|Richard Schultz explores new approaches to teaching engineering graduate course|
Editors Note: Engineering, like medicine and science, is a notably challenging and competitive discipline: lots of math, interesting real-world problems, dauntingly complex textbooks, and a rigorously demanding curriculum. That's the conventional wisdom, and for most students, its also the reality of their engineering programs. But Richard Schultz, associate professor and chair of electrical engineering, says good engineering education doesn't have to be all classroom, textbook grind.
Schultz, who recently was awarded a three-year, $457,985 Defense EPSCoR grant titled "Real-Time Super-Resolution Automatic Target Recognition of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle-Based Reconnaissance and Surveillance Imagery," says there's a place for tradition in the engineering curriculum, but increasingly complex technologies also demand that students be encouraged to learn engineering concepts in new ways.
In the following Q&A with University Relations writer Juan Miguel Pedraza, Schultz, who has served on UND's graduate faculty committee and has been involved with the University's entrepreneurship education efforts, briefly talks about an upcoming controls engineering class that's set to break -- or at the very least update -- the standard engineering teaching model for a course that is very math intensive.
Q. What sets the engineering discipline apart from, say, history or English?
A. We're typically pretty rigid in engineering when it comes to lecturing and exams, and our classes are not generally discussion-oriented.
Q. You and School of Engineering and Mines Dean John Watson, who wants to see undergraduate engineering students do a lot more hands-on training early in their education, are traveling a new path in engineering -- maybe not quite the way of history or English -- but revolutionary as far as engineering students go. What's this all about?
A. We need to help students learn more real-world problem-solving. We can't do that with textbooks and lectures alone.
Q. So what is your recipe to address this challenge?
A. I'm teaching an advanced controls class this fall (Electrical Engineering) EE 505 Control Systems II without a textbook. It'll be an elective for seniors and graduate students who've already taken EE 405 Control Systems I, which is a requirement in UND's B.S. electrical engineering curriculum. Incidentally, Control Systems I is taught in a very conventional manner using lectures and exams, because it provides the fundamental theory for more practical problem-solving related to industrial controls and robotics.
(Editors Note: In control systems courses, students learn about electrical and/or electronic technology in a broad array of applications such as automotive cruise control, airplane autopilot systems, barcode readers, elevator controls, air conditioning and heating thermostats, and robotics.)
Q. If youre not going to use a textbook, what are you planning to do?
A. Students in this class will be prompted to Google the Net in search of answers to questions and problems posed in class. There will be lots of discussion about key R&D papers that describe working control systems designed and built by students at other universities, such as unmanned ground vehicles and aerial robotic helicopters.
Q. What drove you to try this innovative, nontraditional approach in an advanced engineering course?
A. I got inspired to do this partly after spending a week in June at the Babson-Olin Symposium for Engineering Entrepreneurship Educators with entrepreneurship guru Jeff Timmons of Babson College.
Timmons claims that within 10 years, virtually all knowledge will be on the Web. Maybe we should just use that resource rather than fight it.
A key example of not-by-the-book instruction is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Grand Challenge.
DARPA, the central research and development organization for the Department of Defense (DoD), created the challenge in response to a Congressional and DoD mandate to accelerate research and development in autonomous ground vehicles that will help save American lives on the battlefield. The Grand Challenge brings together academia, government, and industry in the pursuit of solving one of the most daunting technological challenges facing society today.
This project most certainly isnt just about classroom lecturing.
Q. What is the DARPA Grand Challenge?
A. This was a high-profile contest to design, build, and operate an unmanned ground vehicle capable of autonomously navigating difficult terrain that resulted in major advances in artificial intelligence. DARPA put together a really tough course in the middle of the desert, with the goal of having an autonomous vehicle finish it in a limited amount of time.
The DARPA Grand Challenge really promoted hands-on learning in the field, where teams of students took on the challenge and discovered that testing under real environmental conditions really drove their sensor, control, and software designs.
The Grand Challenge probably advanced the field of artificial intelligence more in five years than federal funding has accomplished in the previous 40.
Q. What's emerging here seems to be a new way of teaching engineering that may provide, if not exactly an alternative, then at the very least a strong supplement to traditional classroom teaching methods. Is this correct?
A. Yes, from my experience, engineering students really seem to learn best by doing, to see how to put resources together, to keep a team going, to stay within budget, and still meet end-user requirements. Students also feel gratified to learn that their profs don't have all the answers, and that we learn just as much from them as they learn from us, if we let them.