September 11, 2008

Michael Prince

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LEWISBURG, Pa. -- Teaching engineers to solve problems in the real world is nothing new.

Today, one of the most important problems facing engineering faculty is how to recruit, retain and educate the engineers necessary to face the challenges in an increasingly technological society.

“Engineering has always been geared toward problem-solving,” said Professor Michael Prince, who has taught chemical engineering at Bucknell University for 19 years. “What’s changed is the skills and background engineers need to have.”

Forefront of research
Prince is at the forefront of researchers studying ways to educate engineers more effectively. He and a team of researchers recently were awarded three separate grants totaling more than $1.1 million from the National Science Foundation, a government agency that promotes science and engineering through research and education projects. Bucknell researchers are to receive about $322,000 from these competitive grants:

  • Role of Faculty in Supporting Lifelong Learning: An Investigation of Self-Directed Learning Environments in Engineering Undergraduate Classrooms. In this $500,000 grant, $259,000 of which is for Bucknell, Prince is collaborating with associate professors Katharyn Nottis and Candice Stefanou of the Bucknell education department and with three engineering colleagues at Olin College in Massachusetts, California Polytechnic State University and the University of San Diego in California.
  • Educational Materials to Enhance Chemical Engineering Curricula with Applications in Biological Engineering. This is a $500,000 grant, including $35,000 for Bucknell researchers, for developing chemical engineering materials that incorporate the life sciences.
  • Building Engineering Education Research Capacity. This is a $120,000 grant with $28,000 for Bucknell to expand the development of engineering faculty as educational researchers.

NSF last year awarded Prince and a team of colleagues $500,000 for a four-year study to examine student misconceptions in engineering. The three latest grants expand that research to examine other questions that focus on how to teach engineering more effectively.

NSF awards grants to about 28 percent of applicants, although competition for funding varies by field and discipline, according to foundation representatives.

Self-directed learners
As part of their research on life-long learning, Prince and his colleagues will examine the relationship between the classroom environment and how well students become self-directed learners, Prince said. Newer accreditation guidelines for engineering programs require that students be capable of life-long learning so they are prepared for careers in engineering. There has, however, been little classroom research on how to achieve this goal.

“The goal is to get students who are engaged, life-long learners,” Prince said.

The grant for developing educational materials that incorporate biological concepts is in response to the growing importance of the life sciences for chemical engineering students, Prince said. As part of the effort to enhance chemical engineering curricula, Prince and his team will develop a set of problems that incorporate biological concepts relevant for engineers. The problems will be designed for a broad range of required chemical engineering courses and will be available to professors on the Internet. The problems will be structured so that they are understandable even for faculty without a strong background in biology.

Chemical engineers
The research is designed to better prepare chemical engineers so they are qualified for a wider range of careers. While chemical engineering students used to find jobs almost exclusively at large oil companies
after graduation, there now is more demand in the pharmaceutical industry and other fields that require a working knowledge of biology, Prince said. For students to become familiar with biological concepts, these concepts must be widely integrated into the engineering curriculum.

“Students will graduate knowing the life science that is relevant to their practice,” Prince said.

The grant to develop research capacity for engineering education is in response to calls from the National Academy of Engineering and the National Science Foundation to have universities support research in engineering education by engineering faculty.

Research suggests that while engineering faculty draw heavily on their own experiences in the classroom to make decisions about their teaching, professors seldom look to the educational literature to inform their decisions about teaching. This grant examines the issue, with an eye towards understanding how to encourage engineering faculty to use the existing research on teaching and learning more effectively.

Contact: Division of Communications

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