Collateral Learning

Collateral Learning 150 150 IEEE Pulse

Students take engineering courses to learn techniques for solving problems. Thus, most engineering courses taken by undergraduate students are highly technical in nature. But, there are many additional techniques and skills that can be learned along the way. Other types of knowledge can also be incorporated into engineering science courses without diminishing the value of the engineering techniques being taught. These other skills, of an ancillary nature, can improve the value of a course to future engineers. This writing is a description of collateral learning that took place in my Transport Design course and, to a lesser extent, my Introduction to Electronic Design course.

When I first started teaching, I thought that the goal was to show off in front of the class how much that I knew; I found out later how wrong I was. The objective of good teaching should be to facilitate student learning, and to help them learn as much as possible, including many “soft” skills that would be very valuable later on in their careers. There is much more to engineering practice than just technical knowledge, and it is these other aspects of professional life that can also be taught in class.

The major objective of my transport process course was to impart the ability to understand how to deal with fluid flow, heat transfer, and mass transfer problems that are common in engineering. A secondary objective of the course was to show how transport understanding can be generalized to analogous systems, such as electronic systems, traffic flow, and information transfer. For this, I had written a textbook that took a very symbolic, and not particularly mathematical, approach to transport processes [1].

At the same time, however, there are many other things that a practicing engineer must know in order to navigate successfully through a career. I was able to incorporate some of these into the course while still thoroughly dealing with the two objectives given above. The following are some of these collateral skills that the students had a chance to learn.

Learning to work in teams

Good teaching, like good writing, takes a long time, a lot of contemplation, and much revision in order to master. In my case, this process took about 20 years, and really progressed when we instructors were given lessons on the use of group work in class.

When I first started using groups in my classes, students having to work with others and depend on them for part of their own course grades were not often, if ever, situations the students had encountered before. Throughout their entire academic careers, their successes were solely or mostly their responsibility in a competitive environment. But, working engineers were no longer lone rangers on their jobs; they worked in teams composed of others with multiple talents, the better to find new and improved solutions to assigned tasks. So, it made sense to give students the opportunity to learn all about working in groups while still in an academic environment where learning is the objective of educational programs. These same skills would have to be learned eventually on the job, where the environment for error is not as lenient as it is in the academic classroom.

There are many soft skills required to work closely with others, and students would have to develop these skills to operate successfully after graduation. Initially, students were just assigned to groups of three to five and were then free to work out the details of how they would work together. However, students soon made it known that working with others in this way was not necessarily part of their skill sets and was a new mode for performing in class. I had given them no information about how to make their groups operate successfully. These complaints were heard, and we responded by introducing to them the Myers–Briggs personality test. We required all students in the course to take the test, and we spent one whole recitation session explaining what the test measured and how to interpret the results. Whereas we did not directly answer how each student should interface with others in his or her group, we did, at least, open up for them some understanding about introverts and extroverts, thinkers and feelers, judges and perceivers that most had not before had to deal with on a practical level. With the revelation that bioengineering student personality types can fill a very broad range (some were enrolled because of their interest in biology and others because they liked math, for instance), students became much more aware of differences among group members and a tolerance developed for those members who were not motivated or skilled in the same ways as others. After that, student groups worked extremely well as a means to produce quality designs and reports. Thereafter, students could bring copies of their reports to job interviews and be able to impress their interviewers.

There were times that some students had difficulty getting along with certain other students. In one instance, one student came to me and asked me point blank not to assign her to a group with a certain other student whom she had not liked for several years. My practice was to arbitrarily assign students to groups, and make up lists of group membership before the first class in a semester. As it just so happened, I had already put these two students together in a group, and I was not to be deterred from this. I informed the student who had come to me that she would just have to learn to get along with the other student who she disliked. There are usually some others whom we all would prefer not to be in contact with, but who may have to be dealt with anyway, so this was a skill that I thought the student needed to learn. I was pleased that, after making the effort to get along with the other student, they became friends after that. Both students learned something extra in my course besides the technical aspects of transport process design.

