Engineering a modified curriculum: Pratt School aims to make classes more practical

Invigorated by a grand vision of the “new” Duke engineer, faculty members are working to change the Pratt curriculum.

For the past 40 years, engineering curriculum everywhere has generally begun with basic theoretical classes followed by hands-on application later on—the Pratt School of Engineering is flipping this traditional construct on its head. Ravi Bellamkonda, the Vinik dean of Pratt, explained that the shift is to help students become more flexible in the way they approach different situations.

“What we are trying to do more globally is enact the curriculum that will cultivate the characteristics we want to see in a Duke engineer," he said. "We would like our students to be comfortable and practiced with solving messy, unscripted, real-world problems. We want them to be effective working in diverse teams to solve problems. We want them to have great written and oral communication skills. We want them to be entrepreneurially confident, to have the skills and practice to make their imagination a reality.” 

One of the major changes is the introduction of the Engineering 101 class, Engineering Design and Communication, as a mandatory requirement for all Pratt first-years. 

Piloted with around 50 students in the Fall 2017 semester and 150 students in the Spring 2018 semester, the class received such a positive response from the department that faculty voted to open it to all first-years one year earlier than expected, Bellamkonda explained. 

He said that the class allows first-year students to get hands-on experience working with real-world clients to design, prototype and deliver solutions while learning to communicate and collaborate effectively in teams. 

Senior Tracy Lu, president of Engineering Student Government, noted that she appreciated the emphasis the class places on communication.

“It is a great initiative to inspire students to get their hands dirty early on," Lu said. "I like that the class is interactive and teaches students how to be engineers even before they take the typical hard and time-consuming Pratt classes that tend to be very theoretical.” 

This sentiment seems to have resonated with students who took the class. Sophomore Liat Levin, a current teaching assistant for the class who also took it last fall, fondly recalled his own experience with the course. 

“EGR101 was my first experience with engineering, and it is one of the main reasons why I chose to transfer into Pratt," Levin said. "I really enjoyed working through the engineering design process while also solving a real world problem that felt meaningful to me.”

Because computing is becoming such a fundamental skill for engineers, faculty members are also working to create multiple pathways to satisfy the computing requirement for students with different levels of experience. Bellamkonda explained that this idea has been translated into conversations regarding a new computing class with higher emphasis on computational thinking rather than the technical details of coding. 

The class will likely be ready by Fall 2020, he said, but the difficulty of the new course compared to Engineering 103L—the current mandatory computing class for first-years—is still up in the air.

Another change in relation to computing curriculum is the shift in teaching programming languages from MATLAB to Python in EGR103L.

“This is pretty influential because all the upper level engineering classes were done in MATLAB, so now either students will have to learn MATLAB a different way, or the labs will be changed to Python," Lu said. "I think the change is great because Python is free, open-sourced and and extremely widely used in industry and academia. The language is more applicable outside of Duke and valuable for engineering in the real world.” 

However, this change may be minor in comparison to what is to come. Michael Gustafson, Pratt '93, Ph.D. '99 and associate professor of the practice of electrical and computer engineering, said he foresees broader overarching changes in the structure of the class. 

“During the Spring semester we will be reevaluating how we make sure our students learn how to use computational methods tools as applied to their work in later classes and in their careers," Gustafson said. "Now that EGR 103 is no longer the ‘class everyone takes’—that being EGR 101—we have space to explore different options, including having entirely different courses.” 

Bellamkonda said he is also eager to revitalize “entrepreneurial confidence” among Pratt engineers, but he realizes that there is a difference between taking a class on entrepreneurship and actually building a business. 

To prepare students for real-world entrepreneurship, faculty members are working to create three sequential experiences, the first of which is already being offered in Innovation and Entrepreneurship 290. Open to sophomores and juniors in all majors, the class puts students in semester-long teams to fully develop a startup pitch. 

The second experience would give students money to build a prototype version of their startup, and the third would give them money to officially launch the startup and build it, Bellamkonda added. 

Although all three classes will be offered under the I&E department, students would not be required to take them in order. For instance, if they had prior experience with launching startups, they could start with the third class. This is all in a coordinated effort to make Duke a school not about just learning content, but rather about how content is mapped to the real world and applied for something useful and positive, Bellamkonda said. 

New requirements for sophomores are also under consideration. Stacy Tantum—Bell-Rhodes associate professor of the practice of electrical and computer engineering—and Paul Bendich—associate research professor of mathematics—are currently piloting the class Data Analysis and Decision Sciences, listed as Engineering 190L. 

The class teaches students to use statistics to interpret real-world data sets. Taught collaboratively between the engineering and math departments, this class will most likely replace the statistics requirement for most departments if voted in by faculty as a sophomore-year staple, Bellamkonda added.

Although still in its very early stages, a track in engineering analogous to Program II in Trinity is also being prepared, where engineers could create their own major. Bellamkonda explained that he wanted to create new kinds of interdisciplinary majors such as machine learning, as he envisions a mechanism for students to experiment with new majors without starting entirely new departments. 

“This initiative hopes to foster student-driven inquiry and allow students to really shape their own learning," Bellamkonda said. 

Overall, the changes in the Pratt curriculum reflect the faculty’s multifaceted efforts to make the Pratt School of Engineering much more “21st-century,” Lu added. 

“Historically, Pratt has had a heavy focus on consulting, finance, and software in post-graduation career paths, but the curriculum is slowly shifting towards training people to be actual engineers," she said. "While I think this does upset some Pratt students who did not intend to be engineers after graduating, I am glad that Duke engineers are being reinvented as confident, innovative individuals equipped to make a change in the real world.” 


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