Burn victim Iris Miller uses a specially designed right hand, thanks to Alexander Hirschi, Kate Nilan, Brian Marks and others in Engineering First.

(Photos by David Joel)



Stephen Carr, above, associate dean for undergraduate engineering, and Edward Colgate, associate professor of mechanical engineering





[Editor's note: Jerome Cohen, the late dean of the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science and the driving force behind the creation of the Engineering First program, died unexpectedly a short time after he was interviewed for this story.]

It's an old joke, making an old point. Someone asks a man what he does for a living, and he answers, "I'm an engineer. I can't spell it, but I 'are' one."

After World War II — when engineering was almost exclusively a male preserve whose ranks were swelled by returning GIs — a smart, quick mind combined with a knack for solving technical problems often proved more valuable to being an engineer than the ability to use verbs grammatically.

That's not the case anymore — at least not at Northwestern's Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science. Professors and administrators at the school now offer Engineering First, an innovation in the core curriculum that is teaching students to become more well-rounded engineers in today's competitive, global marketplace.

From the 1950s to the present, engineering schools have followed a similar core curriculum that started students off with a heavy load of mathematics, physics, chemistry and a few electives. Engineering courses — the interesting stuff — didn't actually begin until the junior year. Nobody really knows how many potential engineers failed to enter the profession simply because their interest was crushed by the burden of prerequisite courses that seemed light years away from the subject they wanted to study.

"I think engineering education stayed the same for too long, with this very simple-minded model that you take math, physics and chemistry, and then engineering courses to apply them. That's just not what engineering is about," said the late Jerome Cohen, the Frank C. Engelhart Professor of Material Sciences and Engineering at McCormick. Cohen was the school's dean when the new curriculum was conceived in 1996.

Under Engineering First, traditional starter courses such as Linear Algebra, Differential Equations, General Physics (mechanics), Engineering Mechanics and, in the more recent years, Computer Programming are gone. All of that material is now woven into a four-quarter sequence course called Engineering Analysis. Freshmen students also enroll in a two-part course during the winter and spring quarters called Engineering Design and Communications, which teaches creative ways of solving engineering problems, both individually and in small teams. At the same time, instructors from Northwestern's Writing Program participate equally in teaching students how to describe their project processes and goals to end-users, such as clients in business or government.

Stephen Carr, associate dean for undergraduate engineering and professor of materials science and engineering and chemical engineering at McCormick, sees the old curriculum as merely an amplification of high school preparatory courses.

"It just perpetuates a mindset that all of life is encountered in activities that will have a single academically defined character to them," Carr says. "And of course, all adults, especially engineers, know that's exactly the opposite of what the reality is. People who are going to be very facile with engineering capabilities really have to recruit everything they knew from the sandbox and Sunday school and things their mother told them to things they learned in history classes, math courses and engineering laboratories."

The notion of working toward useful and practical ends is reinforced throughout the program. Students learn how to set up a plan of action that leads to a successfully completed task, explains Design and Communications instructor James Edward Colgate, an associate professor of mechanical engineering. The process sounds easy and obvious, but it's not always so.

"We spend time on topics like defining problems and then gathering information. What are some of the techniques you would use to get the information to solve the problem? What's the information you need?" he says. "We spend a lot of time talking about understanding the needs of the user."

The Engineering Design and Communications courses also give students an opportunity to employ this breadth of knowledge. Following a Monday lecture in which professors set the week's agenda, Tuesdays and Wednesdays are spent in new facilities at the Northwestern University/Evanston Research Park doing hands-on work. Collaborating closely with faculty from McCormick and the Writing Program, students in groups of three and four tackle real engineering problems posed by actual clients, mostly from on campus or around Evanston.

Projects have ranged from developing Web sites to designing toys for disabled children and improving the traffic flow around an elementary school.

In truth, the students' "solutions" occasionally differ from the original requests, but that's part of the learning process, too. "The demoralization comes once [the students] put in their improvement, go back to their client and say, 'Hey, how about this?'" says Carr. "And of course in some cases, the client will say, 'Well, it's neat, but that's not what I had in mind.'

"And that's when we say, 'The customer is right,'" he continues. "It doesn't mean that you're wrong — but it does mean that you haven't succeeded in designing something new that people want."

Early on, students in the program prepare for the world beyond the University by building and maintaining personal Web pages, which also serve as a portfolio for their work. "They develop a Web site where they keep all their design projects — not only the freshman year, but through the entire four years," Cohen said.

Now a requirement of all incoming freshmen, Engineering First underwent a three-year transition before its full implementation at the beginning of the current academic year.

Biomedical engineering sophomore David Robert Weidendorf has definitely caught the spirit of the Engineering First curriculum. The skillful blending of math, science and other academic disciplines has helped free him from viewing problems in a predetermined way. "I think it's really had a big effect," Weidendorf says.

Alan Johnson, a junior majoring in chemical engineering, worked with a team of Engineering First students to reconfigure an art classroom in an Evanston public school to optimize its limited space. The true value was in learning what he calls "an engineering approach" to solving a problem. "It was 'real-world,'" says Johnson. "There weren't any answers in the back of the book."

McCormick's industrial advisory board is equally happy with Engineering First. Board member and former visiting professor Jay Hook (McC60) is a retired group president with Masco Corp., a Detroit-based building products company (he's also a former major league baseball player who pitched the first winning game for the New York Mets in 1962). Hook was both an observer and sideline participant in the developing phases of Engineering First. He says industry is crying out for engineers with better communications skills — both oral and written. Additionally, "there was a lot of questioning about how much design effort was being put into the engineering curriculum, and how much orientation there was toward team problem-solving."

The curriculum remains a work in progress, with faculty committees meeting at least once each quarter for fine-tuning. "I think the courses will always need work," says Ted Belytschko, Walter P. Murphy Professor of Mechanical Engineering and the chair of the faculty committee that designed Engineering First. "We may have to think what goes into it from the viewpoint that things are changing very rapidly in the world, and that the course ought to reflect it."

An initial problem — which some students still find daunting — is the serious workload required. And some students find the unorthodox mix of academic subjects a bit baffling at first. "You're just switching from one thing to the next. It's very different — but you've got to get used to it," says sophomore Matt Hayden.

While industrial engineering sophomore Jennifer Pasco also occasionally misses the connection between subjects in the courses, she feels the approach will prove beneficial. "It seems really abstract to me right now," she says. "But they cover so much that I think it is going to be helpful, because it covers all different areas."

This response doesn't surprise Carr. "There's a reaction you get from students, such as: 'There's something wrong with this course. I'm not getting all the physics I need,'" he says. "Well, what is happening is they're getting the physics they need in a way that seems natural — in increments and within an engineering context. And I know, because I look to see how well they do in the rest of their physics classes. And they perform just as well as the students who never had Engineering Analysis."

Indeed, the initial findings are highly encouraging. Carr's analysis of Engineering First's three-year trial period showed its students could solve engineering problems and work in a team better than those who went through the previous freshman-sophomore curriculum.

Cohen suggested that the team concept aids in socializing students. That goal is crucial given the now standard team approach to projects in the workaday engineering world.

The Northwestern engineering faculty is confident the Engineering First curriculum will meet the needs of today's employers. And instructors are equally confident their students will enjoy numerous job offers, even in an era of hot competition from abroad.

"If we're going to educate engineers in the United States to deal with the global environment, our engineers have to have something extra," said Cohen. "The 'extra' here at Northwestern is this program, where the instructors really do understand what it is that engineers do."

Paul Francuch, a Chicago-based freelance writer, is a former news editor and radio correspondent for the Voice of America.