An Introductory Course in Electrical Engineering: Lessons Learned and Continuing Challenges

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Nine years ago we designed a three-quarter freshman sequence to address these goals: (i) give students early experience in design and teamwork, (ii) introduce programming and specifically MATLAB early in our program, (iii) stress communication skills, and (iv) attract and engage more students, in particular from under-represented groups, into electrical (and computer) engineering. While we have had some successes – popular and engaging team design projects, hands-on lab experience, an alumni mentor program – we still have problems with retention and student success. Specifically, the first quarter in the sequence has been a fun and inviting gateway course, but has not prepared students well for more rigorous coursework in the next two classes in the sequence.

A common belief is that students struggle in engineering courses due to lack of math skills. We find that students lack not just basic math skills, but also problem solving ability. This is particularly evidenced by problems students have in programming and debugging. We are currently working on math, logic and algorithmic assessments to detect and address these problems early on, and researching the correlation between these assessments and student outcome in the courses. So far, we have found little correlation between tests on specific math skills, from algebra to calculus, and success in the courses. However, we do see a correlation with overall math GPA. In addition, there is some promise in using a logic and algorithmic assessment. We are exploring the correlation between this logical-thinking test and student success, and also improvement in students’ logic ability as evidenced by pre- and post-test comparisons.

In this paper, we will discuss the ongoing research and results to date, and we will also discuss possible strategies for improving students’ problem-solving ability, including providing two tracks in the programming courses. We believe the issue of student problem-solving ability is not an easy one to assess or address, but is important for engineering education.


© 2017 American Society for Engineering Education

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