Synthesis Strategic Plan


July 1995

For US. industry to produce better engineered designs, we must produce better designed engineers–engineers skilled at synthesizing the complex technical and societal factors of today’s industrial environments and the global marketplace.


1.0 Vision

The mission of the Synthesis Coalition is to reform engineering education by developing new curricular and pedagogical models that integrate Synthesis concepts throughout the curricula, with emphasis on multidisciplinary content, teamwork and communication, hands-on and laboratory experiences, open-ended problem formulation and solving, and examples of “best practices” from industry. We have produced computer-based instructional material that integrates the diverse analytic, design, experimental and intuitive skills that are required by a practicing engineer. This material can be readily transferred and adapted to different student and campus needs utilizing the National Engineering Education Delivery System (NEEDS). Synthesis schools have created new synthesis-rich courses or modified existing courses utilizing the computer-based instructional material. Participating campuses now offer a Mechatronics Option, in which students take at least one Synthesis course (new or enhances course) during all four years of their undergraduate experience. The curricular and information infrastructures developed enable Synthesis to create K-12 linkages that build on our intellectual and pedagogical foundations.

    The goal of Synthesis is to develop curricular strategies and alternate modes of instruction and access that foster horizontal and vertical integration of engineering knowledge within the context of broader societal factors.

Synthesis is a way of teaching as well as a way of learning. Pedagogically, it stimulates and integrates both convergent and divergent thought processes. Synthesis-based instruction is rich in “real life” engineering material, in which theory is related to engineering practice through the critical in-class evaluation of engineering case studies that are integrated throughout the curriculum with actual engineering products and processes, open-ended design problems, and “best practices” from industry. This way of teaching assures that students develop the lifelong learning skills needed to cope with change long after the “teacher” is gone.

It is Synthesis-based learning, however, that is the focus of our curricular approach. Students work in groups, applying knowledge from multiple disciplines, and using analytic tools, design skills, and engineering intuition to deeply understand the task at hand. This interactive learning process permits students to integrate the disparate components of their education into a unified engineering experience. This way of learning prepares students to understand and manage the social complexity of the real world, and to exploit fully and sensitively technical opportunities to mediate the needs of our society.

2.0 The Synthesis Team

The Synthesis Coalition, supported by the National Science Foundation and industrial partners, is comprised of the following eight educational institutions: California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, Cornell, Hampton, Iowa State, Southern, Stanford, and Tuskegee Universities, and the University of California at Berkeley. Together Synthesis enjoys broad geographic diversity; a balance in size, mission, and institutional type; and a strong record of collaboration. Our Coalition members are well-represented among the nation’s leading institutions: three of our schools are in the top 10% of institutions in number of bachelor’s degrees granted; three are in the top 10% for degrees granted to women; five for degrees granted to African-Americans; and four for degrees granted to Chicano/Hispanics. Synthesis includes three of the nation’s seven historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) that grant engineering degrees, and the three California schools graduate a relatively large number of Native Pacific Islanders. Prior to Synthesis, Hampton University, an HBCU, was just initiating new engineering degree programs that, with the help of Synthesis, are now ABET-accredited.

3.0 The Synthesis Legacy

The Synthesis Coalition has developed a lasting legacy of curricular reform. The major components are:

blueball A four year multidisciplinary mechatronics curriculum sequence which will be institutionalized at six Synthesis campuses (California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, Hampton, Iowa State, Stanford, and Tuskegee Universities, and the University of California at Berkeley) and in a modular fashion at a seventh (Southern University).

blueball The multidisciplinary “Bridging the Architectural/Engineering/Construction Gap” curricular sequence.

blueball Synthesis-rich curricular modules of high quality, tested and evaluated multimedia courseware using synthesis pedagogical models.

blueball The NEEDS (National Engineering Education Delivery System) infrastructure of courseware studios, high technology learning environments linked to a multimedia database of engineering courseware.

blueball The NEEDS database itself and its transition to a national utility.

blueball Model K-14 linkage programs that build on synthesis curricula and the NEEDS infrastructure.

4.0 The Intellectual Foundation of Synthesis

Throughout our existence Synthesis has built on the recommendations of national engineering education studies (e.g., ASEE, 1995; NRC, 1994; NSPE, 1992) and our own faculty, students, and industry employers (for example, see Fig. 1 below from the National Society of Professional Engineers) to critically evaluate the specifics of our programs, to identify the most critical problems, and to formulate ambitious but practical reform solutions. A brief summary of the problems addressed, reform targets, and Synthesis pedagogical models follows.

4.1 Problems Addressed and Reforms Targeted

First on the list of problems in engineering education was the imbalance in undergraduate programs — analysis at the expense of synthesis (hence the name for our Coalition). Other problems we targeted were rigid compartmentalization of the curricula, outdated delivery styles, little or no emphasis on concurrent engineering, not enough industrial exposure, too few laboratory and hands-on experiences, slow curriculum turnover, little emphasis on social context, and inadequate focus on students’ communication skills. As a consequence, our graduates were strong in disciplinary analysis, but weak at synthesis, open-ended problem solving, multidisciplinary design, and team work. Foundation courses were compartmentalized as a sequence of stand-alone courses, related only by prerequisite requirements. A graphic of this disjointed and poorly integrated curriculum is shown in Fig. 2.


Fig. 1: Respondents were asked to rate new engineers’ preparedness in eight areas and then indicate the value their organization places on preparation in that area. [NSPE, 1992].

      In essence, engineering is the process of integrating knowledge to some purpose. It is a societal activity focused on connecting pieces of knowledge and technology to synthesize new products, systems, and sciences of high quality with respect to environmental fragility.

— Bordogna [1992]

The goal of Synthesis is to develop curricular reforms and alternate modes of instruction and access that foster the horizontal and vertical integration of engineering knowledge within the context of broader societal factors. A Synthesis-based curriculum integrates engineering foundation courses with Synthesis modules and Synthesis courses to provide continuous reinforcement of engineering fundamentals and to motivate their relevance. This approach to curriculum structure is based on a woven fabric metaphor, as shown in Fig. 3, with “integrating threads” extending from the freshman through the senior years and across disciplines. Synthesis Curricular Options provide reinforcing pathways through the woven tapestry of engineering education. The major fully integrated option created by Synthesis is the multidisciplinary Mechatronics Option.

Key issues and concepts addressed in Synthesis model curricula have been and will continue to be:

1. Synthesis Interdisciplinary Content Engineering curricula must expose students to creative synthesizing and open-ended problem formulation and solving experiences, teaching process in addition to content. Synthesis-based curricula emphasize interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary areas of engineering that are critical to national competitiveness.

2. Concurrent Engineering and Industry Practice Emphasize concurrent engineering and life-cycle design. Because concurrent application of multiple disciplines through the design cycle often require team design experience, include team building and group experiences. Bring industry into the classroom through involvement in Synthesis projects and multimedia engineering design case studies.

3. Laboratory/Hands-On Experience — Laboratory courses offer students hands-on experience in solving open-ended engineering problems requiring teamwork, experimental design, and the integration of phenomenological theory with actual system behavior. In the


Fig. 2: Schematic of undesirable compartmentalized curriculum.


Fig. 3: The Synthesis vision of integrated curriculum with Mechatronics Option.

laboratory the computer is key to controlling experiments and providing data acquisition, system modeling, and data analysis.

4. Communication and Social Context — Engineering is a social activity. As a decision-maker The engineer must be able to evaluate and communicate the social implications of technology. The engineer as a driver of product realization must work with multi-disciplinary teams, customers, and vendors. Synthesis-based curricula provide opportunities for students to develop and hone their written, verbal, and graphical communication skills and work as a team with people of diverse experience and backgrounds. Societal factors and sensitivity to ethnic and cultural diversity is an important element in Synthesis curricula.