Fair evaluation of student participation in groups is a challenge that must be faced whenever grades are determined largely by group efforts. Some students may not spend as much time or effort as other members, whereas other students may contribute more than their fair share. To evaluate individual student contributions, I required each student to evaluate contributions of each student, including themselves, at the end of each unit in the course, four times in total. I converted their qualitative evaluations into a numerical score for my use only, and reserved the right to increase or reduce each student’s final letter grade by one letter based on these numerical scores. Because the composition of the groups changed with each course unit, the numerical scores were based on a broad basis of many students, and thus, were fair, even if one person did not do well in one group. But, if a student was consistently slacking, then I could tell, and reduced that student’s final grade by one letter. As it turned out, I raised more grades than I reduced.

Learning to approach problems of current interest

Design problems that I assigned were usually based upon situations current in engineering practice. I read several relevant trade publications, and, when a problem of current interest appeared that could be modified somewhat to be able to given to my students, a design problem was developed. These problems were made to conform to technical topics presented in class. Some examples of the types of design problems assigned are found in King et al. [2]. Giving design problems of this type to my students made them more interesting to students, and allowed them to learn another set of skills, as well.

These problems usually required more information to solve than was given in class. After all, class topics were meant to teach general problem-solving techniques. Many of these problems required outside reading and research to find details related to the problem background and to typical approaches to solution of similar problems. In this way, students learned to supplement their class work with extra details and to find prior work that related to their problems, similarly to how a working engineer would have to operate given a design task by his or her employer. In this way, their design solutions would have a good deal of realism included, thus helping to develop engineering judgment. So, students had to develop information-gathering skills. At first, students would bug other faculty members who they thought might have quick answers to their detailed questions. After a while, though, they learned to use the library, and some even called industry people whom they had not previously met to ask questions. I have been told that some students represented themselves as practicing engineers to these industry representatives in order to gain access to them and their knowledge.

Learning to solve vaguely defined problems

Design problems in my classes were deliberately given with some key pieces of information either missing or given in a nonprecise way. This was done to hone their abilities to deal with engineering problems not completely specified. We played roles during class sessions after design problem assignment in which the students were free to ask questions of me, playing the role of a nonengineer client, to help to define what was needed for the design solution. They had to learn to think about the project, figure out what was not known to them, but was important for them to solve the problem, and to ask pertinent questions in ways that could be understood by a lay person without including words of engineering jargon. For instance, the word “viscosity” would not normally used by a nonengineer, but the word “thickness,” or some equivalent might be.

Learning about regulations and practical limitations

As with all practical problems engineers must deal with, there are limitations that must be known. For instance, anything involving food is subject to health department rules, and these can vary from location to location. Biomedical instrumentation is subject to Food and Drug Administration rules. Environmental regulations are relevant to wastes and discharges. There are rules and regulations that must be known to limit design options. Students had to investigate these before they could formulate a final solution to the assigned problem.

Learning about technical writing

Our students were required to take a technical writing class in their undergraduate curriculum. Unfortunately, this course was taught in the English department, and, as such students were taught writing skills appropriate to compositional writing, but not necessarily for technical writing. As a case in point, students were highly encouraged, in their technical writing class, to write from the viewpoint of the first person, the author of the writing. Verbs are supposed to be in active voice.

But good technical writing is hardly ever done that way, as opposed to what they were told in their required technical writing course. When an article is published in a scientific or technical journal, it seems boastful and self-serving if it is written in the first person. When writing operating instructions, the first person pronoun “I” never appears. Other personal pronouns also do not appear. Why? The reason for these characteristics is that, in technical writing, the attention should be placed on the action taken rather than on the actor. A good design should be a good design no matter who did the analysis; good data should be good data no matter who conducted the experiment. For these reasons, good technical writing exclusively uses the third person in technical writing, and verbs are used in passive voice. Students were taught about this distinction and the reason behind it, so that they understood how to write correctly in a professional context.

