Innovating Freshman Education Energizes Students and Faculty

BY Mike Koon

With Illinois, we’re making our undergrad experience the best in the world.

A collaborative effort of professors and teaching assistants, plus a grant from the College of Engineering’s Strategic Instructional Innovations Program (SIIP), led to a revamped ECE 110 Introduction to Electronics. Nearly 500 students take this class in four different sections of lectures and 16 different labs.

Raising funds through the With Illinois campaign will enable us to continue investing in ECE 110 and other SIIP projects like this. It will enable us to continue improving this course and innovate others.

Why the change? The students enter engineering with a large variance in previous exposure to electronics, making it difficult for more experienced students to increase their knowledge. Additionally, with multiple instructors, the variation in teaching methods made it challenging to provide consistency to every student. 

“In the past, instructors were allowed to deviate from each other as much as they wanted,” said Chris Schmitz, a senior lecturer and undergraduate advisor in ECE serving as a co-principal investigator on the project. “If instructors deviated with each other too much, it would reduce the fairness of exam content.”

The SIIP team set up goals for the improvement of this foundation course, which included reducing “content drift,” defining explicit learning objectives for the course to be the basis for the exams, and developing common lecture material that everyone was able to use.

“We were blessed to have a lot of good people on the project who were proactive in learning and implementing those good practices and sincerely interested in what the goals were. The team aspect was huge in getting everything moving.”

“At the beginning we didn’t know here we should start?” Schmitz said. “There are all kinds of best practices. Our challenge was to determine which ones fit our educational objectives and also fit personal styles of teaching. We were blessed to have a lot of good people on the project who were proactive in learning and implementing those good practices and sincerely interested in what the goals were. The team aspect was huge in getting everything moving.”

The most noticeable initial difference was a facelift of the course notes to be more consistent and the development of a more comprehensive website.

“The feedback was positive,” Schmitz said. “Our students liked the readability and conciseness of the online textbook and the personal touch of the diagrams, which were mostly hand drawn. We still provided additional material for those who wanted to learn more, but it was obvious when it wasn’t mission critical for doing well in the course.”

Chris Schmitz, a senior lecturer and undergraduate advisor, teaching ECE 110 Introduction to Electronics.

One of the issues of the past, Schmitz reports, was that each instructor contributed problems to exams and would often have to pull all-nighters to grade them because they had to determine how much partial credit to give on each question. He notes the effort that previously went into grading the exams now goes into writing good questions and making sure they align with course objectives that are distributed to the class at the beginning of the semester. The exams migrated into short numeric-answer problems mixed with multiple-choice questions where students get multiple opportunities to answer with reduced credit for each attempt. Exams are now auto-graded.

In addition to the lectures, the labs were restructured as well and more closely monitored to make sure they weren’t too far ahead or behind what was being presented in the lectures. Instead of having procedures that last the entire three-hour lab period, time is set aside at the end so that each student can work on a project of his/her choosing.

Students in a lab for ECE 110 working on using and reserving electrical energy in a moving vehicle.

“They can use the final 15-45 minutes of each lab session to explore with more autonomy in selection,” Schmitz said. “As they learn more about the core procedures each week, more of these modules open up to them. We are finding self-motivation is growing because of the choice in content and many more are becoming involved in projects outside of the course.”

Before the SIIP overhaul, most of the final projects were car-based because that was the main aspect of the lab. Because of the expanded options in the lab, project now run the gamut of possibility.

“Design was there before, but now the freedom that the students have been offered and the excitement that comes from the having that kind of freedom has been an impulse for new applications.”

“The design aspect has gone up quite a bit,” Schmitz added. “Design was there before, but now the freedom that the students have been offered and the excitement that comes from the having that kind of freedom has been an impulse for new applications.”

“At the start of the semester, those students are already brainstorming about what they want to build even before many of them have been exposed to the basic concepts of circuits,” Schmitz said.

The team has also developed a merit section geared toward students not well represented in this discipline.  They work in small groups to build community and confidence. Research has shown merit sections to improve student retention.

This project has energized both faculty and students.

“We have recently recruited two new faculty members to teach ECE110 for the first time,” Schmitz said. “Most professors are not usually too excited about teaching a freshman level course with 500 students, but their response has been extremely positive. They were able to step in and teach because all the pieces, including a common set of notes and shared infrastructure, were already there.”

 “We are finding that as students come back afterwards and tell us about their experience, I rarely hear anything negative,” he added. “They are excited they can do open-ended projects and they get resources for an honors project. They tell us they never expected these opportunities as a freshman.”

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