Curriculum improvements include new skills for CEE's evolving landscape

6/17/2021 8:49:31 AM

john popovics
John Popovics

By John Popovics, Professor, and Ashlynn Stillwell, Associate Professor

Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Illinois has been a recognized leader in the education of undergraduate students for decades. We recruit, retain and foster the best and brightest students from across the state and around the world, training the leaders of the profession.

As the world’s technology and societal needs change, we adapt and modify our curriculum to continue our tradition of excellence, maintaining the solid foundation of disciplinary skills for which we are well-known while at the same time introducing societally relevant broader skills to develop the engineering leaders of the future. In our most recent round of curriculum reconsideration, we have focused on themes of nurturing professional skills – such as technical communication, leadership and team-building – engendering broader engineering identity among our students – for example, the global and societal context in which engineers operate – and promoting emergent skills such as data science and computation, and entrepreneurial thinking. Throughout this curriculum innovation, we encourage current best practices in teaching and pedagogy and improved communication and coordination among faculty regarding coursework content, expectations and performance.

Ashlynn Stillwell
Ashlynn Stillwell

Our approach compares favorably with the findings in a recent report on the future of CEE education published by the American Society for Civil Engineers, “Civil Engineering Education Summit – Mapping the Future of Civil Engineering Education,” which states, “Students need to learn systems thinking so that they are prepared for current and future societal challenges.” We are preparing students by re-examining and redefining the domain of civil and environmental engineering, elevating professional skills to a truly equal footing with technical skills, and developing a diverse, inclusive, equitable and engaging culture. We have embedded themes longitudinally in the curriculum through threads that start in the first semester of the first year and extend through to the last semester of the final year.

The first semester experience centers around a newly introduced, required four-credit hour class, CEE 190: Project Based Learning in CEE. The class serves as the foundational kickoff for basic skill set tracks and teaches design and project-based learning concepts while introducing students to CEE topics. Project-based learning represents an inverse learning approach, where the students start with a problem and discover knowledge and skills required to solve the problem. Along the way, the students develop knowledge in required fundamental content, professional skills such as teamwork and technical communication, and experience such as critical thinking and problem solving. The course is composed of one weekly lecture (two hours) and one discussion session (two hours) for teamwork, and will be offered in the new, state-of-the-art Campus Instructional Facility building starting fall 2021.

The skills and knowledge developed in CEE 190 are built up by the longitudinal curriculum threads that continue through the students’ tenure, culminating in a series of experiential courses focusing on hands-on and field work and innovations in CEE. For example, the middle level of the curriculum has an enhanced focus on technical writing and communication within the CEE discipline. This communication focus is achieved through a complete reworking of the laboratory writing requirements for the materials core class (CEE 300 Behavior of Materials), which is required for all students. The writing requirements have been modified following best practices in writing instruction to include a focus on writing to learn, writing to audience, and writing across engineering genres, and includes several instances of self- and peer-evaluation of writing. Another example of focused learning opportunities enabled by the curriculum innovation is provided by the focus track on data science and computation. A new series of advanced courses in data science, machine learning, and sensors and advanced measurements offers students an opportunity to gain deep experience in these important and emerging topics, all within the CEE context. Students who complete these courses will earn a certificate in Data Science and Computation in CEE.

The curriculum innovation is developed, supported and maintained by a faculty-led Community of Practice composed of instructors of critical, relevant courses, CEE Curriculum Committee members, and course directors for 300-level core courses. The Community of Practice cohort provides coordination and assistance throughout the curriculum, rather than direction and control, and serves as a resource that is flexible and comprehensive across group sub-structures, providing long-term vision and management of the curriculum. These Community of Practice faculty leaders support the curriculum innovation through introducing core skill activities as a complement to the existing technical excellence as the hallmark of our program.

These modifications to the curriculum represent significant innovation and upgrade to the CEE student experience and learning outcomes, while maintaining the overall structure, content and technical rigor of existing courses.  As the world changes, so must the profession of civil and environmental engineering. In CEE at Illinois, we are preparing students to be the engineering leaders of a bright future.