Project Overview

In a typical undergraduate engineering program, students are required to take several core courses in the engineering sciences: statics, dynamics, thermodynamics, electric circuits, etc. Because these courses are mandatory, and because the content of these courses may seem unrelated to students’ ultimate goals, students usually experience low levels of motivation and engagement. When students lack motivation to learn, they complete these courses with incomplete understandings of basic concepts, as documented by poor scores on engineering concept inventories. To improve student engagement, and thereby improve student learning, engineering instructors can adopt a variety of proven interactive engagement techniques, such as problem-based learning. But these techniques require substantial amounts of time for faculty to learn, to become proficient, and to implement successfully in large, required courses. Institutional pressures may discourage faculty from investing this time.

In this project, we will enhance students’ intrinsic motivation in core engineering courses, without increasing the cost in faculty time, by giving students some responsibility for choosing what they learn and how they demonstrate their learning. The level of student responsibility increases across the semester. We expect to show that as students enjoy increases in their levels of intrinsic motivation, they will also improve their understandings of fundamental engineering concepts, their confidence in solving engineering problems, and their satisfaction with engineering courses.

Whereas most previous reforms in engineering education have primarily addressed freshman year courses, senior design courses, and cognitive outcomes, this project will primarily address the problem of student motivation in core engineering science courses. We will determine whether methods for improving students’ intrinsic motivation can be conveniently implemented in traditional engineering courses without increasing faculty time. We will test the hypothesis that improving intrinsic motivation improves students’ understandings of fundamental concepts and students’ attitudes toward engineering. For formative and summative assessment, we will use reliable, validated concept inventories and motivation surveys, in addition to evidence from interviews and reflective journals. The principal investigators, advisory committee members, and external evaluator have extensive experience in engineering education and in engineering education research. The project will build on prior local efforts in transforming the freshman engineering experience.

In this project, graduate teaching assistants will learn how to promote intrinsic motivation in courses that they teach, not only as graduate students but later as faculty. We expect that pedagogies that promote intrinsic motivation will also reduce the stereotype threat felt by students from underrepresented minorities, which impedes their full potential for intellectual and professional achievement. Because we expect to demonstrate increased intrinsic motivation in standard courses in engineering sciences, which are required in most engineering programs, our findings will be broadly applicable. We will disseminate our findings locally in instructional development programs sponsored by the Academy for Excellence in Engineering Education and by the campus’s Center for Teaching Excellence, and nationally in workshops sponsored by Olin College through the existing Olin-Illinois Partnership.

This project is supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant DUE-1140554. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the University of Illinois or the National Science Foundation.