The ExCEllence in Senior Design Mini-Workshop: A Report and Call to Action
L. Overzet (UTD), D. Aguirre (UTD), J. Bredow (UTA), J. Hansen (UTD), R. Jordan (UNM), S. Newsom (UTD), T. Paillier (Würth Elektronik), J. Post (ERAU), A. Shrivastava (UTD), N. Skinner (UTD), M. Tacca (UTD), R. Wetterskog (UTD)
It was on April 21st of 2020 that we found ourselves forced to postpone the 2nd ExCEllence in Senior Design (ESD) Showcase. Everyone in the leadership of this event knew it had to be done, and everyone was upset about it too. One of the members of the founding committee inspired us all when he exclaimed: “We cannot allow the momentum we’ve developed to be lost!” He was talking about momentum developed in ECEDHA’s SW region. That “momentum” derived from and lives in a rather simple concept. One which seems to have been misplaced when it comes to our senior design programs. ECE departments are better, both individually and collectively, as we collaborate. It was momentum towards collaboration – between schools – that moved us all and still does. We hope that this vision, this momentum, can spread outside the SW region, too. ECEDHA is the right organization to further that collaboration. The ESD Showcase may be a good vehicle to encourage it.
In a prior article, we described the 1st ExCEllence in Senior Design (ESD) Showcase. In brief: we argued that the “excitement and thrill of ECE is not put out in front of us nearly as often and poignantly as it could be – as it ought to be.” We need, as a discipline, to better “highlight the multifaceted, widely varying and absolutely astounding array of things which ECEs get to do”. Nothing does that like real, public demonstrations. We also lamented that there “seemed to be almost no connections between any of the senior design programs at any of the SW ECEDHA schools despite the potential advantages of such connections” and we recognized that “worst of all, ECE senior design was impacted by ‘required course syndrome.’ ” These challenges can seem daunting and are undoubtedly facilitated by our race to be ranked higher than the school next door. BUT, we can address them if we act together. As stated in that initial article: “Surmounting such challenges requires teamwork – across schools – which makes ECEDHA the perfect birthing organization.” There is good reason to hope that even a simple showcase, held under the right kinds of conditions, could make an impact for the better.
And then, it had to be postponed due to a pandemic.
While holding a 2nd showcase became untenable this past spring, we found that we could still hold a virtual mini workshop for us to discuss all things senior design and ECE. It wouldn’t fulfill all of our goals, but it could help to maintain the momentum by keeping us discussing pressing issues and connecting across schools. It took place on the morning of May 22nd and 61 people from a wide range of schools and companies attended as well as gave 9 presentations. We decided that approximately ½ of the presentations should come from industrial supporters focused on how they can help universities transition to a virtual learning environment. The other half of the presentations were given by academics and described some of the best practices as well as toughest challenges in teaching Senior Design. The amount of discussion as well as the intensity and camaraderie during the discussions was highly encouraging. Tough questions – befitting great schools and top companies – were asked of our industrial and academic presenters alike. Some expressed their vision for how senior design can be improved (not just within the course itself, but within entire degree programs) as well as how their own programs dealt with the sudden shutdown of on-campus activities. At least some of us are re-visiting the sudden shutdown scenario as our administrators fight to keep schools “open” while students throw parties that promote campus outbreaks. We can say with certainty that getting together like this, and discussing the issues in a collaborative and open fashion has helped us all.
The corporate presenters have all been supporters of the ESD showcase. Test Equity, Mouser Electronics, Keysight Technologies, National Instruments and Texas Instruments Inc. all gave presentations on how their corporations and products could benefit engineering education (and specifically senior design programs) during a pandemic. Mouser Electronics presented on their resources and web tools specifically oriented to help in senior design. Test Equity, a two-year supporter, presented on how they partner with educational institutions on filling needs for both equipment and supplies. Keysight Technologies (in collaboration with Newark) presented on their enablement of Hyflex learning in Engineering as well as their ability to produce student equipment and component “kits”. National Instruments presented on how our courses can transition to online teaching labs from on-campus versions. Texas Instruments, a returning sponsor and top supporter of engineering education across the world, gave an inspiring presentation on how a positive culture will foster resilient partnerships and help both corporations and educational institution to continue innovation.
The presentations by our academics were every bit as informative and inspiring. They included presentations by faculty members from the University of New Mexico (UNM), Embry Riddle University - Prescott Campus (ERAU), UT Dallas (UTD), and the University of Houston (UH). We learned from UNM about the novel “WHY” lab program they are implementing as well as about how they partner with corporations in senior design. The presentation also described their “Peace Engineering” initiative. A truly innovative way to view the engineering enterprise. The ERAU presentation reminded us all that “Failure is not an option” when transitioning our senior design courses from face-to-face to online! More than that. It presented wonderfully solid ways of evaluating our priorities as well as ensuring that we avoid failing in our responsibilities to give our students top educations. We were told that the Chinese character for “crisis” also means “opportunity” and encouraged to find those for our courses and students. The UTD presentation highlighted our first ever joint senior design project with the UNM. Having half of a team in New Mexico and the other half in North Dallas is no simple thing. So the presentation focused on ways to overcome the challenges as well as on the benefits to both the students and the programs. All of the other schools were encouraged to join with us in this cross-school venture. Finally, our own R. Badri presented lessons that he and his faculty had learned regarding senior design during a pandemic. He encouraged all of us to see the opportunities (like our colleague at Embry Riddle had done) and gave us some pertinent insights on both the goals for senior design courses as well as things he called the “unspeakables” (such as dishonesty, budget slashing, new forms of team dysfunction, etc.) Finally, he encouraged us to promote to our students today what we did as students: Tinkering. It is more possible today than ever before, but requiring only on campus labs, may very well discourage it!
We hope that the above conveys some of the exciting discussion and interactions which took place at the virtual mini workshop but ending this article now could do a great disservice to all of us. Reading about this and then doing nothing about it will amount to exactly that: Nothing. But the power lies within us to address the challenges facing us – if we do it together. Each region can begin collaborating on senior design, maybe choose whether to hold their own showcase, and perhaps choose to hold their own workshop on this. If multiple regions were to choose to start a showcase, ECEDHA might be able and willing to start a national version. That could bring not just local attention, but perhaps even international attention to “the multifaceted, widely varying and absolutely astounding array of things which ECEs get to do”. Toward that end, every one of the authors on this article is volunteering to help you. We can tell you what we’ve chosen to do and why. We can tell you how we sought financial support, and how we made sure that the presence of larger schools didn’t drive smaller schools away. We can make a presentation at your regional meeting or just speak with you by email or phone. We have committed to doing something across school borders and are already benefitting from it. Will you?