5. Advanced Delivery Systems and Learning Environments NEEDS facilitates revolutionary and continuing change in the classroom. Through its modular approach and its inherent nature as a shared resource across the entire engineering education community NEEDS facilitates rapid transfer of new technologies into the curriculum. Courseware modules within NEEDS are designed for ease of revision and effective use in a wide range of settings, including classrooms, laboratories, and other student environments. Courseware is designed to encourage active learning and accommodate different learning styles among a diverse student population.

4.2 The Synthesis Pedagogical Model

Synthesis has created new Synthesis-based courses or modified existing courses using multimedia “courseware” — computer-based instructional material — and new learning environments. These courses are part of Synthesis Curricular Options, in which students take at least one Synthesis-based course each year during their regular ABET-accredited undergraduate program of study. We believe our students will graduate not only with the intellectual foundations of engineering theory, but also with experience in engineering judgment, i.e., the ability to balance the diverse factors of scientific theory with practical and sociotechnical constraints when making engineering decisions.

The learning environments we have developed use state-of-the-art information technologies to promote Internet-mediated teaching and learning. We have produced computer-based instructional material that integrates the diverse analytic, design, experimental, and intuitive skills needed by a practicing engineer. This material can be readily created, transferred, and adapted to different student or campus needs using the National Engineering Education Delivery System (NEEDS), which we have developed and deployed for use by Synthesis as well as the engineering education community-at-large.


Fig. 4: Kolb’s model of experiential learning. Students learn in four different ways [Kolb, 1984].

The Kolb model of experiential learning (Fig. 4) captures the Synthesis pedagogical approach and provides a mapping to our curricular materials and multimedia courseware. It is a framework for organizing activities to promote learning into four areas that include reflective observation, active experimentation, concrete experience, and abstract conceptualization [Kolb, 1984; Svinicki & Dixon, 1990]. This model of experiential learning is appropriate for professional engineering education with a view towards preparation for lifelong learning and as a means of accommodating and exploiting learning style differences. Other pedagogical foundations for Synthesis-based learning are constructivist learning [Lawson, 1989], Vygotsky’s model [Moll, 1990]) and the scaffolded knowledge integration framework (SKI) [Linn, 1995].

5.0 Synthesis Curricular Options

Synthesis Curricular Options integrated paths through curricula that build on modular course material. Synthesis courses included required courses in a regular degree program, and therefore affect all students in the degree program even if they are not pursuing a Synthesis-based Curricular Option.

During the first four years (1990/94), Synthesis concentrated on two different Synthesis Options. The mechatronics approach to engineering systems is the application of complex decision-making to the operation of physical systems. Mechatronics Synthesis Options integrate the fields of electronics, mechanics, software and user interface design, which form the basis for the design of most consumer products today. It is therefore inter- and multi-disciplinary in nature, horizontally integrating information from multiple disciplines.

The CICEE (Computer Integration in Civil and Environmental Engineering) Synthesis Options are disciplinary in content, focusing on the vertical integration of information in the field of civil and environmental engineering, emphasizing the use of computers.

In addition, lower division curricular materials (Synthesis Core) were developed for lower-division cross-disciplinary courses, such as modules that emphasize freshman design, mechanical dissection, or spatial reasoning.

Our curricular goals in the future are to:

  • Disseminate, adapt, assess and institutionalize the Mechatronics Curricular Options at six campuses (California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, Hampton, Iowa State, Stanford, and Tuskegee Universities, and the University of California at Berkeley) and in a modular fashion at Southern University. Many of the mechatronics courses and course modules are at the prototype stage, with the course enrollment restricted due to the intensive and/or experimental nature of the instruction. Now, with adequate institutional support, the pilot courses are ready to be mainstreamed and institutionalized.
  • Carry out a longitudinal assessment plan to evaluate the impact and effectiveness of the Mechatronics Options.
  • Initiate an industry-driven Mechatronics Curriculum Institute to assist in curriculum refinement , dissemination and assessment.
  • Assess, institutionalize and disseminate the Synthesis Core courseware and integrate into the Mechatronics Option, where appropriate, on each participating campus.
  • Complete, assess and disseminate the CICEE curricular modules and “Bridging the Architectural/Engineering/Construction Gap” curricular sequence.

5.1 Extension of Mechatronics Curricular Material Across All Four Years of Undergraduate Curriculum

Mechatronics is defined as “The application of complex decision making to the operation of physical systems.” Computers of all sizes and capabilities (embedded computing) are used as the decision making elements in products affecting virtually every resident in the developed world. From a numerical perspective, the most common type of computer in use today is the microcontroller — very small, highly integrated micro-processors used as decision making elements in engineering systems. Several hundred million of these are sold every year!

Micromanaging our lives

Microcontrollers — tiny computer chips are now running things from microwave ovens (one) to cars (up to 10) to jets (up to 1,000). How many microcontrollers we encounter daily:

1985 less than 3

1990 10

1995 50

– – USA Today, May 1, 1995, page 1B

Why is the study of Mechatronics important?

With the pervasive spread of mechatronics to engineered products and systems of all kinds, it is imperative that engineering students be exposed to its principles and practices. Mechatronic products are at the cutting edge of the highly competitive international marketplace. Regardless of discipline, engineers will encounter mechatronic systems in their professional practice. In order to participate fully in all stages of engineering design, from conceptualization to final product design, a working understanding of the capabilities and limitations of mechatronics is essential.

Mechatronics is an ideal focus area for Synthesizing our curriculum and mechatronics curricula requires strengths in all five Synthesis targets for curricular reform: multidisciplinary synthesis, concurrent engineering and industry practice, laboratory/hands-on, communication and social context and advanced learning environments.

Exposure Profile

While exposure to mechatronics is essential for all engineers, as is exposure to a number of other core engineering methodologies, not all engineers want or need to be experts in the subject. Furthermore, the engineering curriculum is already crowded, so there is little room for new courses. Our goal is to integrate material on mechatronics into appropriate classes at all levels of the curriculum. The intent is to demonstrate mechatronic principles while honoring the primary educational goals of each of these classes. Mechatronic specialty classes will be available for upper division (junior/senior) students.

Lower division (freshman/sophomore) students will see mechatronics as part of design, computation, and laboratory components of introductory disciplinary classes. There would not be any mechatronics specialty classes in the lower division. Upper division students would see mechatronics as a strong emphasis in classes that are closely related to mechatronics, such as experimentation or instrumentation, electrical engineering for non-majors , or control systems. It would appear in more limited forms in design courses and laboratory components of disciplinary classes. Upper division specialty courses include mechatronics design methodology and mechatronics design studio.

Building on Synthesis in the First Five Years (1990/95)

During years 1 to 5 Synthesis has built a core competency in mechatronics in seven of its eight participating schools. It has also built a base for introducing Synthesis principles at the lower division level through its Synthesis Core Curriculum work. The Mechatronics Extension effort will blend these by establishing a mechatronics presence in a variety of core courses, and strengthening the mechatronics offerings to take advantage of the better preparation in mechatronics that students entering the upper division will have.

A Design Philosophy

The unique factor in mechatronics is its dependence on sophisticated real-time computation to define the nature of the engineering system in which the computation is embedded. Successful mechatronic system designs require an organized approach to the design of such software. As part of the introduction of mechatronic principles, a focused design methodology will be followed so that conceptualization and documentation of mechatronic software can be done independent of the medium used for its implementation. This methodology is based on the task/state model and associated computing structures for mechatronic software that have been developed as part of the Synthesis Mechatronics Metaproject.

The critical elements of mechatronics systems are: computation (at the center), actuation: (controlling power delivery), instrumentation, target system, operator interface (normal and emergency), and communication with other systems (Fig. 5.)

The goal of our educational initiative in mechatronics is to insure that all students have enough familiarity with these system elements to be able to apply mechatronic principles in their own disciplines and in the broad context of engineering system design.


Fig. 5: Mechatronic system elements.

