Retooled UA Engineering Course Makes the Grade

College of Engineering faculty have revamped ECE175, a prerequisite for all ECE majors as well as a number of other Engineering majors. The new class structure incorporates more discussion, one-on-one help, hands-on activities and team projects. Photo by Adam Blumer.

UA electrical and computer engineering professors are switching things up to better engage students in large classes. And their efforts, part of a national program to improve STEM education, are paying off.

While lecture halls can accommodate the hundreds of students who take introductory classes, traditionally they do not encourage active student participation, which is key to improving science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, education.

As part of a UA initiative supported by the American Association of Universities, College of Engineering faculty have revamped ECE175, a prerequisite for all ECE majors as well as a number of other Engineering majors. The new class structure incorporates more discussion, one-on-one help, hands-on activities and team projects. 

“It is becoming more and more evident that students in all types of classes at all levels need interactive, hands-on learning for success,” said associate professor Loukas Lazos, who has taught the prerequisite ECE175 for four years. “The challenge is that we have up to 250 students enrolled in the class at one time, and they all need to experience an engaging learning environment.” 

Lazos, along with ECE associate department head Hal Tharp, associate professor Elmer Grubbs,  and assistant professor Susan Lysecky have spent the last two years revamping “Computer Programming for Engineering Applications” to make it more interactive. Now students are grasping the material better, grades are higher, and other departments are looking to ECE175 as an example of how to engage students in big classrooms.

The restructuring of ECE175 reflects the University’s commitment to active learning and is part of a campuswide STEM initiative. 

The Association for American Universities selected the University of Arizona in June 2013 as one of eight institutions nationwide to implement its multiyear, multimillion-dollar STEM Undergraduate Education Initiative, which aims to make STEM education more student centered. 

Building a Better Model

Like in a “flipped classroom,” the restructured ECE175 emphasizes active student participation. Typically in a flipped classroom, lecture and homework elements are reversed. For example, students might watch a lecture online before the class, then use class time for exercises, projects and discussions. ECE175 still includes a lecture for teaching concepts, but instructors are incorporating more discussion, and a new required lab gives students opportunities to go over homework, get their questions answered, and practice coding.

“It’s not always easy to have an environment of interactivity during a lecture, but we are absolutely making it better,” Lazos said, adding, “The lab component is what translates into student understanding.”

The three-hour lab taught in a small class setting by graduate students and veteran ECE 175 undergraduates brings an added benefit -- classmates can help one another. 

“When a student doesn’t understand the mechanics of coding, other students are able to lend their skill mastery,” Lazos said.

Sophomore chemical engineering major Nick Ashley found that helping other students with coding questions made him a better programmer, too.

“I learned more than I would have learned practicing on my own,” he said.

Applying New Methods for Learning and Discovery

Many ECE175 class projects and assignments are done with partners or in groups and incorporate real-life scenarios, and more are in the works -- for example, a developer-tester project in which one student acts as a program developer and another as a company representative testing the program.

The well-documented value of hands-on activities in STEM education has not been lost on students in the class.

“When I heard one assignment involved programming a bill for a cell phone company, I thought to myself, ‘This is something I can relate to. This is something I can do,’” said Cinthya Tang, an electrical engineering sophomore. “It was really empowering to see the skills I learned in class apply to a real-life situation.” 

University of Arizona College of Engineering