Published June 15, 2023
It took approximately one hour for more than 700 graduates in 15 degree programs to walk across the Alumni Arena stage at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences’ (SEAS) undergraduate commencement ceremony last month.
It took only 20 seconds for the entire cohort of Bachelor of Science in Engineering Science graduates to walk the stage, but that just made the moment all the more meaningful to Joe Olori.
“It felt really good knowing I graduated while doing something very different from what everyone else that was graduating had done,” he says.
Olori and five other classmates are the first University at Buffalo students to receive a BS in Engineering Science since the interdisciplinary program focused on engineering fundamentals relaunched in 2021.
They are also the first graduates of a program provided by the Department of Engineering Education (DEE), SEAS’ newest department that was founded in 2018.
“This is a big milestone for us,” says Emily Hammond, director of undergraduate studies and assistant professor of teaching in DEE. “These students are the first to go through the new curriculum, so we’re excited to get their feedback and understand their experiences through this first iteration.”
DEE aims to transform the way in which engineering students are educated, in hopes of yielding a diverse population of more highly competent and qualified engineers.
The American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) has long called for the reform of the United States’ engineering education system. Its 1994 report, “Engineering Education for a Changing World," found engineering schools must teach graduates how to understand the economic, social, environmental and international context of their professional activities, as well as attract an ethnic and social diversity of students that better reflects the diversity of the U.S.
Still, nearly 30 years later, few engineering schools have a department focused on improving education techniques. In fact, there are only about a dozen PhD-granting engineering education programs in the entire U.S., making SEAS a leader in this area, says James Jensen, professor and chair of DEE.
“The goal of the faculty and students in DEE is to collaborate to make engineering courses and curriculum engaging, inclusive and innovative,” Jensen says. “DEE faculty and students research pioneering teaching methods that embrace and extend the diversity of engineering students, with the goal of translating the research to the classroom.”
For example, Andrew Olewnik, assistant professor in DEE and SEAS director of experiential learning programs, received a nearly $200,000 National Science Foundation grant in 2018 to help students become better problem-solvers and better connect their coursework and professional preparation.
DEE faculty, which has grown to 19, also supports SEAS’ first-year engineering program and teaches the majority of the school’s lower-division courses. Jensen says this has led to innovative education approaches, like the use of open-ended modeling problems in the course, EAS 207 Statics.
The department’s enrollment has grown to over 40 students between its BS in Engineering Science program, as well as its Master of Science in Engineering Education and PhD in Engineering Education programs.
The BS in Engineering Science program is designed to provide undergraduates with engineering fundamentals and the flexibility to decide where to apply those fundamentals.
“This flexibility lets students focus more interdisciplinary in areas that might not fit in one traditional engineering department,” Hammond says. “Since engineering science is so broad, there are so many things that can be done with the degree.”
Like all the other members of his cohort, Olori transferred into the engineering science program from another engineering degree program in 2021. He had been unsure which engineering major he wanted to pursue, so his adviser told him about the engineering science program.
“It sounded like the best option for me,” he says. “It allowed me to take classes from any of the disciplines that I wanted.”
Olori also appreciated that his engineering science classes were more hands-on than some of the previous courses he’d taken. His favorite lab experience was using a motion-capture camera to determine the best throwing motion for playing cornhole, analyzing body movements and beanbag trajectory.
“We actually got to think about how we wanted to run certain experiments, collect data and try to solve the problems,” Olori says. “These classes really helped me become more of a problem solver rather than a machine that can memorize equations.”
Now that DEE has its first batch of graduates, it can continue its accreditation process with the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). Departments are required to have graduated students prior to accreditation.
“This is a big step in that process,” Hammond says.
Other developments include offering the option to complete the BS in Engineering Science degree fully online beginning this fall. The program will be tailored for students who paused their academic training and are now ready to resume.
As for Olori, he’s currently doing an internship at a water company in his hometown of New City, N.Y.
“Because of [the engineering science program], I think I will definitely end up being a different and, hopefully, better engineer than if I was in a normal engineering program,” he says.