Lower Division

During the period immediately following the Grinter Report [ASEE, 1955], engineering curricula swung from a practical base to a scientific base, with more emphasis on theoretical approaches and less emphasis on the “machinery” of engineering. The freshman and sophomore years — which contained many practical experiences such as graphics, manufacturing processes, and problem solving laboratories — were eliminated in many programs and were replaced by additional math, physics, and science courses that were not connected to professional practice of engineering. One major curricular reform success in the 1990s was to rejuvenate these freshman/sophomore design classes by adding integrative fundamentals and hands-on design experiences. These classes provides a “high impact” opportunity to expand the mechatronics program to lower division courses to include mechatronic design projects, case studies and dissection exercises.

For lower division students, the goal of our mechatronics program is to build an understanding of the advantages of having a powerful computing device as part of an engineering system. This will require exposure to computers and their relation to the physical world in several contexts with enough exposure to actuation and instrumentation to understand the operation of simple systems. Target systems would generally be limited to a complexity level that can be understood intuitively, with the aid of material from high school and first year college physics and calculus. Provision of enough laboratory facilities for this exposure is a major resource challenge in this work. As long as sufficient lab verification is included, experiments in the use of real-time simulations, perhaps using multiple computers, might be tested for their efficacy in giving students suitable experiences at much lower cost.

Development of mechatronic software would have to be in a medium that does not impose an undue overhead. Experience in the development and use of such software is the central experience we are aiming for. For students learning a standard algorithmic language anyway (Fortran, C, C++, Pascal, Basic) this would involve the integration of material on the task/state way of thinking about software development and related experiments into traditional courses with titles such as “computer methods in engineering.”

Where such courses are either not taught or not accessible, application languages make a better route for mechatronics software. These would include Matlab, Labview, Vee, etc. These languages would also represent the best way to introduce mechatronic thinking into lower division design courses since the learning curve is much faster and students may be using them for other applications as well. They are, however, more restrictive in the types of situations they can deal with and the ability to map the task/state viewpoint into their context.

Courses dealing with engineering analysis or engineering graphics are good platforms for modules involving instrumentation. Most of these courses already include units on data display and analysis. A mechatronics context could be established by acquiring the data from an experimental system so that certain of its characteristics can be ascertained or its performance evaluated.

Upper Division

There are two tracks in the upper division — one is to reinforce and deepen the exposure to mechatronics that all students have received in the lower division. The other is to build in-depth expertise for those students interested in mechatronics as a specialty.

The general track, where most students are affected, has the same perspective as the lower division approach. That is, no courses are exclusively devoted to mechatronics. Mechatronics exposure comes through suitable units/modules in existing courses. Instrumentation and measurement courses, which are often required third-year courses, study basic methods of measuring physical quantities. However, there is much that can be done with these courses that will make them more relevant to mechatronics without losing their basic focus. On the measurement side, emphasizing the role of computers in interacting with instruments reinforces that side of the mechatronics discipline. Nulling instruments, and other systems that require constant interaction with the computer are particularly useful for this function. Exposing students to the means of designing and programming this interaction is an essential part of building in mechatronics awareness. On the systems side, measurement automation provides a means of embedding a complete mechatronics design experience into instrumentation. Measurement automation is crucial to a number of industries as part of programs to increase reliability and improve quality control.

Because the interface between the computer and the physical system always has an electrical component, the electrical engineering course for non-majors is an excellent opportunity for mechatronics exposure. Structuring the course around that interface, on both the instrument and the actuator side, gives an critical element of relevance that can be lacking in such courses. Ironically, although electrical engineering students are usually well versed in software, and specialize in the electronics needed to construct the mechatronic interface, there are rarely courses for them to explore mechanical systems in the way that other majors explore electrical systems.

Automatic control theory and application is a discipline that is widely used in mechatronics. Most curricula offer or require a controls class for upper division students. While in many cases these courses focus on control theory, reorientation to be more sensitive to application and implementation issues will realign these classes more towards general mechatronics interests while providing better motivation for students.

The upper division (usually senior) design experience is crucial. Since so many industrially important engineering systems have mechatronics elements, it is important that these classes provide facilities and motivation for students to select projects and design system elements with mechatronic content. With the exposure students will have had throughout their academic careers, the major modification required in senior level design classes is in having access to necessary tools and structuring design problem statements so that mechatronics is integral to the problem.

For students specializing in mechatronics, most engineering curricula leave room for somewhere between one and three electives that students can use to focus their interests beyond the required courses. Synthesis has already developed courses that fit this model, with real time software and extensive lab work as the core specialty classes. In addition, a course in electro-magneto-mechanics is very useful since motors and related equipment are so ubiquitous as actuation elements. Finally, in schools that don’t use the capstone design approach, a senior-level design studio in mechatronics can give these students an intensive mechatronics experience that will prepare them well for either research or design.


A mixture of service projects and curriculum projects is envisioned. Because the bulk of the program outlined here involves the integration of mechatronics material into existing courses, it is imperative that the integration can be done with a minimum of effort on the part of instructors. The role of the service projects is to provide the tools needed for mechatronics modules across the curriculum. The curriculum projects would be responsible for module implementation. Close coordination on the definition of tools needed and scheduling will be essential. Each curriculum project would be responsible for a single module, so there could be several curriculum projects covering the same general course area.

Synthesis will institutionalize mechatronic curricular models that include in-depth assessment of all students — freshman to graduating seniors.

Mechatronic curriculum projects are:

  1. Design methodology and software: Establish a framework that will provide a common theme for mechatronics design within the design methodologies already developed in Synthesis. Work with groups to establish and complete software requirements. Lead project for the Mechatronics area. Participating institutions: Cal Poly, Iowa State, Stanford, and UC Berkeley.
  2. Mechatronic product case and dissection: Inclusion of mechatronics products into dissection exercises. Includes exposure to enough mechatronics background and design philosophy so that reverse-engineering of software function is possible. Target course(s): freshman design and stand-alone dissection. Participating institutions: Cal Poly, Cornell, Hampton, Iowa State, Southern, Stanford, Tuskegee and UC Berkeley.
  3. Short and term-long projects: Short modular and term-long design projects with mechatronics content suitable for lower division students. Includes definition of resources and training materials that would be needed for students to realize mechatronic design. Target course(s): freshman design. Cal Poly, Hampton, Iowa State, Southern, Tuskegee and UC Berkeley.
  4. Data analysis: Connection of the data analysis component of lower division classes with the process of acquiring data from physical systems. Target course(s): freshman design and programming/problem solving. Cal Poly, Hampton, Iowa State and UC Berkeley.
  5. Mechatronics software design: Inclusion in introduction to computing courses of a segment on software design based on the principles of mechatronics systems (task/state). Definition and testing of performance measures for real time software and lab experience controlling physical systems. Target course(s): Introduction to computing. Participating institutions: Cal Poly, Hampton, and Iowa State.
  6. Power amplification: A compact module on power amplification in the context of actuating mechanical and process systems. Done in a way that can reach non-EE students in a need-to-know manner so that basic techniques and pitfalls are introduced. Target course(s): EE for non-majors. Participating institutions: Cal Poly, Hampton and UC Berkeley.
  7. Digital and analog signal processing: A compact presentation of techniques for analog (op-amp) and digital (Boolean/sequential) signal processing presented in a manner useful for non-EEs who will be using this material in a prototyping environment. Target course(s): EE for non-majors. Participating institutions: Cal Poly, Hampton, Iowa State, Southern and UC Berkeley.
  8. Automated experimentation: Considerable work on instrumentation courses has been done in previous Synthesis projects. This project would narrowly focus the mechatronic aspects of measurement on automation of experimental systems. Target course(s): measurement and experimental methods. Participating institutions: Cal Poly, Cornell, Hampton, Iowa State, Southern, Stanford, Tuskegee and UC Berkeley.
  9. Large-scale design projects: Capstone design project, or major design projects in senior-level classes, can incorporate significant mechatronics design challenge. At this stage, there should be a mix of students who have been exposed to mechatronics from the other planned projects as well as students who have taken at least one mechatronics specialty course. This project needs to define the types of resources that students will need and a range of suitable projects. Target course(s): senior design. Participating institutions: Cal Poly, Hampton, Iowa State, Southern, Stanford, Tuskegee and UC Berkeley.

