Revolutionary Changes in Chemical, Biological and Environmental Engineering at Oregon State University

Led by PI Jim Sweeney and Co-PIs Devlin Montfort, Milo Koretsky, Michelle Bothwell, and Sue Nolen, the purpose of this project is to make bold and deliberate changes to the educational environment and practices in the School of Chemical, Biological, and Environmental Engineering at Oregon State University. While society needs engineers from diverse backgrounds ready to face the challenges of the 21st century, most engineers are still educated using methods developed several decades ago. One of the most important shifts in thinking (that has yet to be incorporated into engineering education) is to move away from "decontextualized" content - in which what students learn is intentionally removed from the context of their lives, identities and future careers. Engineering students, therefore, are hindered from putting their whole selves into engineering and learning, and many talented students leave engineering as a result. The project team is redesigning the curriculum and investing in extensive faculty training to reshape the School of Chemical, Biological, and Environmental Engineering into a warm, welcoming environment that helps students build strong ties between the content in the classroom and the rest of their lives. The graduates will be dramatically better prepared to apply their knowledge to whatever new and unpredictable challenges face our society in the years to come. 

While the School of Chemical, Biological, and Environmental Engineering (CBEE) at Oregon State University provides students many innovative learning opportunities, the extent to which these efforts are marginalized and isolated limits their influence. The goal of the effort is to implement revolutionary change by replacing a business-as-usual approach with a holistic, inclusive, professionally based learning environment woven through both curricular requirements and co-curricular opportunities. The team will address social inequality by creating engineering educational systems and interpersonal interactions that are professionally and personally life affirming for all people across their differences. Change will come through construction of a culture of inclusion and a shift in learning environments from sequestered activities to realistic, consequential work. This requires a fundamental change in the nature of department culture (values, norms and structure). 

national science foundation logoThe effort's core activities include: (1) curricular redesign of nine core sophomore- and junior-level studio courses to include more realistic, consequential work (leveraging research-based pedagogies like problem-based learning and model-eliciting activities); (2) growing faculty and students' capacity to engage issues of inclusivity by shifting theircognitive and affective knowledge of power and privilege; (3) planning and implementing student professional development pods, longitudinally mixed student teams where students help one another understand the university experience and how it relates to professional practice; and (4) implementing formal changes in governing policies and procedures within CBEE. This project will provide the first well-documented case study of institutional, cultural change in engineering making use of a situative theory. As more institutions and faculty experience an inclusive culture centered on engaging students with work that connects to engineering practice as well as their own identities and communities, we expectretention, recruitment and graduation numbers to increase. Additionally, faculty empowered to participate holistically in their teaching and research will reap personal benefits that are likely to be reflected in measurable outcomes, such as: research productivity, teaching effectiveness, sense of belonging, and growth.

This project is funded by the National Science Foundation, award #1519467.