education (CREE).

The workshop, Enhancing Engineering Education, was the second of two that looked at improving the retention of first-year engineering (and science) students and engaging students by active learning strategies. The first was hosted by the University of Pretoria at the end of September.

Both workshops were presented by Professor Raymond Landis, dean emeritus of engineering, computer science and technology at California State University in the US, and Professor Jeffery Froyd, research professor in the Centre for Teaching Excellence and director of academic development in the Dwight Look College of Engineering at Texas A&M University.

Engineering education has become of particular interest to several national ministries and initiatives of late, including the Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative for South Africa and the Joint Initiative for Priority Skills Acquisition. The Department of Education recently announced substantial extra funding for four faculties to enhance the output of engineering graduates, including the UCT engineering and the built environment faculty. But producing professional engineers in South Africa has its own challenges.

"The interest in engineering education began seriously years ago when we had to deal with black students coming from Department of Education and Training schools with good matric marks who struggled to cope in our demanding engineering programmes," says Professor Duncan Fraser, a member of CREE and assistant dean for academic development in the engineering faculty.

This prompted the introduction of the Academic Support Programme for Engineering in Cape Town (ASPECT) at UCT in 1988, and the induction of new engineering curricula in 1995. The ASPECT programme spreads the normal four-year load over five years (by starting with a two-thirds load in the first year), with ASPECT students getting personal and academic support in the form of workshops, tutorials, additional lectures and counselling by ASPECT staff primarily in their first year.

"Despite all these efforts, we still find the success rate of black students is lagging behind that of white students, in all our engineering disciplines," says Fraser. "Besides this, the success rates of all our students are low, even the white students."

At the workshops, Landis' focus fell on teaching delegates pedagogical approaches to improve academic performance and the retention of first-year students.

"I believe there is a shift in engineering education from the traditional 'sink or swim' paradigm to a 'student development' paradigm," Landis said.

A second part of the workshops concentrated on different teaching methods - active learning, co-operative learning, problem-based learning and inquiry-guided learning. Froyd encouraged attendees to learn from each other's method-implementation experiences.

The workshops were organised by CREE, the University of Pretoria and the Committee on Capacity Building of the World Federation of Engineering Organisations.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Please view the republishing articles page for more information.