5.2 Refocus of Civil and Environmental Engineering Curricular Material to Cross-Discipline, Multi-Site Collaborative Design

Many courseware modules and curriculum experiments developed through past work of the Computer Integration in Civil and Environmental Engineering (CICEE) curricular theme are complete and available for transfer to other users. These include modules in the areas of Structures, Transportation and Traffic Engineering, and Dam Safety, as well as significant Synthesis-based curriculum changes at Cornell and Cal Poly.

During the past year and a half of Synthesis funding, CICEE initiated activities on five campuses under the titles “Project Stimulus” and “Bridging the Architecture/Engineering/ Construction Gap”. The focus in the 1995/96 academic year is to complete, assess, institutionalize and disseminate this sequence of courses. Projects in this area are:

  1. A/E/C Evaluation, and Dissemination (Stanford, Berkeley): This project involves the refinement, implementation, and testing of a new and innovative computer-integrated Architecture/Engineering/Construction (A/E/C) teaching environment. In this computer integrated A/E/C environment a new generation of architecture, structural engineering, and construction management students learn how to team up with other disciplines and take advantage of emerging information technologies for collaborative work in order to design and build higher quality buildings faster and more economically. Our thesis is that education is the key to improved communication. The course is designed to increase the number of students who will:
    • understand how the three disciplines — architectural design, structural design, and construction — impact each other,
    • learn how new technologies can provide support for collaborative and concurrent A/E/C teamwork, and
    • understand how concurrent engineering and collaboration technology can be modeled and simulated from an organization point of view.
    • The computer integrated A/E/C project course uses Internet-mediated design communication, integration and organization frameworks, groupware technology and multimedia. The experimental course was tested in Winter Quarter 1995. Eighteen architecture, structural engineering, and construction management students were involved in this alpha-test of the course and worked together in A/E/C teams on building projects. This project interacts with the Freshman Cross-Disciplinary Design Course (item 2) from Cal Poly and Cornell University.
  2. Longitudinal Assessment of the Freshman Cross-Disciplinary Design Course (Cal Poly). The objective of this project is to develop computer-based educational materials to be shared among multiple Civil Engineering courses. Horizontal and vertical integration within the Civil and Environmental Engineering disciplines are being accomplished using computational technologies as the principal integrating mechanisms. The main effort in the 1994/95 academic year was the technology transfer, working with colleagues at Southern University and the Bakersfield Community College to help incorporate previously developed materials into their curricula. The main focus in the 1995/96 academic year will be to develop and deploy longitudinal assessment instruments. It is intended that the continued student interaction with the longitudinal assessment system would be fun, intellectually stimulating, and regarded as an important responsibility by which students track their personal growth in design capabilities, as well as provide feedback for continual improvement of the department’s curriculum.
  3. A/E/C National Workshop (Stanford, Berkeley, Cal Poly, Cornell, Iowa State, Southern). A week-long workshop will be held in Spring, 1996, at Stanford (coordinated by Cal Poly) in order to provide hands-on training to faculty in specific A/E/C software products and to jointly write one or more documents aimed at achieving subsequent wide dissemination of the results of project activities carried out at Stanford, Berkeley, and Cal Poly (items 1 and 2, above). Participants would be two or three engineering and architecture faculty each from Cal Poly, Cornell, Iowa State, and Southern, and invited participation from faculty of selected non-Synthesis collaborating universities, such as Clarkson and other
  4. Courseware Module Evaluation and Dissemination (Berkeley, Cal Poly, Cornell, Iowa State, Southern). These CICEE collaborators are committed to future work to complete, further assess, and disseminate (including on the NEEDS database) the curriculum innovations implemented at the various campuses during the initial Synthesis period. The work includes:
    • UC Berkeley: Completion, assessment, and dissemination of the multimedia module in Construction Engineering, which involves a subset of the Cornell-developed Aedificium package supplemented with additional case study content and instructional materials. Disseminate open-ended problems in statics .
    • Cal Poly: Continued assessment of lab and multimedia modules developed in the Transportation Engineering area; completion, assessment and dissemination of the Hydraulics module; and packaging and dissemination of lab materials in the Environmental Engineering area.
    • Cornell: Completion and further assessment of the Synthesis-based curriculum in the Structural Engineering/Constructed Facilities area.
    • Iowa State: Completion and assessment of computer-based instructional modules which integrate the Hydraulics, Structures, and Construction areas.
    • Southern: Completion of the third courseware module in the Dam Safety area; further assessment and dissemination of all Dam Safety modules; and further assessment of the Transportation Engineering modules previously transferred from Cal Poly.

6.0 Assess, Archive and Disseminate Synthesis Courseware

Synthesis courseware (course material in digital form) is the building block for Synthesis-based model curricula and the new infrastructure known as NEEDS (the National Engineering Education Delivery System). Synthesis curricular materials take the form of courseware modules and their constitutive elements. These sub-course size educational modules can be modified and incorporated into existing disciplinary engineering courses, or combined to create unique courses (Fig. 6).

    Synthesis will assess, catalog, and disseminate quality courseware, templates, and “Instructor’s Guides” that have undergone in-depth assessment and quality review to ensure they support Synthesis curricular goals.

Our ambitious goals to integrate and Synthesize engineering education require assembling diverse resources that may not be available to a single instructor. The NEEDS infrastructure, however, provides a nationally available database of diverse educational elements that can be retrieved and assembled into a unified course or used to infuse Synthesis concepts into existing courses.

These digital materials are created and assessed for a range of learning environments. Multimedia-supported learning facilitated by NEEDS:

  • Provides students with a highly visual and auditory appreciation of engineering devices and engineering practice.
  • Encourages formation of a team culture among students who use the computer as a communication medium.
  • Encourages the formation of a teaching approach that augments the teacher’s role as a knowledge navigator.
  • Permits students to explore the behavior of real physical systems interactively, which is not possible in traditional classroom experiences.
  • Allows greater flexibility for learning-style differences.
  • Facilitates rapid dissemination within and beyond Synthesis institutions.

Courseware modules are designed so that interesting elements can be distilled from several modules and joined together to create new customized modules. The range of topics map to the critical curricular issues targeted by Synthesis and to the range of experiences specified in the Kolb model of experiential learning (Fig. 2). The granularity of courseware ranges from modules on an integrated subject or case study to individual data elements, such as video clips, photos, interviews, lecture notes, or scanned images.

6.1 Courseware Cataloging and Assessment

Each campus working on collaborative curriculum, retention, or linkage projects contributes course material to the NEEDS database. We currently have over 100 catalog records for digital course elements on the NEEDS national catalog database with pointers to over 800 course elements in collections on distributed servers on the Internet accessible to more than three million Internet and dial users. As project leaders complete the evaluation and testing of their courseware we expect the number of elements on the database to rise substantially in the next year. The major focus in future years will be the quality review of NEEDS courseware.


Fig. 6: Synthesis-rich curricular materials in the NEEDS database.

6.2 Courseware Quality Editorial Board

In addition to assessing the use of Synthesis pedagogy in the classroom, we have established a procedure for evaluating the quality of courseware on the NEEDS database. The first meeting of the Quality Review Editorial Board was held on May 22, 1995 and involved participants with a reputation in quality courseware development and educational assessment [Eibeck, 1995]. Material on the database receives one of four classifications: 1) elements, which can only be accessed as a single entity (such as single images, video clips, or a segment of music); 2) collections, which are coherent, linked set of related elements with some description; 3) courseware modules, which are digital material structured to convey at least one educational concept; and, 4) curricular units, which are logical collections of courseware modules that convey a complete unit of curricular material. Material must receive a minimally satisfactory rating to remain on the database.

