Engineering program development

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Engineering Program Development at a Community College

Problem[edit | edit source]

Develop an engineering program at a community college that increases school reputation, transfer success and placement into workstudy, internships, summer jobs.

Conceive[edit | edit source]

Four year colleges in the US are ranked by a variety of organizations. These rankings are debated, but graduate success underlies or is the independent variable. The problem is that four year colleges can only elevate their students relative to their initial starting points. Football coaches know this and thus spend half their time recruiting. They know that student quality determines future success. Historically, students are selected by test scores, current GPA, evidence of self-discipline, intellectual curiosity, and hard work.

How do open enrollment community colleges select students? By sorting students into

  • cohorts
  • honors
  • clubs
  • student governance

Test scores merely reflect family income, GPA varies widely, and self-discipline, curiosity and hard work are very hard to measure without a personal relationship. Perhaps this is why football coaches physically visit recruits:

  • School physically visits recruits
  • Recruits visit the school

Visiting is expensive. Less expensive ways involve asking students to write essays:

  • What do you do daily or weekly that makes you different from your peers?
  • What questions have you walked around with for more than two days, that you don't know the answer to, but are looking for answers underneath every interaction with the world?
  • Describe when you have worked hard with the hope of future reward and then experienced delayed gratification.

Essays have to be read, compared, sorted and ranked. This is marginally less expensive than the physical visits. Large schools try to create efficient/fair application processes by capturing numbers: Class rank, GPA, test scores and check boxes of things like band, choir, clubs, sports, and documented success of each. But this opens the door for all sorts of bias to creep in. The alternative is to let someone else do this work ... such as a community college.

Grades Matter

Four year schools view community colleges as a gauntlet that:

  • proves students can work hard
  • students can navigate prerequisites
  • get into the class that always fills up and is needed for all other classes
  • get good grades

Community colleges have to have an emphasis on grades that is different than a four year institution. Four year institutions give entry level students more chances to recover from failure than transfer students. Some four year institutions don't even offer grades the first semester. Community College grades matter tremendously.

Tangible Goals

The overt goal of community college selection is to improve four year transfer. But there are fine grained, tangible, immediate goals:

  • Improve reputation (helps transfer, fund raising, recrutiment)
  • Improve projects (markers that indicate uniqueness, opportunity, success)
  • Improve placement (internships, workstudy, summer jobs, community participation, student personal network building)
Project Characteristics

Projects have these characteristics:

  • open ended .. never ending, always next steps, always something to do
  • unique .. lots of different projects for students to choose among
  • broad .. ideally they involve others with expertise in community, not just upper division classes

Design[edit | edit source]

Four year institutions split up into Public and Private. Private are generally around 10 times smaller than Public. Although they increasing look the same from a funding point of view, their outcomes are much different. Graduates of private institutions look better for the same reason that unknown small companies win over large companies in customer satisfaction surveys .. small colleges can control outliers more easily.

Pattern after small, private engineering colleges

Small, private four-year institutions can charge more, and give out more in scholarships. They can endow professors more, and leverage the scheduling logistical efficiencies of smaller classes. This leads to a cohort bonding over shared hard work, everyone in one auditorium and sharp in/out group boundaries. Transfer entrance points typically don't exist, so community colleges don't have much of a relationship with them.

Community Colleges are by nature small and need to pattern cohorts after private institutions. The lack of 3rd and 4th year students means that much more emphasis needs to be placed on cohort bonding at the beginning.

Turn Resource Scarcity into an Asset

Honors provides entrance into the cohort. Cohort group boundaries can not be strictly enforced at a Community College because of open enrollment. Plus there is much more variety and churn than a private institution. Resource scarcity justifies "limited enrollment" in 4 year institutions, but community colleges don't have the luxury of this justification.

The "resource scarcity" narrative of big public institutions on one hand has to be treated as artificial or a myth .. and on the other hand has to be held up as a justification for increased funding. This tension turns into a source of pride ... of accomplishing the same as big institutions with less money.

