Convergence of Engineering and Allied Disciplines through Symbiotic Course-Pairs

Kavitha Chandra, University of Massachusetts-Lowell, Christopher Hansen, University of Massachusetts-Lowell, Yanfen Li, University of Massachusetts-Lowell, David Willis, University of Massachusetts-Lowell


Proposed Transformational Approach:

The proposed transformative engineering approach integrates core engineering knowledge with allied disciplines, which are defined as disciplines that promote student development of professional skills/dispositions (humanistic and meta knowledge). Specific skills/dispositions the program addresses will include: ethical reasoning, communication, leadership, meta-cognitive skills, creativity, cultural awareness and teamwork. Examples of allied disciplines for engineering students include: humanities, social sciences, arts, and management and entrepreneurship.

The initial phase of this approach supports the development of symbiotic courses in engineering and allied disciplines to promote real integration of knowledge sets. In this symbiotic course implementation, two traditional 3-credit courses -- one from engineering and another from an allied discipline -- will be paired concurrently into a single 6-credit course (or two 3-credit co-requisite courses) available to both engineering and allied disciplines major students. In these classes, teaming will require integration of students and faculty from different disciplines. This structure will retain the current curriculum pathways while reinforcing the required learning outcomes -- for example a philosophy major would earn credits toward both ethics (major requirement) and a STEM breadth of knowledge requirement (allied discipline in this scenario).

The development of an integrated course will be guided via a template to ensure that meaningful and cross-cutting course connections are made. Faculty teaching these integrated courses will be expected to teach convergent content that benefits both engineering and allied discipline students who are enrolled. A student enrolled in a symbiotic course will explore course concepts in this integrated manner, through active learning in team projects, discussion, examples, and reflection.

Future phases may include extending this deliberate connection to broader applications, including math and sciences, research experiences, longer-term projects, and community service projects. Longer term, we envision the creation of flexible engineering degree pathways allowing students (and their advisors) to personalize courses of study across majors, with less rigid credit structures, that may include partial credit modules as well as shared projects rather than entirely integrated classes.

The Workshop Deliverables & Symbiotic Course Development Template:

Our team identified the process of combining cross-disciplinary courses as the most challenging aspect of the proposed transformation. As such, the symbiotic course development template presents a guide for proposed course development in the context of a traditional higher education institution

Goals of the Program

  • The overall goals of the transformational program will be to develop an appreciation of the relationship between engineering and allied disciplines:
    • Foundational knowledge - students will be able to:
      • Relate fundamental concepts/understandings from two disciplinary areas, their own and their allied discipline.
    • Meta Knowledge - students will be able to:
      • Structure cross-disciplinary knowledge sets to make decisions and create new meaning/ideas. This is necessary to ensure students appreciate the nexus of all disciplines involved.
    • Humanistic Knowledge - students will be able to:
      • Exhibit/demonstrate professional skills and dispositions in a broader context.  This adaptability is necessary to be contributing agents in a future world.
    • STEM Knowledge - students will be able to:
      • Exhibit/demonstrate quantitative literacy and problem solving in a broader context.  This literacy is necessary to be contributing agents in a future world.

Learning Outcomes

Considering a symbiotic A-B course pair for this example (each course integration would introduce additional outcomes).

  • Student Learning Outcome 1 [SO1]
    At the culmination of the symbiotic A-B course pair, students will be able to analyze integrated foundational-humanistic-meta considerations  in practice.
  • Student Learning Outcome 2 [SO2]
    At the culmination of the the symbiotic A-B course pair, students will be able to prioritize (aspiration: value) integrated foundational-humanistic-meta considerations in practice.
  • Degree Program Student Learning Outcome 1 [PO1]
    At the end of the undergraduate program, students will be able to seamlessly recognize, assess and integrate meta and humanistic considerations into new engineering designs/activities.
  • Degree Program Student Learning Outcome 2 [PO2]
    At the end of the undergraduate program, students will recognize the importance of meta and humanistic considerations.
  • Faculty Learning Outcome 1 [FO1]
    Engineering and Humanities faculty  teaching in the program will be able to create  convergent learning experiences/environments to achieve student learning outcomes 1 & 2 and program outcomes 1 & 2.
  • Faculty Learning Outcome 2 [FO2]
    Faculty advisors will advocate  the importance of humanistic, meta, and foundational knowledge.


