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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University September 27, 2004 | Vol. 34 No. 5
Retooling Engineering Curriculum

By Phil Sneiderman

Johns Hopkins researchers have received nearly $1 million from the National Science Foundation to produce and begin testing a revised course of study for undergraduate engineering students with a goal of attracting more women and minorities to the field — and retaining them once they begin their studies.

The project was launched to address a persistent lack of diversity among engineers, despite a serious shortage of workers with advanced technical skills in the United States. The three-year $999,993 grant will enable Johns Hopkins to lead a consortium of eight U.S. educational institutions in developing a new curriculum designed to encourage more women and minorities to choose an engineering major and remain in the program through graduation.

"Most attempts to increase diversity in engineering education have involved the use of add-on programs such as tutoring sessions and social networks. The results have been modest improvements at best," said Ilene Busch-Vishniac, professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Johns Hopkins and lead investigator of the project. "We want to completely revamp the engineering curriculum so that it will be more attractive to a wider range of students without compromising its technical rigor."

She added, "The idea is that by improving the curriculum for all students, we'll attract and retain more students overall — including more women and minorities."

Supported by an earlier grant from the GE Foundation, Busch-Vishniac began planning this project while serving a five-year term as dean of the Whiting School of Engineering. During that initial study, she and research assistant Jeffrey P. Jarosz collected some disturbing figures about the lack of diversity in the engineering field nationally:

Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans comprise 23 percent of the U.S. population but only 6 percent of the engineering labor force. Black women account for 0.6 percent of the science, engineering and technology work force. For Hispanic women, the figure is 0.4 percent.

In academia, men are five times more likely than women to choose engineering as their major. In 1998, of the bachelor's degrees awarded to women, only 1.7 percent were in engineering.

Many undergraduates who initially major in engineering do not stay with it through graduation. In 2001, the retention rate for white students was 62 percent; among minority students, it was only 38 percent.

The average engineering faculty is 95 percent male, which may be a factor in why many women and minorities often report that they feel marginalized.

To address this, Busch-Vishniac, Jarosz and their colleagues from other institutions plan to look for ways to update and streamline the traditional engineering curriculum, which has undergone little revision in recent decades despite significant changes in technology and economic globalization. The researchers aim to increase the links between the fundamentals and applications and between technical and nontechnical topics, streamline the path to the degree by eliminating artificial prerequisites, introduce team experiences into all courses and foster a climate of inclusion rather than exclusion. Another goal is to expose students to engineering topics earlier in the curriculum instead of limiting them to less engaging foundation courses for their first two years.

The researchers plan to begin testing a few revamped pilot courses at some of the participating institutions within the next two years. A completely revised degree program may be ready within three to seven years.

"Some of the changes we've discussed have already been tried successfully at highly respected engineering schools," Jarosz said. "While there have been effective innovations here and there, there has not been an integrated process for curriculum revision that makes programs more attractive to a diverse community."

The schools that will partner with Johns Hopkins in the new project to increase diversity are California State University, Los Angeles; Howard University; Michigan State University; Smith College; Stevens Institute of Technology; Tuskegee University; and the University of Washington.


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