Electronic Design
Integrating Engineering Curriculums

Integrating Engineering Curriculums

Villanova University and MathWorks worked together to develop an integrated curriculm that uses MATLAB and Simulink across a range of classes. Prior to this, Villanova engineering students had to learn different programming languages and tools for different courses. The integrated approach reduces this overhead by focusing on the two MathWorks platforms so students will already be familiar with the tools allowing professors to concentrate on teaching course related information instead of first having to teach them how to use the tools.

I talked with Professor Pritpal (Pali) Singh of Villanova University's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Tom Gaudette, principal academic evangelist at MathWorks, about the integrated curriculm that Villanova University is using.

Wong: What is an integrated curriculum?

Gaudette: In our customer base, colleges and universities are making a significant push to bring real-world practices and software into the classroom. Classroom theory is critical and faculties find that teaching students how that theory applies in industry to solve real-world problems can be very effective. In an integrated curriculum, students learn both the theory and the software.

Wong: What are the advantages to this approach?

Gaudette: Universities are better able to develop engineers trained and equipped to work in today's job markets, from automotive design and controls to wind power. Students, according to our customers, gain more confidence in the skills and knowledge base. Additionally, familiarity with software helps ensure their skills are more marketable when pursuing jobs. For example, a random search on Monster.com (7/13) for engineering jobs, more than 500 opportunities sought applicants with experience using MATLAB. And of course, industry benefits from the ability to hire engineers trained and ready to jump in the work place.

Wong: Are there any disadvantages to this approach?

Gaudette: The disadvantages to this approach happen when students don't receive the proper training on the tools in the beginning and then need to ramp up on the tools to complete the assignments later. This ramp-up can take professors time away from teaching the course topics. Additionally, software tools are often taught on a class by class basis, instead of program-wide. In these cases, students may need to spend and professors may need to dedicate class time re-learning how to use software. MathWorks has developed interactive tutorials designed to help support students as they learn MATLAB and Simulink. Professors can link to areas in the tutorials from their syllabus to give even more guidance to those students in need.

Wong: What would a typical integrated curriculum look like?

Gaudette: A typical integrated curriculum starts with freshman classes, where students build up their understanding of the tools. This can be a course dedicated to programing in MATLAB, a project-based learning course, or a math course, such as that offered at Oxford University. Or an integrated curriculum can be all three building upon each other.

Then, each year thereafter, the curriculum can build upon the students' knowledge in both theory and technology by offering courses that use the same tools. Without needing to invest class resources teaching software, faculty gain more time to delve deeper into the content. Integrated curriculums culminate in higher level courses, such as the computational methods or Signals and Systems, and senior-level programs, such as Penn State's Driving Technological Innovation and Hands-On Learning and Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology's Model-Based Design course, which are designed to help graduate trained and prepared engineers into the workforce.

Wong: What types of curriculums would this approach be useful with?

Gaudette: When looking at our software - MATLAB and Simulink - engineering and science curriculums would benefit such as chemistry, design engineering, controls, bio-medical, and mechanical engineering.

Wong: What tools were used in the curriculum prior to the integrated approach?

Pali: In the freshman courses, Fortran and C were taught in the core programming courses. In the upper level courses, the students either performed hand analysis or wrote their own programs in Fortran and C.

Wong: Why was MATLAB chosen as the central tool?

Pali: MATLAB offered a programming environment that could be used in a variety of courses. The visualization capabilities were deemed very useful. Finally, the availability of different specialized toolboxes that could be employed in particular courses, such as the Signal Processing toolbox, allowed specific specialized functions to be directly incorporated into classes without the need for extensive programming.

Wong: What other alternatives were examined?

Pali: The main alternative considered was having students write their own programs in C.

Wong: Will MATLAB and Simulink be a requirement for new courses?

Pali: MATLAB and Simulink have been widely incorporated into almost all of our required courses. We expect that any new courses will also have MATLAB and Simulink as the basic platform for simulations.

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