Courseware modules and curricular units will be peer reviewed at the author’s request. The peer review will be coordinated by the Synthesis Editorial Board and reviewers will be external, as well as internal, to Synthesis. If the reviewed material is of sufficient quality, it will be accepted on a “premier” database within the NEEDS database. (We expect that once the database has grown, non-reviewed courseware modules and curricular units will not even be on the database.) Each year the best courseware will be nominated for “Synthesis Awards” and will be publicized in national forums such as professional society journals. As the database grows we will also publish comparative reviews of similar courseware, in order to guide faculty interested in adopted material from the database. The Quality Assessment Task Force will involve professional societies, representatives from other Coalitions, publishers, and industry.

In order to reward faculty and promote quality curricular elements for the NEEDS database, it is essential that we partner with commercial and professional enterprises to develop quality standards, peer review and academic recognition schemes, remuneration and pricing models, and appropriate intellectual property rights standards. In the future we will:

  • Make the Courseware Quality Review Editorial Board operational with seed funding from NSF-Synthesis. Use the Synthesis Task Force to develop quality assessment policies in order to establish guidelines and examples of high-quality work. Peer review and quality ratings will be provided.[Eibeck, 1995].
  • Work with commercial publishers to develop a reward system for quality courseware. Several experiments will be initiated to test viability, working with John Wiley & Sons, Inc. and WAIS (Wide Area Information Services) Inc. (Funded by private industry.)

7.0 Evaluate, Test and Maintain the NEEDS Infrastructure

NEEDS is an entirely new courseware development and distribution system that provides widespread Internet access to a growing database. NEEDS consists of three major components (Fig. 7): (1) the NEEDS delivery systems/learning environments; (2) the NEEDS courseware development studios; and (3) the NEEDS distributed database, server, and access system. User testing and courseware dissemination through the NEEDS database will be the focus of future work.

7.1 High-Technology Learning Environments

NEEDS promotes Synthesis thinking and provides opportunities not possible with the traditional classroom model. NEEDS delivery systems/learning environments currently consist of a range of high-technology environments (including classrooms, computer and experimentation labs and small study groups, Fig. 7) that have access to the NEEDS database and are capable of presenting the courseware modules in real time. Well-tested prototype electronic classrooms (also called high-technology classrooms) of several different designs, capable of accessing the NEEDS database and delivering multimedia courseware modules to both local and remote audiences, have been developed. Classroom types range from “high-end” lecture rooms designed specifically for this purpose, to rooms permanently modified to accommodate such delivery, to self-contained delivery systems on a cart that can be wheeled into “ordinary” classrooms and laboratories. All Synthesis institutions have at least one type of these high-technology classroom operational on their campus and have institutionalized them to that point that NSF-Synthesis funds are no longer needed. Synthesis will continue to experiment with and develop NEEDS learning environments that go beyond the instructor-oriented classroom metaphor, moving toward student-centric models involving collaborative learning environments, small study groups, libraries, and student living environments (such as residence halls). Nomadic/wireless computers may make “anywhere” and “anyone” the standard in a few years.


Fig. 7: NEEDS learning and development environments are connected to the NEEDS database through the internet.

7.2 Courseware Development Studios

During the 1990/94 academic years Synthesis developed the NEEDS Courseware Development Studio model, supporting faculty with hardware and software, network connectivity, a technical library, and support staff to assist them prepare and access curricular modules. The Studio provides faculty with a cost-effective way to develop engineering courseware, integrate information (in its multitude of forms), provide tools to facilitate the authoring process, and minimize the effort and resources required. Synthesis Courseware Development Studios include at least one central facility on each campus and, on some campuses, additional departmental satellite studios. These studios have been institutionalized and no longer require NSF-Synthesis support.

Network connectivity has made possible a high degree of collaboration and resource-sharing between these various sites and from remote locations such as faculty offices and residences. The emphasis in future years will be to build on these network capabilities and the growing NEEDS database to develop “Virtual Studio” models that allow faculty, staff, and students to create, review, and archive courseware from convenient locations such as offices, libraries, and residences.

Learning is enhanced by NEEDS tools and Synthesis methods.

    In response to multimedia courseware user studies and observations of design teams, we are developing and testing tools that enable students to more effectively organize information and to communicate ideas. These tools include an on-line notebook, on-line textbooks, a story/documentary maker, webs, maps, charts, graphs, and Internet links to the NEEDS database. Coupled with templates on authoring software, they allow students to gather information from any medium or source — movies, sound, text from Gopher, WAIS, and FTP, CD-ROM, Laser disk — without knowing esoteric networking commands — and organize it into their own multimedia documents. Our research shows that when students have multiple ways to look at information learning and communication are enhanced. Giving students the ability to organize information enables them to draw their own cognitive “maps.” [Gay, 1994; Hoadley, 1993].

7.3 The NEEDS Database and Information Servers

The NEEDS database and information servers consist of a central reference database that holds network location and bibliographic information for courseware modules stored on localized archive servers. The NEEDS bibliographic server provides text-based search facilities familiar to anyone who has used a computerized library catalog (Fig. 8). Additional multimedia interfaces to the NEEDS database such as NINa (NEEDS Image Navigator, running in both X-Windows and World Wide Web interfaces) extend this service, supporting querying over a relational database and multimedia browsing of courseware modules and their elements (A sample screen is shown in Fig. 9). In 1994 we initiated preliminary experiments with WAIS, Inc. to extend the search capabilities to include natural language querying using WAIS indexing.

The NEEDS database will evolve in response to curricular and technological requirements. Adding to the curricular content of the database is only part of the maturation of NEEDS. The user interface and search and indexing capabilities will be developed further, based on an integrated system of user feedback and continuous improvement. User testing and classroom assessment [Dattada, 1993] will form the basis for our efforts to improve the functionality and user interface and will be the focus of future work . Consistent with our student-centric approach, the database will become a resource for students and faculty alike.

Our long-term goal is to expand access to NEEDS to all educational institutions and throughout industry through rapidly growing, widely distributed modes of navigating the Internet and the evolving National Information Infrastructure (NII). The navigational tools, server databases, and client software developed for NEEDS will build on and expand the best national efforts in storing, accessing, indexing, and transmitting elements from digital libraries.

If NEEDS is to become a national resource with long-term viability, it must be institutionalized and woven into the fabric of engineering education. Lifelong commitments to the maintenance and operation of the NEEDS database will need to be found within the university library system, in the professional societies, in a commercial database or publishing enterprise, or most probably, in some combination of these. A major goal is to ensure that appropriate development, maintenance, and institutionalization of NEEDS occurs within Synthesis, in order to support and promote Synthesis-based activities. A major goal in the next year will be to use our user studies and assessments to the formulate specifications needed to “spin” NEEDS off to a larger national entity. Synthesis is pleased to provide leadership and experience to develop NEEDS as a national utility for engineering education.

Synthesis, in partnership with John Wiley & Sons Inc. and WAIS Inc., is testing the marketing and electronic (via the Internet) distribution of course materials (beginning with engineering case studies) developed by members of the Synthesis Coalition. The initial phase focuses on tracking patterns of use, establishing and testing security measures, and determining the extent of faculty/student support needed. During the initial phase, material is available to users free of charge. The information we gather from the initial phase is critical for the development of a sustainable commercial/government service that will include expansion of available materials, payment for use, and security measures to ensure long-term viability. Future commercial partners may include telecommunications and database enterprises.

    The World Wide Web (WWW) has become a popular means of creating, displaying and navigating hypermedia documents using information servers with standard file and document formats (HTML- hypertext markup language) and a standard protocol for serving and browsing these files (HTTP – hypertext transfer protocol.). The WWW version of the NEEDS database can be accessed through URL:


Fig. 8: Screen for NEEDS bibliographic catalog search.

To develop the NEEDS database in future years Synthesis will:

  • Distribute courseware materials, modules, tools, and related information to the global community of engineering educators (with initial emphasis on Synthesis and other Coalitions).
  • Perform user tests and assessment of the database in order to define functionality and specifications for the NEEDS spin-off. This includes determining frequency of use, type of use and user feedback of the NEEDS database and its element.
  • Use NEEDS to support linkage activities — precollege, community colleges, continuing education, and the general public.


Fig. 9: Sample screen for the NEEDS Image Navigator using the query for “bicycle.” courseware elements.