Assessing Outcomes

We consider both student and faculty assessment. Since the goal is promote convergence across disciplines, the assessment presented is general.

Assessing Students

A series of possible assessment methods are presented below. We have marked specific outcomes in square brackets.

Formative Assessment of Students:

Participatory action research [SO1, SO2, PO2]: This assessment type would involve video/audio recording student conversations around "focus group activities" via student led/moderated or faculty scaffolded/primed topics. Transcripts would be assessed by faculty for student attainment of outcomes with feedback being given to students.

Assessing  student active learning/responsive teaching via capturing activity  [SO1, SO2, PO2]: This assessment type would involve capturing (video or audio) group activities to assess how well students are constructing knowledge, meaning and skills. This would include assessment of student prioritization of humanistic and meta knowledge in the context of the discipline.

Assessment of compiled student works (portfolio/project report rubrics) [SO1, SO2]:This assessment type would involve students constructing physical/electronic portfolios of project activity wherein humanistic, meta and disciplinary knowledge is synthesized and presented.

Concept mapping  [SO1, SO2]:This assessment type would determine how well students are connecting disparate ideas and knowledge into a synthesized whole (e.g. a meta view of ethics + discipline).

Self reflection (individual and group)  [SO1, SO2, PO2]: Students reflect upon their understanding, comfort with, and importance of humanistic, discipline and meta knowledge.

Note: In recognition of the added workload associated with these assessment types, we identified machine learning as a potential supporting technology in the transcription and analysis of video/audio recordings.

Summative Assessment of Students:

Senior Design Culminating Experience/Capstone/Senior Directed Study [PO1, PO2]: A senior project is an opportunity to incorporate humanistic and meta knowledge into a creative design where students from multiple disciplines contribute to the project.

Portfolios (i.e., collections of student work) [PO1, PO2]: Students will be encouraged to develop portfolios over their degree studies. These portfolios will be assessed for humanistic, meta and foundational knowledge.

Responsive Teaching Video Assessments [PO1, PO2]: The incorporation of humanistic and meta considerations as well as the student emphasis of this incorporation into the active learning process will be assessed.

Longterm Summative Survey Assessment [PO1, PO2]:A survey instrument will be developed to assess the longterm success and career trajectories/responsibilities.

Assessing Faculty:

Tracking Course Outcomes [FO1]:  Evaluate and track whether students are achieving desired course learning outcomes and providing meaningful continuous improvement feedback.

Tracking Teaching and Learning Outcomes Rubric [FO1]: We will create a rubric to directly assess both the teaching, course outcomes and continuous improvement for a course.

Survey [FO1, FO2]: Motivation, experience,  time investment, how is time focused (design, collaboration, etc.), active response to gaps in outcomes.

The faculty will take the history of formative  and summative assessment data and analyze that for program improvement.

Additional Program Details

  • Program level: there are many allied disciplines (e.g., humanities, social sciences, business) which offer courses that could be integrated into a paired-course design.  The goal for any implementation would be to identify a minimum of 4 symbiotic course pairings that would allow continuity throughout a student's pathway. Examples might include:
    • Introduction to Engineering & College Writing I
    • Engineering Design Course & Ethics
    • Instrumentation Lab & College Writing II
    • Senior Capstone Experience and Entrepreneurship
  • Other possible course pairings are listed below:
    • Ethics + Quantitative Physiology
    • Technology and Society + Systems, Controls & Automation
    • Economics + Biomaterials
    • Economics + Manufacturing
    • Entrepreneurship + Intro to Biomedical Engineering
    • Entrepreneurial Product develop -- Entrepreneurship & Design/Manufacturing
    • Project Life Cycle Management + Entrepreneurship & Applied Project Management
    • Math Methods (for engineers) and Music


Product: Symbiotic Course Development Questionnaire

Our approach begins with a questionnaire for faculty use to develop a paired-course design, in which an engineering course and an allied discipline course are paired and have students enrolled in both courses simultaneously.View the Questionnaire »