The mantra of writing in plain language so that a lay person can understand it was repeated many times in class. “Write so that your mother can understand what you are saying.” Whereas some technical details cannot be written this simply, students must learn to realize that the merit of their works later in their careers will likely be judged by some nontechnical personnel, perhaps business managers, financiers, or product users. Technical details should be separated from nontechnical descriptions so that both technical and nontechnical readers can be satisfied.

If an engineer produces the best design in the world, but cannot communicate it effectively, then he or she might as well not have produced the design in the first place. This was the motivation given to the class to produce an effective design report as the culmination of their design efforts. Their final product at the end of their assignment was a design report with a particular format given to them as a template. Elements of the report were:

Summary—given in two paragraphs: 1) a short, but adequate description of the problem and

2) a summary of the design solution. It is this part of the report that will be read by the boss, before he hands it to someone else to evaluate, so the summary should be located right up front and effective.

Table of contents—this is a formality to help the reader find things in the report.

Introduction—this should include a detailed description of the problem, as well as any background necessary to the problem solution, including, perhaps, current approaches taken for similar problems.

Design concept—a verbal description of the means to solve the problem with enough detail that it can be understood by technical personnel. This section should provide the context to understand what is being calculated in the next section. Any design conclusions needed to be included here.

Detailed calculations—these are the calculations to supplement the approach given in the previous section. Any assumptions made should be given explicitly. Only representative calculations should appear; repetitive calculations need to be moved to the appendix.

Bibliography—reference materials should be given in a form that makes them easily accessible should the reader wish to look at them. Internet references should include the access date because these references can be changed at any time.

Appendix—include supplemental materials and repetitive calculations.

Written descriptions should be supplemented, wherever possible with good, well-described drawings and illustrations.

Learning time management

There were other collateral skills that were learned by individual students. One involved the short time deadline that was given for submission of the final design report. I usually gave the groups two weeks before the reports were to be turned in. This was done for several reasons. First of all, two weeks is usually the amount time that students would work on a problem like this anyway, no matter when it was assigned and when it was due. Second, working engineers rarely, if ever, have unlimited amounts of time to complete their assigned tasks. Instead, they must learn to do the best that they can in the time available, and to be satisfied with the result. Deadlines are a part of professional life. This required students to get to work quickly on the problem, and to produce the best possible solution and report in the time available. Engineering solutions, they would learn, were not perfect, there could always be improvements to be made, but engineering solutions had to be the best that could be done in the time available.

Highly motivated college students often strive for perfection, but that is not always possible in a short amount of time. Having students work together in groups on design projects helps in that there can be specialized efforts by different students to contribute to the final product: one student may do library research, another may interview company representatives, and another may make the necessary technical drawings, for instance, but they are all responsible for the final report.

One student, in particular, had a lot to learn about this. He had a slight learning disability that he compensated for by taking extra time to come up with his best submissions. He was a perfectionist. He had to learn to reduce his expectations for perfection in order to meet the deadline. He did learn how to deal with his perfectionist tendencies, and became a better engineer as a result.

Learning to evaluate others’ reports

When it came to reports, I found out that some students were better at this than others. Most of the design reports in these courses were written by groups of students working together on the project. I found several ways to deal with this, and to improve report quality of all students in the end. I would have student groups submit their reports, all on the same day, but distributed so that other groups would each receive several reports from groups other than their own. Each person in each group was expected to peer-review another report and to submit an anonymous evaluation based upon a template that I supplied. Working engineers are often expected to evaluate proposals submitted to their companies. By requiring peer evaluations, I was giving them a chance to learn how this is done in the relatively friendly confines of the classroom, rather than under pressure at work. Some students did amazingly good jobs at peer evaluation, including substantial editing of written materials in the report. These evaluations were also graded by me, for a minimal 5% of the report grade, and then returned back to the group originating the design report, so that they could use the extensive peer feedback to improve their next design report effort. In my Transport Processes Design course, there were three design projects to complete in a semester, each due two weeks after assignment.