8.0 Improve Engineering Student Retention

The most effective model for structured study groups is the math/science workshop model developed by Uri Treisman for the Professional Development Program (PDP) at the University of California, Berkeley. Participating minority students earned on the average one letter grade higher in their math and science courses than non-participating minority student. In addition, they exceeded the average grades achieved by white student in the same courses.

— Zimmer et al., 1984. pp. (49, 52)

In a project specifically geared to improved retention, the high-technology learning centers (Manley, 1992) bring courseware and small study groups together to create nurturing support and learning environments for under-represented engineers. (Much of this work in small study groups is based on early work by Uri Treisman (1985) and Gibbons (1977)).

Synthesis courseware highlights women and ethnic minorities in highly visual multimedia formats. As a way of teaching, Synthesis courses promote a mix of learning styles, sensitivity to issues of diversity, and the social implications of technology. For example, to increase the retention of women, the spatial reasoning project uses courseware and small study workshops to dramatically improve spatial visualization skills. Synthesis will build on this work, increasing the retention-strengthening content of courseware in the NEEDS database.

In a study whose results are now justifying our choice of curricular synthesis as our conceptual and pedagogical basis, Seymour and Hewitt (1994, p.57) concluded that, “Criticism of faculty pedagogy contributed to 1/3 of all switching decisions, and was the third most commonly-mentioned factor in such decisions.” We assert that Synthesis curricula, by their natural emphasis on structural integration and pedagogy, address many of the problems historically associated with poor retention in engineering:

Early evidence for this assertion is being found in the results from the Synthesis Questionnaire which asks synthesis-specific (not project specific) questions. Fig. 10 shows statistically valid results for the question:

“To what extent has the Synthesis event given you a deep commitment to an engineering career?”


Fig. 10: Results for Question 11 from all questionnaires, Spring 94.

Synthesis will assess the impact of Synthesis-based curricula on retention and support activities that foster the diversity of the students and faculty involved with Synthesis. Future activities with impact on retention and diversity include:

  • Assess and institutionalize the high technology small study group model, at participating campuses.
  • Introduce Synthesis concepts into existing minority and women’s support programs (such as tutorial programs or summer research programs).
  • Drawing on Seymour and Hewitt’s (1994) ethnographic-based retention study (funded by the Sloan Foundation), we will carry out in-depth assessment interviews or questionnaires and analyses on all campuses to provide periodic feedback on Synthesis development efforts.
  • Establish focus projects to highlight diversity in the database (such as highlighting people in the Synthesis Coalition who can serve as role models for under-represented engineers). We will ask our industrial partners to provide short video clips, bios, etc. of role models in their companies.

9.0 Assess Synthesis Teaching and Learning Effectiveness

The Assessment Team is charged with the development and implementation of a Synthesis-wide assessment plan. The team’s mandate is to assure that formative assessment feedback is distributed to instructors and students during the development and evolution of new curricula and the development and deployment of the NEEDS infrastructure. The team is further charged to provide NSF with summative evaluation data. In future years, the team will add summative longitudinal assessment to its responsibilities.

The Synthesis assessment plan is driven by our two major goals:

  • Improve learning (students acquiring Synthesis skills – Section 4.1)
  • Improve teaching (the Synthesis pedagogy – Section 4.2)

During the early years, the Synthesis Coalition developed innovative formative assessment tools to provide rapid feedback to the instructor for continuous improvement and to reveal student learning not apparent with standard exams. Video-Interaction Analysis (VIA) is based on videotaped records of students (and sometimes faculty) working together to formulate problems and create solutions. Performance is assessed by rigorous “peer- review” of videotaped records of team performance. Members of an interdisciplinary analysis team (including members of the instructional team) review the videotape using a common protocol and strict adherence to the procedural mandate that no data external to the videotaped record may be introduced into the assessment. VIA methodology has evolved rapidly over the past fifteen years. It was developed by design researchers and educators who wanted to understand what engineers “really do” when they do interdisciplinary, multicultural, team design. The video record reveals their mastery of content and the application process. Findings should be developed by the participants and the instructor to provide feedback for incremental refinement. A more detailed discussion of Synthesis VIA use and outcomes, particularly at Stanford, is presented by our consultant in this area, the Institute for Research on Learning [Linde,1994].

The Multimedia Forum Kiosk is a computer-based multimedia bulletin board system. Users may listen to audio notes, watch video clips, read the comments of others, and make (text) comments of their own. Comments are stored under icons with the face (or symbol) of the person making the comment. The system is highly structured, and is divided into topics, each of which comprises two areas, the Opinion Area and the Argument Map. The Opinion Area provides a brief audio-visual introduction to a topic, comments of an author of the topic, and Opinion Comments. These comments indicate a user’s overall viewpoint of the topic. This allows a new user to walk up to the system and develop a sense of the overall community perspective on an issue. The Argument Map supports in-depth discussion of a topic. In the Argument map, comments contain a semantic label used to indicate the relationship of a comment to other comments. The system is implemented in HyperCard(TM) on a variety of Macintosh platforms. A networked version is available on all platforms on the World Wide Web. The system maintains a record of all comments entered and the time and date of their creation.

Synthesis has found these in-depth assessment tools to be useful for revealing “student learning” and for rapid feedback for formative assessment. But we recognize that they are limited as tools for summative and longitudinal assessment. In developing a plan for summative assessment we identify several inter-related areas of focus:

  • Industry needs (with an emphasis on mechatronics industries)
  • Synthesis pedagogical goals
  • Mechatronics curricular options
  • Courses and course modules
  • Student learning
  • Student retention

In developing a summative assessment plan and associated instruments, we ask the following four questions which deal with the links between the entities in this list:

  1. Link between industry and Synthesis goals. To what extent do the project’s goals for Synthesis teaching and the desired qualities of Synthesis students reflect industry’s needs (with an emphasis on mechatronics industries)?
  2. Link between student retention and Synthesis goals. To what extend do students believe the Synthesis pedagogy serves their needs?
  3. Link between courses and instructional practice and Synthesis pedagogical goals. To what extent do the Synthesis courses and instructional practices reflect Synthesis pedagogical goals?
  4. Link between Synthesis pedagogy and curricula and student learning. To what extent do Synthesis students posses the desired Synthesis qualities and mechatronics content knowledge?

In the Synthesis assessment map in Fig. 11, industry needs drive the creation of standards for Synthesis courses, pedagogy, and the desired qualities of Synthesis students. The various Synthesis course modules are rated on the extent to which they meet the Synthesis standards. Similarly, Synthesis students are assessed on the extent to which they possess the desired qualities.

The appropriate assessment instrument will vary depending on which link is being evaluated.

Link between industry and Synthesis goals. Synthesis has built on the recommendations of national engineering education studies (e.g., Boeing report, 1994; ASEE, 1995; NRC, 1994; NSPE, 1992) and our own faculty, students, and industry employers in identifying our curricular and pedagogical goals. We look to our industry-driven Mechatronics Curriculum Institute and campus-specific industry advisory committees to further guide us in the future and to provide us input in a mechatronics job skills analysis. Another source of industry input on job skills may be found with the ongoing study by the California Engineering Foundation’s industry survey program called “Fields and Levels of Understanding for Skills and Functional Capabilities: Industry Specifications for Job Entry Level Engineers.”


Fig. 11: Synthesis assessment map.

Link between student retention and Synthesis goals. Synthesis will draw on Seymour and Hewitt’s (1994) ethnographic-based retention study (funded by the Sloan Foundation) for this evaluation. Synthesis will carry out in-depth assessment interviews, questionnaires and analyses on all participating campuses to provide periodic feedback on Synthesis development efforts. The Kiosk method is also appropriate for immediate feedback and in-depth student dialogue. VIA can be useful in observing — and thus providing an opportunity to take corrective action — team interactions which indicate lack of confidence in some of the participants or other factors related to retention. All qualitative forms of assessment will be linked to quantitative analysis of student academic records and questionnaires.

