October 2022


Guest Editor Letter

Hard Lessons: What can we learn from recent events?

By: Badri Roysam, University of Houston

Dear ECEDHA Members, Industry Partners, and Colleagues,

The firing of distinguished Adjunct Professor Maitland Jones Jr. brings up a multitude of issues and concerns and potentially offers valuable lessons for all high-rigor disciplines, especially ECE. Most, if not all of the background factors relating to this event, especially the mismatch between faculty expectations of students and vice versa, are applicable to all universities. It is widely believed that the pandemic likely served to accentuate a gap that has been growing slowly for several decades.

Two questions stand out:

  1. How can department heads ensure student success in this complex and dynamic era that is so beset with new challenges?
  2. Are there new opportunities lurking alongside these challenges that can help us tackle these challenges?

Background: A Rapidly Changing World

We live in a complex and dynamic new world. With major geopolitical crises unfolding on a daily basis, it is fair to infer that the "ECE supportive" post-WW2 world order that we have all taken for granted for most of our careers may be changing in a tectonic manner, perhaps accelerated/precipitated by the pandemic, directly or indirectly.

While the dimensions of the changes may not become apparent for many years, some things are reasonably clear.

First, we can expect a massive increase in demand for engineering graduates, especially ECE graduates. We are witnessing the beginnings of a fresh growth phase for defense and civilian engineering and manufacturing that is needed to cope with the new world dangers. This is exacerbated by a tight supply of foreign-born students, due to attractive alternate opportunities for new graduates in their home economies, and a continued immigration bottleneck in the US. We are already witnessing massive increases in new employee salaries accompanied by large sign-up bonuses. This appears to be a durable trend, rather that a flash in the plan, due to the dramatic in-shoring of engineering and manufacturing opportunities that has begun, with or without massive federal initiatives like the recently enacted 2022 CHIPS and Science Act. This increased demand will place added pressure to help students graduate in a timely manner.

Second, the pipeline of incoming students has become more varied and generally less prepared in mathematics and science compared to earlier generations. This is not a temporary phenomenon that we can ignore, or wish away. The entire educational pipeline from K-12 to the post-baccalaureate has been impacted by the pandemic, and the ripple effects will continue to be felt for many years into the future. This is also a global phenomenon since almost every country has been impacted by the pandemic, albeit in different ways. What this means is that it is fair to expect students to be less prepared for undergraduate and graduate courses compared to previous generations of students.

There are new types of resources available. First, online instruction has transitioned from an era led by a small number of elite institutions that invested heavily in new technologies and instructional designers, to a much more democratized, and routinely-used teaching modality that is at the disposal of rank-and-file faculty members in universities worldwide. Faculty members routinely and effortlessly use a combination of online and in-person instructional methods without the expectation of special financial or staff support. Second, textbooks have evolved from static paperbound volumes to free electronic documents that can be viewed and annotated on tablet computers. The next evolution of textbooks is a new generation of dynamic websites (e.g., Zybooks) replete with visual animations of concepts, step-by-step explanations of problem solutions, and built-in automated grading of student effort and learning. As always, we can reasonably expect these electronic resources to grow in terms of sophistication and effectiveness.

Retaining Rigor with the Changed Student Pipeline

Most universities have their version of Professor Jones – experienced faculty members whose expectations of student background knowledge/skills/attitudes may have, over time, diverged from the abilities and learning attitudes of current-generation students. Equally, the current generation of students brings a new set of learning attitudes and capabilities to the classroom and their expectations of instructors are also changing.

The "pipeline" of students that populates our rigorous math and science-intensive ECE courses stretches all the way from K-12 schools to be the first- and second-year university-level core courses. Recently, there has also been a growth in transfer students from two-year community colleges and foreign schools with varying standards. There is abundant opportunity for a reduction in rigor to have occurred over time, and/or during the pandemic. In summary, the current body of students may have weaker fundamentals overall, and the degree of weakness is also variable.

These weaknesses cannot be addressed by our faculty alone. It is too late, and there is too little time available. Our "Professor Joneses" and our universities are left to bear the burden of adapting to the students we have, and finding fresh ways to provide the level of rigor that is expected. Unfortunately, once a student is on campus and the semester is in full swing, there is simply not enough time to correct the varied deficiencies in the student body. This is especially true for students who must work jobs to earn their way through college, and students with learning disabilities.

Creating Faculty and Student Awareness

A first step towards tackling the student under-preparedness problem is to create faculty awareness of the problem. While our most nimble faculty members have already identified the problem and developed solutions, it is reasonable to expect the less-experienced faculty to need help. Department chairs can perform a valuable service by communicating with the faculty on this topic. Once the faculty are made aware of the problem, they will be able to craft solutions that are appropriate for the respective courses that they are scheduled to teach.

An equally important step is to make students aware of what background knowledge is expected. Interestingly, students typically overestimate their background knowledge. It is distressingly common for students to read a section of the textbook and (falsely) feel like they adequately understand the topic. We have all seen this dangerous illusion in action, especially after an Exam. Simply alerting students to the fact that they need to actually attempt, and successfully solve problems to verify their understanding goes a low way toward helping students come better prepared. The only reliable way for students to achieve an accurate self-assessment and avoid illusions is to attempt a quiz and check their scores.

Advance Preparation is Key

Once awareness of student preparedness has been established, the faculty will need to provide some easily accessible resources (e.g., an online course) to fill the gaps. The practical goal is to ensure that students attending a lecture are sufficiently fluent in the background topics for the lecture. 

The two main challenges are providing learning content and making time.

  1. Providing Content: Far too many students buy or download their textbooks just before or after classes have started. This is often too late. Many students fall behind and need to devote numerous hours of study to catch up with the course. Simply asking students to obtain their textbooks during the break (the cost is the same) and spending some time getting to know the topics in advance sets them up for a much better semester experience. Perhaps the best advice is to ask students to study chapters 1 and 2 during the breaks. Given that the vast majority of engineering topics can only be learned effectively by doing, e.g., solving problems with paper and pencil, and conducting experiments, rather than mere reading, encouraging students to actually work through the problems in Chapters 1 and 2, is likely to set the stage for a successful start of the semester.
  2. Making Time: As noted earlier, once a semester is underway, there is simply not enough time for a student to catch up on background knowledge adequately. Here are some ideas:
    1. Utilizing the gaps between the long semesters. The Summer and Winter breaks offer welcome opportunities for rest and recuperation for students and faculty alike. They also offer opportunities for some students to catch up on essential background knowledge for the upcoming semester. Simply alerting the students to the instructor's expectations and providing self-learning and review resources (books, websites, online lectures, quizzes, etc., as appropriate) is a helpful first step. This is not as time-consuming as many students may fear – a couple of hours a day of advance study pays off handsomely.
    2. In-semester just-in-time just-sufficient preparation: Asking students to study in advance for each lecture is perhaps the most important step. This preparation can be ensured using electronic textbooks that provide built-in automatically graded testing, for example, Zybooks. A student who is at least partially conversant with a topic will better understand the instructor's lecture, ask better questions, and importantly, better understand the instructor's answers. Implementing this simple but powerful idea merely requires that instructors provide students with a sufficiently accurate schedule of lectures for the entire semester in advance.

We hope these suggestions are helpful to your faculty and students. As always, we welcome your feedback and comments. Importantly, we welcome short articles from ECE department heads on topics of broad interest to our community.

Best Wishes,

Badri Roysam, D.Sc., Fellow IEEE, Fellow AIMBE
Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen University Professor
Chair, Electrical & Engineering Department
University of Houston
Houston, Texas 77204-4005
Phone: 713-743-1773
Email: broysam@uh.edu