How we began

Research Initiation in Engineering Formation (RIEF)

The NSF Engineering (ENG) Directorate has launched a multi-year initiative, the Professional Formation of Engineers, to create and support an innovative and inclusive engineering profession for the 21st Century. Professional Formation of Engineers (PFE) refers to the formal and informal processes and value systems by which people become engineers. It also includes the ethical responsibility of practicing engineers to sustain and grow the profession. The engineering profession must be responsive to national priorities, grand challenges, and dynamic workforce needs; it must be equally open and accessible to all.

Engineering faculty possess both deep technical expertise in their engineering discipline and the primary responsibility for the process of professional formation of future engineers. As such, engineering faculty are in a unique position to help address critical challenges in engineering formation. The Professional Formation of Engineers: Research Initiation in Engineering Formation (PFE: RIEF) program enables engineering faculty who are renowned for teaching, mentoring, or leading educational reform efforts on their campus to initiate collaborations with colleagues in the social and/or learning sciences to address difficult, boundary-spanning problems in the professional formation of engineers.

Using Digital Badging and Design Challenge Modules to Develop Professional Identity

NSF Org: Engineering Education and Centers (EEC)

NSF Award Number: 1544233

Students entering engineering schools generally have a very limited understanding of what engineers do in their careers. Students often do not know the interesting work that lies ahead, hence they may drop out of engineering when they encounter the difficult math and science courses in their early years in college. This dropout rate disproportionately impacts those underrepresented in engineering because they may not have family members who are engineers and who can help them gain an appreciation for engineering careers. To address this problem, the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering (CBE) at the University of New Mexico (UNM), which serves a very diverse population, is introducing 'Design Challenge Modules' in two core classes. These design challenges will originate from research projects in the department, from local industry, from national laboratories, and from the community. Community engagement is critically important for attracting diverse, native, and rural populations into engineering. The department is also piloting the use of digital badges - much like merit badges - which allow students to publically display their credentials and connect what they are learning to the professional work of engineers. The badges also enable faculty to monitor and assess student outcomes and to engage in research on their teaching. The project is directed by a team that includes the chair of the CBE department, one lecturer in CBE, and a faculty member from the Learning Sciences.

This project addresses the significant decrease in the fraction of minority and non-traditional students at UNM in the graduating class, compared to the students in the freshman engineering class. The team is testing the hypothesis that compelling design challenges introduced early in the curriculum will help increase the fraction of students matriculating into the chemical engineering department. Research and societal challenges will be introduced into the classroom because their value in terms of enhancing the motivation and learning of students is unquestionable. It is well known that there is significant attrition in engineering during the first two years, especially at urban institutions that serve a diverse population. Design challenges in the freshmen and sophomore classes could help enhance the motivation and learning of the diverse student population and contribute to student success. Local industry will participate in presenting the design challenges, encouraging entrepreneurial thinking. Engagement in the communities will further support improved recruitment and retention. The project will also test the use of a digital badging system to monitor student accomplishments. Digital badges support students to see the program as coherent and to connect what they are learning in their classes to the work of professional engineers, supporting them to develop professional identities as engineers. The project is guided by a research framework that involves a mixed methods design that first establishes a baseline for students' design process skills, understanding of design, and intent to persist. Case studies of students' experiences provide deeper understanding of how particular aspects of the program foster professional engineering identity formation and intent to persist, particularly for students traditionally underrepresented in engineering. Regression modeling is used to predict students' intent to persist and the degree to which their solutions to design challenges are viewed as innovative. The project contributes new understanding of how to engage faculty to support diverse students to be successful in engineering. It will lead to sustained change in the teaching of core chemical engineering classes including the ability to prepare diverse engineers ready to solve the challenges of tomorrow. The design challenge modules and digital badges are transferrable to many intermediate to large institutions.