Arizona Technology and Innovation: ASU Engineering Education Innovation

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Arizona State University is launching a project to revolutionize engineering education by creating a learning environment that values risk-taking, innovation and creativity among its students and faculty. ASU’s Polytechnic School will receive one of six $2 million grants awarded by the National Science Foundation to revolutionize its engineering department. Ann McKenna, director of the Polytechnic School in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU, will tell us more.

TED SIMONS: Tonight's edition of "Arizona Technology and Innovation" looks at a project that's designed to revolutionize the way engineers are educated. Joining us now is Ann McKenna, director of the Polytechnic School in ASU's Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. Good to see you again, thanks for joining us.

ANN MCKENNA: I thank you for having me.

TED SIMONS: Revolutionizing engineering education…that's a lot going on here. What's happening?

ANN MCKENNA: Sure. So last year the National Science Foundation put out a call to request proposals for academic units to propose revolutionary ideas to transform the way we approach engineering education; and also, particularly in the context of creating the professional formation of engineers. So the National Science Foundation has funded a lot of work to do interesting things with the curriculum. But they also recognize that they want it to be lasting change. And so they put it in the language of revolutionizing so that proposals were bold. They really wanted for proposing of some interesting things. So we were selected to receive one of these awards from the National Science Foundation, which we're excited about. For us, we have a solid foundation in the Polytechnic School and within Fulton to approach teaching and learning from a project-based perspective. So what we said is "Well, okay, so that's good, we've made some progress, but how can we really infuse this throughout the school, such that the courses that have been resistant to change for many years, that we can impact those as well?" And so it's this idea of changing throughout the curriculum, revolutionizing the way we educate the professional formation of engineers, and bringing in an entrepreneurial mindset to do so. We want to really try and understand the ecosystem within which change happens. It's one of the differentiators of our project, to really focus on what that ecosystem is, so that we make sure that whatever we do takes into account the entire system.

TED SIMONS: So basically we're talking about a new kind of learning environment here. And when you say "entrepreneurial" it sounds like risk-taking. Is that a big factor here?

ANN MCKENNA: Yes, exactly. So when you think about start-ups in the entrepreneurial world, they're very risky because there's a lot of uncertainty whether or not they are going to succeed. And so one of the things that we've done is we've taken - we've borrowed tools from the entrepreneurial world, in particular what we call the business model canvas, which really does lay out all of the factors that are within a system that you need to think about. One in particular is really understanding what the value is, and so the more you can understand what your value proposition is, and who your users and stakeholders are in that system, you have more potential for really designing something that has impact. And so that's the entrepreneurial piece. And putting in place the support, for example, partners and channels and key resources, which are all part of the ecosystem, and making sure you identify what those are, so that the revolution can last beyond the individuals.

TED SIMONS: And I know this sounds different than traditional engineering education, but sometimes traditional engineering education can result in some pretty good things. So how do you make sure -- these all sound like big ideas, very creative and innovative -- but how do you make sure that people are being educated to be engineers?

ANN MCKENNA: What we don't lose sight of is that there are fundamental skills and knowledge that are important in the engineering profession. So we're not losing sight of what students need to learn to be successful. And one of the things that we've done to make sure we get input, we have an advisory board and the industry that gives us input. And so the concepts are there, and the concepts are important. But the way in which you engage students in learning those concepts can be more effective, particularly as we think about how do we make sure that we have students who are being recruited into engineering, and that want to stay in engineering as a profession, so that we can continue to produce individuals who can tackle the technological challenges that we're facing.

TED SIMONS: I would imagine you would start with getting students involved in real life and meaningful problems and issues. Correct?

ANN MCKENNA: Yes, that's true. Students in the Fulton schools and in the Polytechnic School are excited by the idea of being innovative. So what engages them, and what excites them about engineering is that there are these opportunities to be involved and to be innovative. Part of our proposal is a key partner in our ecosystem…our students. And so if we want change to last, it's partly driven by students. So we make sure we have them engaged in our activities and actually working with the faculty as we make changes to courses and curriculum.

TED SIMONS: Was there a question in the past regarding, you come into engineering school and you've got to go from A to B to get to C and D, and the whole way down. As opposed to you come into the engineering education environment and you are an engineer from day one.

ANN MCKENNA: Exactly. One of the mottos that we have in Fulton is that you are an engineer from day one. Meaning, we're not going to wait for you to do some of the fun and exciting stuff before you learn this topic and this topic. And actually what we know from doing a lot of research and education is that you learn by doing and you learn by applying, and that's how you develop a robust understanding. It's not learning it in lock-step sequence; it's learning it as you need to apply it. So yes, we believe in that. Students from day one engage in projects and with the industry, and we want to continue to advance that as part of the revolution.

TED SIMONS: Does engineering education need a revolution?

ANN MCKENNA: There have been aspects to it that have been resistant to change, and so the National Science Foundation has recognized that. And that's part of why they wanted to fund schools to engage in this revolution. And in particular we have fairly significant grand challenges that we're trying to develop solutions to, and we really need to build a larger and more effective workforce to take on these challenges. So one of the challenges in engineering in particular is to make sure that we have a good group of new students coming in, and also a diverse group of students, students that perhaps would not have been interested in a more traditional approach but would be interested in actually making a difference, taking their knowledge and applying it in meaningful ways right from the very beginning. And so it's about making the profession a little bit more attractive to the next generation of students and then keeping them in and then having them be successful.

TED SIMONS: Well it sounds like the bottom line here is creating a culture of change. Congratulations on getting this grant and good luck. Good to have you here.

ANN MCKENNA: Thank you.

TED SIMONS: Tuesday on Arizona Horizon, Department of Child Safety Director Greg McKay will join us in studio to discuss his vision for the office as well as recent high-profile child abuse cases. That's at 5:30 and ten on the next Arizona Horizon. And a reminder, if you want to watch tonight's show again or see any previous episodes of Arizona Horizon, or see what we have in store for the future, look us up online at That's That is it for now. I'm Ted Simons. Thank you so much for joining us. You have a great evening.

Video: Arizona Horizon is made possible by contributions from the Friends of Eight, members of your Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

Video: ASU's Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering strive to advance research, education, and industry to transform our economy. Ideas, talent, and technology for Arizona. You can learn more at

Ann McKenna:Director of Polytechnic School in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU

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