One additional advantage of peer evaluation of design reports is that students receive feedback from more than just the instructor. If a peer cannot understand what a particular group has written, then it can have more of an effect than just the teacher saying it. The responsibility for evaluation is spread over more than just the teacher’s opinion.

Learning to write letters

The generation of students toward the end of my teaching career was not familiar with writing letters. They knew how to text among themselves and their friends, but had not had occasion to write formal letters to anybody. Design reports required a letter of transmittal as a courtesy to the customer who commissioned the report. I gave the students a simple template for a letter of transmittal: one sentence that says “here it is,” and perhaps a second short paragraph summarizing the major results or aspects of the report. These might be expanded slightly, but keep the letter short and to the point, I told the students, because the letter is only a formality. After writing three of these, one for each design project report submitted, students were confident that they could write letters of transmittal.

Learning engineering judgment

Engineering judgment is essential for a successful engineering career, whether it is used to estimate the rate of chemical into a mammalian cell or the cost of production of a new product proposed to management. There is nothing better to help develop judgment than to confront engineering designs based upon real scenarios. Thus, it was soon decided in our department to make all of our upper-level engineering courses require design projects as a major part of the final grade evaluation. I required design projects in my courses. My understanding was that practicing engineers were not usually required to take academic tests during their careers, so prelim and midterm tests were eliminated from my courses. However, I found that, without any academic means to prod students to keep up with their studies, students did not understand the technical materials in the course well enough to do well on their design projects. Consequently, students were made to take weekly short quizzes that, in total, contributed a nominal 10% of their final grade. I even made it easier for a student to miss a quiz or to have an off-day or two by only counting the best ten quiz grades. Nonetheless, students were so motivated that they worked hard to do well on all the quizzes. Given the option of voluntarily missing a few quizzes if that student had high grades on all the other ten, few students exercised their abilities to miss quizzes and still maximize their quiz average.

When, during one semester, it became obvious that students were preprogramming their calculators to compute numerical answers to expected quiz questions, we decided to eliminate the use of calculators for quizzes. Instead, to help students develop numerical judgment, we graded as correct any estimates that came within 10% of the correct answer. Engineers should at least be able to estimate to this degree of accuracy.

To add to the appreciation of our students about current techniques and practices, several lectures in our capstone design course were devoted to mundane topics of practical hardware and software. One or two class sessions were given by outsiders who lectured about the patenting process and operations of selected government agencies. The idea for these was to prepare students for the constraints imposed upon them once they had graduated and were employed in the outside world. And, the capstone design project had to include the fabrication and testing of a real prototype, assisted by our excellent shop personnel. Design projects in other courses only required reports as the final stage.

Professional practice

Two groups of students inadvertently provided lessons in professional practice that I presented to all succeeding classes. The project that they were to design, in this case, was a ventilation system for a government building containing biosecurity laboratories. There were several labs in the hypothetical building, and each one had to be protected against contamination from outside air as well as to prevent contaminants from inside each lab from leaking out.

All groups submitted their reports, as required. All designs included high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters to remove contaminant particles from the air stream. Students had checked industrial specifications for pressure drops and particulate efficiencies. The normal efficiency specification was 97%, and all groups but one chose to use this spec for their designs. One group, however, found a single company that specified its filters as 99% efficient. This group chose to specify filters from this one company as the ones that they incorporated into their design. What was wrong with this choice, from a professional standpoint, was that this choice tied them to filters from one particular company, making the choice vulnerable to pricing and availability only from this one company. It is not good engineering design practice to choose to use outlier products if normal specifications would suffice. I used this example to instruct subsequent classes about choices of suppliers.

A second group submitted their report for the same project that included an extra protected bathroom in the building. I’m sure that they expected some praise, if not extra credit, for including this additional work. Instead, I docked them for the extra design. My rationale was this: first, this project had been played as a government contract, specified only to submit designs for the biosecurity laboratories. Extra work submitted as part of this contract would have called into question how much funding was expended for the extra nonessential work, and this may have caused ensuing legal proceedings to recover those funds.

