“Why we’re making you take these courses” – Mary Robinson, Associate Director of First Year Engineering

“Why are you making me take this course?”  As a teacher, I hate this question.  But, I must confess that I posed it several times during my undergraduate years.  The answer that I got from my parents, friends, and teachers back in the day was the equally as frustrating “because you’ll need it later.”

Numerous studies indicate that one way to eliminate this question is to help students see the connections between concepts as the material is being taught, instead of leaving the building of connections to chance.  In Engineering, this is especially important because an Engineer will rarely be faced with a problem neatly labeled “Organic Chemistry”, for example.  Instead, an Engineer is expected to draw upon many subject areas to propose a solution to a complex problem.

In our project, we’ve chosen to focus on 1B Chemical Engineering (ChE) students, partially because they’re a cohort of students but mostly because this infamous question gets asked regularly during in this term.  The 1B ChE term is comprised of six courses: Engineering Biology (ChE161), Chemical Engineering Concepts 2 (ChE101), Electrical Engineering (GenE123), Calculus 2 for Engineering (Math118), Engineering Computation (ChE121), and an elective.  ChE121, also known as introduction to MATLAB programming and numerical methods, is one course that regularly triggers this question.  Many ChE students chose Chemical Engineering over Computer or Software Engineering to avoid programming and don’t appreciate the problems that are commonly included in programming courses, such as printing “Hello World!” to the screen.

To help demonstrate the relevance of MATLAB programming, problems in the Tool are drawn from courses taught during the 1B term.  Problems from ChE101, ChE161, GenE123, and Math118 provide concrete examples of how material from one course can be used in another course.  For example, the calculation of the bubble point temperature in ChE101 can mean hours of guess-and-check calculations, or be solved quickly with a few lines of MATLAB code.

A standard problem-solving methodology, built on D.R. Woods’ McMaster Method, forms the backbone of the Tool to encourage students to work through difficult problems in a structured manner.  The Tool is intended to be used by students on an as-needed basis, to allow students to pull important details as they practice solving problems.  Extension problems included in the Tool are excellent candidates for assignment problems and will stretch the students’ understanding of the concept covered in the solved example problem from that module.  For many problems in the Tool, MATLAB can be used to simplify the calculations once the solution process has been determined.

The Tool was built with help from first-year Engineering students as part of their first co-op work terms and is being tested by the current 1B Chemical Engineering class.  One of our goals is to help the students in first-year ChE understand why they are learning programming, calculus, circuits, biology, and Engineering concepts.  But personally, I hope never to hear “why are you making me take this course?” ever again.

For more information on the MATLAB Tool, please contact Luis Ricardez-Sandoval (laricard@uwaterloo.ca), Mary Robinson (mary.robinson@uwaterloo.ca), or Raymond Legge (rllegge@uwaterloo.ca).


Leave a Reply