Jennifer Bonniwell is an associate professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where she just finished her sixth year. She teaches mostly freshmen and juniors in the electrical engineering programs and is a member of the American Society for Engineering Education. Bonniwell will be speaking about her experience teaching an Intro to Electrical Engineering course, and some things she has learned along the way. 

Amardeep Kaur just finished her second year as an associate professor at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville. Before this, she taught at Missouri University of Science and Technology. She has experience teaching many classes in the electrical engineering field.  For her success with an electrical engineering course for non-majors, she was recognized with the faculty achievement award at Missouri S&T. Besides being a professor, she is involved with IEEE Region 5, and is the Student Activities Committee Chair. Kaur will share her thoughts on what it is like teaching an electrical engineering course to non-electrical engineering majors.

This interview exams teaching Electrical Engineering to First Timers from two perspectives, one is a professor who teaches first-year students and the other professor who teaches students who are non-electrical majors

What is the biggest challenge you face with students and how do you address it?

Jennifer: It has to be the lack of understanding on how to apply their basic math skills to application problems. A lot of the students come in with decent math skills, but when they have to apply those same math skills they learned in high school to engineering problems, it becomes a huge struggle. This Intro to Electrical Engineering course almost acts as a math course that focuses on using those basic math skills to solve engineering problems. We use the text Introductory Mathematics for Engineering Applications by Kuldip S. Rattan, Nathan W. Klingbeil, and Craig M. Baudendistel, which is about applying various math concepts to engineering applications. We have found this very useful in helping students understand the topics throughout the course, and how to apply their math skills to each application. 

Amardeep: Since all of the students in my course are non-electrical engineering majors, it’s an initial challenge to grab their attention, especially because they’re different majors. Most of the time they come in convinced that they won’t enjoy it because it’s a requirement, you know, it wasn’t their choice to add it to their schedule. Essentially I come in with the goal of convincing these students that this course is still important and you need to learn the material. I try to make the course as engaging as possible and structure it in a way that appeals to all of the majors and exceeds their expectations. 

In your course, how are students’ academic backgrounds different and what do you do?

Jennifer: Being an intro course for freshmen, they all come from different educational backgrounds and the difference in backgrounds becomes even clearer when I teach quadratic equations. Some students have taken calculus, so they want to use the derivative to solve the problem, while others have only taken algebra and have no idea what the derivative is. It’s important to know they come from different mathematical backgrounds and to welcome all approaches to solve the problem. I encourage them to use the way that works best for them, even if it’s not the way I taught them or a way they read in the course text. 

Amardeep: Teaching a class full of different engineering majors means their academic preparation differs greatly. The first week of classes I take time to introduce the different tools we will be using because everyone might not already be familiar with them. You have to know that a mechanical engineer doesn’t have the same technical skills as a civil engineer, or an aerospace one. In this course, I don’t focus on their math skills as much as I focus on their overall understanding of the tested concept. For their exams, I keep in mind that their skills will vary, so I give them a ‘cheat sheet’ on the formulas. This way, students won’t be stressed about memorizing these new formulas, but just focussed on the concepts. Knowing that the students in your class have different backgrounds, interests, and majors is very important. 

What structure have you found works best for your course?

Jennifer: Structuring the course to develop the topic is very helpful. Our schedule works out to have three 50 minute classes related to the lecture topic. The first day of class we cover new material, the second day the instructor goes through a bunch of examples, while using think-pair-share and other active learning ideas, and the third day is homework solution day. On the third day, students present their solutions to their homework problems, which reinforces concepts and helps them gain authority and confidence in discussing the learned material. This structure is very helpful because it follows an active learning method, which has been proven to be interactive and engaging. Each section of the course is closely coordinated between three to four faculty teaching the course and has the same content and schedule.This is done to encourage collaboration with other students in different sections. In addition to lectures, having a two hour lab each week to introduce different areas within electrical engineering, such as programming and circuit building, provides them with hands-on electrical engineering lab experiments.  

Amardeep: In the beginning, I tried to make my course structure similar to the professor who taught the other section. I found myself teaching it the way I thought he would teach it, and it wasn’t until I made it my own that I found success, and I also enjoyed it. At the start of each week, I begin class with an anonymous Kahoot that tests students’ knowledge of application based material. This is helpful because some students don’t feel comfortable asking questions, but this will show me the areas that not everyone understands, so I know to go over the concept again. In all of my lessons, I try to teach it in two separate ways to address both visual and auditory style learners. For example, I will write out a problem on the board, with three different ways  to solve it, which is very helpful for a visual learner. Afterwards, I will explain the problem to ensure those who like to listen to learn, can have that same opportunity. Throughout the course, I focus on communication because if you aren’t aware that something is not working, you will not know how to fix it. If you ask for feedback and set a goal for that school year, you will be very successful in your course. 

What is something that professors should know about engineering students?

Jennifer: It’s not uncommon to see students frustrated and on the verge of giving up. Something I introduced to my students is the phrase: you might not be able to do it yet. Since not every student is on the same level, it can be super intimidating to be surrounded by classmates who have already had that prior experience through engineering prep courses such as Project Lead the Way. It’s really easy for students to shut down and say they can’t do it, but you have to give them that support and let them know it’s okay that they haven’t figured it out yet. I found that connecting with them and telling them my story has uplifted them. I will tell them how I was initially on track to study elementary education but at the last minute decided I was more interested in electrical engineering. In my electrical engineering classes, I had classmates who could get through problems so fast, and it was intimidating, but in the end, look where I am now. It’s important for professors to let students know that even if you’re surrounded by people who may have more experience than you, it doesn’t mean that you aren’t capable of doing it. It just means you have yet to, but you will. 

Amardeep: Students have a life outside of the classroom and it’s important to take that into account. There is a difference between frustration and being anxious and it’s important to pick up on the signs and to create a comfortable environment. With frustration, students respond best when you’re honest with them in terms of telling them that yes, this problem is hard, but it will get easier. More times than not, they won’t come to you on their own and ask for help, but it’s important to let them know you are there for them and understand. When a student seems overwhelmed and anxious about something, it’s helpful to reach out and ask if everything is okay. You shouldn’t single them out in class, but rather send them an email to let them know that you are there if they need anything. One time, I noticed a student who normally submits all of their work had not submitted the assignment, so I reached out asking if everything was okay. They told me they were struggling a lot with finances due to the pandemic and were extremely overwhelmed, to which I responded by providing them with resources to assist them. It’s important to make sure students know how supportive you are, because then they will feel comfortable speaking with you and will feel relieved that you understand class is not the only important thing. 

What advice do you have for new professors?

Jennifer: Smile. A friendly face has a lot to do with it. Building a welcoming community is very important, especially in introductory courses. It’s about building that cohort, that community, and you’re there to make them feel that they are welcomed, and that they belong. 

Amardeep: Make your class enjoyable for yourself  too. If you don’t enjoy it, then your students won’t either. Be patient, because it will take time to find that perfect balance, but once you do, it will be successful. And know that it’s okay to be anxious in the beginning, that feeling will fade.