Worse yet, as I told students, a practicing engineer who was able to supply the ventilation system for a bathroom in addition to the labs, should propose to the funding agency that they could provide the design, and for a certain amount of money. By providing the agency with the extra design, as this one group did, the engineers were undercutting their own abilities to set professional fees. It was not good to cheapen one’s own technical abilities by providing them at less than market value, unless they were provided to a charitable or public service cause.

I used these two illustrations in subsequent classes to illustrate to the students that practicing engineering was different from engineering college instruction. When they graduated, and were responsible for supporting themselves as engineers, there were practical matters to attend to.

Learning about professional responsibility

As often happened when teams worked together on their designs and reports, they often assigned specific tasks to individual group members to avoid duplication of efforts and work as efficiently as possible to meet the deadline for submission. In one case, one student plagiarized background material from the internet and included this material within the Introduction section of the group’s report. I recognized that this material had been copied without attribution to the original author, and brought the issue to the attention of the University of Maryland Honor Board, which I was obligated to do based on the university honor code. Although only one member of the group had been guilty of plagiarism, all members of the group had signed the report, as required. I had indicated to the students at the beginning of the course that, by signing the report (and also each homework submission), they were attesting to the fact that they had contributed to the report, were each familiar with all details of the report, and that they attested to the fact that all other members of the group also knew the details of the report (this last stipulation spread the responsibility for student learning from the instructor, me, to other members of the group, as well).

There was a lesson to be taught to the students about the meaning of their signatures. Although I conceded that only one student had plagiarized, they all had taken responsibility by signing the report. Before this episode, the other members of the group had not thought much about the meaning of their signature, but they conceded that they were somehow also responsible for the report contents. I eventually advised the Honor Board that I did not want any harsh punishment to conclude this case, but the point was made to this group, and the remainder of the class, about the meaning of a personal signature in a professional context. Thereafter, I used this example in subsequent years to make the point about personal signatures, for another lesson in professionalism.

Learning about ethics

At the end of the semester there were two classes left after the last of the Transport Process Design technical material had been taught and before the due date for the last of the design reports. I used one of these classes to talk about ethics and professionalism. I used, as a guide, a prior version of an IEEE code of ethics, which was simple and unembellished, as some engineering ethics codes are. We talked about individual responsibilities and public responsibilities. We talked about kickbacks taken by Spiro Agnew while he was still Baltimore County Executive in Maryland, and why engineering firms might want to contribute to him to gain favor when contracts were awarded. We talked about the space shuttle Challenger disaster and why it was important to speak up when one’s engineering judgment seemed to be important. We talked about the responsibilities that engineers assume to foster the development of their subordinates. We talked about engineering as a meritocratic profession where there is no place for discrimination due to race, creed, national origin, or anything other than professional performance (in classes with students with much diversity, this may have been the only time that they heard this message from one of their professors). We talked about collusion about professional fees and how students owed professional service to the people of Maryland for helping to underwrite the costs of their educations. We talked about all of these examples, and others, to illustrate what would be expected of them to be the best that they could be in a professional career. And, last, but certainly not least, they heard the message that I, and others, expected the very best from them upon graduation. They had proven themselves to me in this course, and now they were prepared to achieve great things in their lives.

What I have tried to do for my engineering students was to expose them to a full range of issues that they would need to know once they entered the workforce. Engineers, contrary to popular perception, can be good communicators, socially aware, and interesting. The students who graduate with these skills already learned can expect to advance in their careers faster than those who need to learn these skills once on the job. And, that’s exactly what happened: our graduates were appreciated for what they already knew and tasted success ahead of their peers.


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  2. P. H. King, R. C. Fries, and A. T. Johnson, Design of Biomedical Devices and Systems, 4th ed., Boca Raton, FL, USA: Taylor & Francis, 2019.
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