New grad program: Engineering Education Research

New program turns a researcher’s eye on engineering education in the service of better teaching, learning and diversity at U-M and beyond.

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Active learning techniques help students to form a deeper connection with course concepts. Photo: Evan Dougherty, Michigan Engineering Communications & Marketing

A new graduate program at the College of Engineering will bring together its twin missions: education and research. The Engineering Education Research program will identify strategies to improve teaching and learning in engineering, to diversify STEM education and the engineering workforce, and to design solutions to the nation’s toughest engineering education challenges. The inaugural class will begin in the fall of 2018.

Graduate programs in engineering education research are an emerging national trend. Most programs are housed in a stand-alone unit, but U-M intends to improve on the models of its predecessors by hiring program faculty who will conduct engineering education research while being embedded within engineering departments.

“This really means that our research will be well-integrated into the departments,” said Cynthia Finelli, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science with a joint appointment in the school of education, who will direct the new program. “Students will have better opportunities for research, and we’ll be able to work more directly with engineering disciplines to see our work come to fruition.”

The graduate students, who must have at least a master’s degree in engineering, will be able to earn master of science and doctor of philosophy degrees in engineering education research. Finelli anticipates that many graduates will go on to teach as faculty members in engineering departments around the country, in engineering disciplines as well as in engineering education. They could also take positions as instructors, researchers, or professional staff in universities or national laboratories, as educators in K12 systems or informal education settings, and as advocates or staffers at federal agencies or foundations bringing a nuanced perspective to public policy surrounding STEM education.

Our new engineering education research program can help translate research findings to practice.

Cynthia Finelli

Engineering education research is particularly important for identifying and addressing issues such as why higher proportions of women and underrepresented minorities switch to non-engineering disciplines or find themselves at a disadvantage in science and engineering courses.

“Research shows that sometimes women and underrepresented minorities leave engineering not because they aren’t qualified, but because they don’t see how course material would apply in real life, they are turned off by the plain lecture style of their courses, or they never connected with the faculty,” said Finelli.

“We know that, besides improving learning for all students, using active learning and real-world applications in the classroom can help retain these students. And we also know a lot about mentoring practices that can help support a diverse student body at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. We hope that our new engineering education research programs can help translate these research findings to practice.”

U-M is considered an excellent environment for engineers who want to become top-notch educators and researchers, with the college of engineering, school of education, and psychology programs all nationally renowned. Finelli plans to leverage these strengths through a curriculum that includes established courses across the university and new courses to be developed especially for this program.

Other faculty members who will teach the new program include: Shanna Daly, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering; Aileen Huang-Saad, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering; Joi Mondisa, an assistant professor of industrial and operations engineering; and Lisa Lattuca, a professor of higher education in the school of education with a joint appointment in the college of engineering. Finelli is also the founding director of the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching in Engineering.