Purdue 'Skunkworks' targeting engineering education

June 15, 2015  


This graphic depicts the workings of a new Engineering Education Skunkworks being created at Purdue University as part of a national effort to transform how engineering is taught to undergraduates in U.S. universities. The Skunkworks will fast-track concepts most likely to succeed. (Purdue University photo/ Edward Berger)
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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Purdue University will create an Engineering Education Skunkworks as part of a national effort to transform how undergraduate engineering is taught in U.S. universities.

"Graduates must have better communication skills, both written and oral, and they must be more globally connected and focused on innovation and entrepreneurship early in their undergraduate careers," said Anil Bajaj, Purdue's William E. and Florence E. Perry Head of Mechanical Engineering and Alpha P. Jamison Professor of Mechanical Engineering. "They must be able to use their technical knowledge for outside-the-box solutions."

The National Science Foundation this week announced that it would award a total of $12 million to engineering and computer science departments at six universities "to enact groundbreaking, scalable and sustainable changes in undergraduate education."

Purdue's role is to create the Engineering Education Skunkworks to "spark a departmental revolution" focusing on mechanical engineering. The Skunkworks will allow researchers to fast-track concepts that are most likely to be successful, said Edward Berger, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and engineering education who conceived the concept.

"It is designed to be a birthplace of new ideas that can be tested quickly to see what has legs and what doesn't," he said.

The Skunkworks will enlist the input of 15 students to work with faculty.

"Usually in educational organizations we take a year to evaluate ideas and see if they are likely to work," Bajaj said. "What we want to do is take an idea, do some research on it, perhaps implement it on a small group of students and faculty, not for a semester but only for a month. So if the outcomes are not favorable, and the ideas didn't work, there is no reason to waste another three months on it. Get rid of it, come up with a new idea and move on from there."

Also leading the work are co-principal investigators Edward Morrison, regional economic development adviser at the Purdue Center for Regional Development, and Elizabeth Briody, an anthropologist with expertise in improving organizational effectiveness and founder of Cultural Keys LLC.

The five-year, $2 million awards are part of NSF’s multiyear effort to help universities substantially improve the "professional formation of engineers and computer scientists, the formal and informal processes and value systems by which people become experts in these fields," according to an NSF statement.

A key component of the program is support for revolutionizing engineering departments, an NSF activity known as RED.

Because mechanical engineering programs at universities across the nation are steeped in decades of tradition, they often are incapable of the kinds of fundamental, or "disruptive," change needed. The Skunkworks is meant to sidestep this impediment, Berger said.

"We're not just talking about improving or changing classes," Berger said. "We are talking about the entirety of the experience. So it could be something about the way we deal with people. It could be something about the experiences that our undergraduates have or that we, the faculty, have with them. It could be something about our physical space or the culture of the department or the policies that are too restrictive and that squelch off innovation prematurely."

The five other universities selected by NSF are Colorado State University, the University of North Carolina, Arizona State University, the University of San Diego and Oregon State University. 

Writer: Emil Venere, 765-494-4709, venere@purdue.edu 

Sources: Anil Bajaj, 765-494-5688, bajaj@purdue.edu

Edward Berger, bergere@purdue.edu 

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