Link between courses and instructional practice and Synthesis pedagogical goals. Synthesis is pursuing several approaches here. The first is mandatory use of a Synthesis Questionnaire. The current simple (11 two-line questions), quick (10 minutes) survey sets the stage for in-depth assessment and assures that we collect demographic information critical to NSF. It has been a valuable form of modular assessment that allows us to compare the Synthesis content of courses across the Coalition as perceived by students. It also allows us to benchmark Synthesis courses against other courses the students experience in the undergraduate program. In future this questionnaire will be revised and integrated other assessment instruments.

The second is the peer-review team approach prototyped by the American Association for Higher Education (AAHE, 1994). For this approach peer review is broadly conceived and focuses on ways that faculty can be more effective colleagues to each other in improving their work as teachers. Stanford University was one of the initial institutions involved in the 1994-95 academic year experiment, with funding from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts. The framework that they have developed includes student group interviews, run by faculty peers. The interviews cover six topics, one of which is the Synthesis-Analysis aspects of the course. The whole peer evaluation addresses the issue of whether teachers are really doing a good job of teaching (in the eyes of colleagues and students). It also provided direct feedback to faculty for course and teacher effectiveness improvements. Synthesis will follow the progress of this approach and build on it appropriately. Peer review is also an important component in the Courseware Quality Editorial Board for the evaluation of multimedia courseware.

A third, parallel and reinforcing (in the sense that they can provide validity for each other — triangulation), approach is to involve a panel of industry visitors, instructors, or members of the assessment group to “score” course portfolios as to how well the courses embody the Synthesis pedagogical goals. This is a portfolio analysis of courses or curricula with the goal of evaluating the course material itself as opposed to an analysis of student portfolios aimed at evaluating student performance — although student portfolios may be a component used in the evaluation of course or curriculum portfolios Synthesis will work with the Educational Testing Service (ETS) to develop a scalable model for course portfolio evaluations at our institutions. ETS will build on prior successes on large scale applications [LeMahieu, 1994].

Link between Synthesis pedagogy and curricula and student learning, where student learning is defined by the four Synthesis qualities (able to perform multidisciplinary open-ended problem solving and design, knowledgeable about competitive engineering practices and concurrent engineering, facile and comfortable with laboratory and hands-on tasks, and good at teamwork and communication) along with content knowledge in mechatronics. Video-Interaction Analysis provides immediate feedback on some of these qualities for formative assessment. Synthesis will work with the industry-driven Mechatronics Curriculum Institute, ETS, and our faculty and students in developing objective formative assessment instruments.

We assess Synthesis thinking and education methodology by observing the technical and cultural variables (related to both content and process) that influence learning and engineering performance. Specifically, our strategy is to:

  • Work with the Mechatronics Curriculum Institute and other industry groups to clarify the pedagogical and curricular goals in a manner that can be measured.
  • Promote and validate a suite of assessment methods matched to the context-specific learning objectives of individual Synthesis projects.
  • Further develop and require use of the “Synthesis Questionnaire.” It will be augmented by voluntary, investigator-designed, project-specific questionnaires and interview protocols.
  • Incorporate in-depth ethnographic interviews or questionnaires as part of our continuous assessment program.
  • Integrate individual project assessment outcomes into a Synthesis-wide mosaic to demonstrate Synthesis effects over time (longitudinal assessment), both within and across campuses. The case for validity can be built by (a) comparing results of assessments expected to lead to similar conclusions and (b) seeing whether selected groups of students (e.g., those having taken many Synthesis courses in a Mechatronics Option) perform as expected relative to other groups.
  • Analyze the reliability of the assessments (the extent to which an assessment will test the same thing on multiple occasions) [Messick, 1990].
  • Identify “Assessment Champions on each campus.” In addition to nurturing the local assessment community, the Champion is expected to organize conference paper sessions and panels on assessment at annual meetings (e.g., IEEE/FIE (Frontiers in Education), ASEE (American Society for Engineering Education), and other disciplinary professional societies.
  • Organize student consulting groups on each campus to be part of the overall Synthesis assessment team and provide consulting and mentoring to Synthesis students.
  • Develop and offer assessment workshops for Synthesis faculty and others to compare assessment outcomes and methodology innovations.
  • Provide leadership in developing assessment techniques for Synthesis and the engineering education community.

10.0 Strengthen Partnerships with Industry

The Synthesis Coalition strongly believes that industry must play a central role as a partner in engineering education reform. We offer industry a variety of partnership opportunities: in infrastructure research and development, curricular reform, as role models and teachers in college classrooms, as advisors on standards issues, as collaborators in courseware module development, and as equipment and cash investors in our product — the practicing engineers who will drive industry success over the coming decades. During Years 1-4 (1990/94) we have engaged over 56 companies in all areas of Synthesis activity, including technical support, collaborative participation, case studies, standards guidance and development, and national advocacy for Synthesis educational innovations.

These industry partners have had far ranging inputs into our activities. Examples include:

  • high level evaluation of our overall progress, focus, and quality of deliverables as members of our National Advisory Committee.
  • evaluation of specific work plans and proposals at the project and metaproject levels as members of our External Review Panel.
  • personal input to the creation of multimedia case studies and industry best practices modules for NEEDS.
  • strategic decision making for NEEDS architecture as members of our Standards Advisory Group.
  • participation in the creation of Synthesis promotional materials, such as the Synthesis Video.

Synthesis has been fortunate to receive high level strategic directions from our National Advisory Committee and the NEEDS-oriented Standards Study Advisory Group. We have also greatly benefited from industry involved at the detailed individual project level. However, we believe that we need to improve industry input at the intermediate curricular development and assessment level. The key addition in the future will be the development of an industry-driven Mechatronics Curriculum Institute.

Synthesis strategies for increasing industry participation are to:

  • Initiate an industry-driven Mechatronics Curriculum Institute to work with Synthesis to refine, assess and disseminate the Mechatronics curricular material. Integrate Synthesis curricula with continuing education in these industries.
  • Continue to work with key industry working groups. (e.g., Boeing initiative and NSPE report) and industry-intensive professional societies such as SME (Society of Manufacturing Engineers.)
  • Expand industry participation in our National Advisory Committee and the Standards Advisory Group.
  • Increase direct involvement of industry in developing curricular modules.
  • Organize industrial liaison programs on each campus in which they receive feedback on their progress in Synthesis-based curricula and its use as a foundation for continuing education in industry.

11.0 Leverage Links to K-14

During the first fours years of Synthesis we learned that linkages must be highly leveraged. Synthesis resources from the NSF are insufficient to underwrite full-linkage partnerships in curriculum transformation and NEEDS support. We have learned that these links must be focused on the principal missions of Synthesis: Synthesis-based curricular transformation and NEEDS.

11.1 Pre-College Linkage

Following our strategy to extend the reach of Synthesis, a model link has been established with the Altoona Area School District (AASD) in Altoona, Pennsylvania. This partnership includes Synthesis, the AASD teachers and administrators, the School Board, local civic leaders, and industry. AASD created the Center for Advanced Technologies, which consists of a multimedia courseware development laboratory, high-technology classrooms, faculty training programs, and a T1 Internet connection. Students working in the laboratory help teachers develop multimedia courseware, and also create advertising and other business materials for local commercial concerns. Two cohorts of AASD teachers and students have already completed training at Cornell in the development/use of multimedia materials. This faculty from AASD attends Synthesis workshops and maintain electronic mail contact with Synthesis engineering faculty.

We are in the process of replicating our very successful linkage with AASD at the Manhattan Center for Mathematics and Science (MCMS) in New York City. MCMS is a 100% minority high school located in East Harlem. The first cohort of teachers and students from the MCMS have completed training at Cornell, and, with support from the GE Foundation and local professional engineers, we are designing the MCMS version of Altoona’s Center for Advanced Technologies. The AASD hosted a visit from MCMS faculty and administrators, and has become a planning resource for the MCMS/Synthesis linkage. Both schools are keeping records of their experiences in developing a linkage with Synthesis.

During the 1994/95 academic year Southern University established a state-of-the-art Southern University Engineering/East Baton Rouge Parish School System (EBPSS) with a high speed connection to its computer backbone network. The EBPSS selected Scotlandville Magnet High School (SMH) to serve as the hub to which all other parish schools will be connected. The College of Engineering at Southern University has been working with instructors to develop their internet capabilities and “synthesize” their instruction. Southern University intends to use this partnership to recruit potential engineers and as a means to make Synthesis/NEEDS material an integral part of engineering and science courses at local K-12 schools.

Synthesis will:

  • Publish and distribute Synthesis linkage experiences to interested engineering colleges and school districts.
  • Continue to develop the model linkage between Southern University and the East Baton Rouge Parish School System.
  • Assess the pedagogical and recruitment effectiveness of Synthesis interactions with its K-12 partners.
  • Collaborate with high-school science and math curricula to find areas where Synthesis courseware and mechatronics curricula can provide motivational and explanatory material.
  • Develop at least one sustainable science museum links to provide engineering and technology education to K-12 and the general public.

11.2 Links to Community Colleges

In Years 1-and-2 the Synthesis Community College Conferences formed a focused community of scholars interested in applying Synthesis principles to community colleges and the community college/four-year college interface. These conferences contributed to the formation of an ASEE Community College division and successful NSF Instrumentation and Laboratory Improvement (ILI, now CSIP) proposals from community college attendees.

Two-year colleges are a vital component of the engineering education pipeline, particularly for economically-disadvantaged and under-represented students. Community colleges enroll over 55% of science and engineering freshmen and 33% of all college students. Fully half of the women who are science and engineering majors are enrolled in community colleges, as are 42% of African American majors, 54% of Hispanic majors, 56% of Native American and 43% of Asian majors. Synthesis, therefore, recognizes that forming community college partnerships is a necessity and will continue to liaison with community colleges through the Cal Poly/Bakersfield Community College (Bakersfield, California) partnership.


The organizational chart for Synthesis is shown in Fig. 12. Alice Agogino, Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Assoc. Dean at UC Berkeley serves as Director, with primary reporting responsibility to NSF. Peter Lee, Dean of Engineering at the California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, serves as the Assoc. Director. Peter Lee also serves as Chair of the Deans Advisory Board.

The Synthesis Board of Directors is chaired by the Director of Synthesis, Alice Agogino, and has one representative, the campus principal investigator, from each Synthesis institution: California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, Cornell, Hampton, Iowa State, Southern, Stanford, and Tuskegee Universities, and the University of California at Berkeley. The Board of Directors is responsible for defining the strategic policy of Synthesis and for making top level decisions of which the Operations Team must carry out.

The Operations Team reports to the Director and Assoc. Director for day to day operations and to the Board of Directors for periodic review. The Operations Team has leadership responsibilities for each of the key thrust areas in Synthesis and is responsible for coordinating Synthesis operations with the faculty, staff and student project leaders in each thrust area and for integration across thrust areas.

The Deans Advisory Board consists of the Dean of Engineering from each Synthesis Institution. The National Advisory Committee consists of high level leaders from industry, government and educational institutions. Their advisory responsibility is to review the operations and policy of Synthesis.


Fig. 12: Synthesis Organizational Chart


AAHE, “From idea to prototype: the peer review of teaching A project overview and update,” 1994.

Agogino, A.M. and W. H. Wood III (1994), “The Synthesis Coalition: Information Technologies Enabling a Paradigm Shift in Engineering Education,” Keynote talk, in Hyper-Media in Vaasa’94: Proceedings of the Conference on Computers and Hypermedia in Engineering Education (Ed., M. Linna and P. Ruotsala, Vaasa Institute of Technology) pp. 3-10.

ASEE (1955), “Report of the Committee on Evaluation of Engineering Education,” Journal of Engineering Education, Sept. 1952, pp. 25-60.

Bengelink, R. L. and J. H. McMasters, “An Industry [Boeing] Role in Enhancing Engineering Education,” draft position paper, June 1993.

Bordogna, J., “Engineering–The Integrative Profession,” NSF Directions, May/June, 1992, Vol. 5, No. 2.

Brereton, M., Leifer, L., Greeno, J., Lewis, J. and Linde, C., “An Exploration of Engineering Learning”, Proceedings. of the 5th Int. Conference on Design Theory and Methodology, ASME Des. Tech. Conference., Albuquerque, NM, Sept. pages 19-22, 1993.

California Engineering Foundation, “Fields and Levels of Understanding for Skills and Functional Capabilities: Industry Specifications for Job Entry Level Engineers,” 2700 Zinfandel Drive, Rancho Cordova, CA 95670-4827.

Dattada, P. (1993), “User Study for a Networked Multimedia Database of Courseware,” MS Project Report, Department of Mechanical Engineering, University of Calif., Berkeley.

Eibeck, P., “Report of the Task for on Quality Review of Courseware,” 1995.

Gibbons, J.F., W.R. Kincheloe, K.S. Down (1977), “Tutored Videotaped Instruction: A New Use of Electronics Media in Education,” Science, Vol. 195, No. 4283, pp. 1139-1146.

Gay, G., [1994], “The Use of Hypermedia Data to Enhance Design,” Computer Graphics, Vol. 28 No. 1, pp. 34-37.

Hoadley, C. M. & Hsi, S. H. (1993). “A Multimedia Interface for Knowledge Building and Collaborative Learning.” Paper presented at The adjunct proceedings of InterCHI `93, (International Computer-Human Interaction Conference), Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Association for Computing Machinery.

Kolb, D.A. (1984) Experiential Learning: Experience as the source of learning and development, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Lawson, A.E., et al. (1989) “A Theory of Instruction: Using the Learning Cycle to Teach Science Concepts and Thinking Skills,” Monograph 1, National Assoc. for Research in Science Teaching, Cincinnati, OH.

LeMahieu, P.G., Gitomer, D.H., and Eresh, J.T., “Portfolios Beyond the Classroom: Data quality and Qualities,” Technical Report 94-01, Educational Testing Service, Center for Performance Assessment, Princeton, NY, 1994.

Messick, S., “Validity of Test Interpretation and Use” Technical Report 90-11, Educational Testing Service, Center for Performance Assessment, Princeton, NY, 1990.

Linn, M. C. “Designing Computer Environments for Engineering and Computer Science: The Scaffolded Knowledge Integration Framework, Journal of Science Education and Technology, Vol. 4, No. 2, 1995.

Manly, P. (1992), “High Tech Study Group Project Offers New Learning Opportunities,” Instructional Technology Program Newsletter, University of California, Berkeley, Vol. 5, No. 2.

Moll, Luis, Ed., [1990], Vygotsky and Education, Cambridge University Press.

National Research Council (1994), “Major Issues in Engineering Education,” A Working Paper of the Board on Engineering Education.

National Society of Professional Engineers, “Engineering Education Issues: Report on Surveys of Opinions by Engineering Deans and Employers of Engineering Graduates on the First Professional Degree,” NSPE Publication No. 3059, NSPE, 1420 King Street, Alexandria, VA 22314-2794, Nov. 1992.

Svinicki, M. D. & Dixon, N. (1990) “The Kolb Model Modified for Classroom Activities” in College Teaching, pp. 69-74.

Seymour, E. and N. M. Hewitt (1994), “Talking about Leaving: Factors Contributing to High Attrition Rates among Science, Mathematics & Engineering Undergraduate Majors: Final Report to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation – an Ethnographic Inquiry at Seven Institutions, Ethnographic and Assessment Research, Bureau of Sociological Research, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado, April.

Treisman, U. (1985), “A study of the Mathematics Performance of Black Students at the University of California, Berkeley (doctoral dissertation), University of California, Berkeley.

Zimmer, J., R.B. Landis, M.M. McGee and P.C. Parker (1990), “Realizing the Potential of Women and Minorities in Engineering: Four Perspectives from the Field,” National Governors Association, Center for Policy Research.

Return to Synthesis Home