Cohort Projects, not Labs, not Student Government Clubs

There are three basic project models in four year institutions:

  • Club ... at four year institutions, clubs develop their own facilities, resources, students compete to get into them by taking classes that benefit the club's project. The trouble with a community college is that student government clubs reflect the community at large and are not agents of change.
  • Lab ... students are asked to select and work on a short project guided by an open ended criteria or requirement related to a course. Each course results in a different short project that differs from a long lab only in uniqueness and selection context.
  • Cohort .. projects span multiple honors/non-honors classes, multiple majors and school departments, are managed (project management) by professors, and sometimes result in professor guaranteed (professors will do the work if students don't) deliverables to business and organizations both inside and outside the school institution.

The Cohort Project focus fits only in small institutions with professors that are not working on grants and publications. The professors have to switch between wearing the client hat (justifying/asking for the project), the project management hat, the customer hat, and fellow engineer, project participant.


Engineers are one of the view professions that are given self policing status by both federal and state law in the US. The others are doctors and lawyers. Self policing is a form of altruistic punishment that is hard to understand. In freshmen terminology the problem is slackers. Without a mechanism to punish slackers, co-operation among the remaining group members drops off dramatically.

Altruistic punishment is an evolutionary model that explains why a purely economic or purely alturistic cooperation model fails to model reality of large group altruistic behavior. It is why self-policing societies do work. And it suggests two different engineering program design considerations:

  • allowing team members to punish (negative grade impact) others
  • student self governance, code of ethics, ability to punish violators

Implement[edit | edit source]

Implement implies a top down, thought out plan that almost never happens. There is a learning curve, change requirement, and space/material/logistical double bind tension that both the institution and individuals have to suffer through.

StartUp Issues

Grants usually attract leaches that are interested in the next grant. Grants should result in institutional change that sustains success after the grant is over. It is important to start this without grants. Even virgin, new grant recipients/participants will turn into leaches because institutions unconsciously love the double bind of accepting grants yet refusing to change. Grants are not a starting point. This lesson is most clear to those at community colleges where grants are rare and those that do arrive are in the context of hand-me-down "partnering", "participating" or "advising" four year grant requirements.

Find a Starting Point

The starting point is a class that can justify a project. This has to be a bottom up story. Can not be hired as an administrator and pull this off. The battle has to be fought ground up. Find a teaching job. Get assigned a class. Doesn't matter what type of class.


Money is not necessary, just start collecting stuff. Cardboard boxes. Golf balls. Visit second hand stores and look for treasures such as bags of legos or k'nects .. or golf clubs. Look for carpet people are throwing away. Anything that catches your eye. Then say create something to your students with it. Leave expectations as open ended as possible. See what happens. Apply Truth, Beauty, Goodness to the results.

Expect to fight these battles with administrators:

  • request material lists before the class starts .. denying the open ended nature of projects
  • try to negotiate projects with you .. expecting you to have done the project and be ready for brown nosing rather than learning in front of and with your students .. deny the objective of negotiating projects with students
  • want to purchase in bulk when you need many one-off's ... one of many different things
  • choke you rather than force support staff to fill internal purchase order forms necessary for all the unique items
  • make random rules that throttle purchase ... no budget .. that is a toy .. that can be reused - is not consumable .. need to keep track of things ... students can not take things home
  • accuse you of stealing/taking things from other rooms in the school without permission because you run around trying to borrow everything
Space Negotiation

Stake out territory. Make a mess. Loud noises. Leaf blower spinning computer fan and try to measure the energy coming out of it. Bring rotary saw into the class room and cut wood. Make so much dust that it gets into the computer center and clogs everything up. Don't ask permission. Don't apologize. Ask forgiveness only when absolutely necessary.

Leave stuff in public places so everyone sees it. Suffer the complaints with "I have no where to store it." Put the institution in the position of saying ... no you can not do that. Put the institution into double binds rather than suffer them yourself.

Name people NO

They are going to start joking that you are wasting your time, climbing into a bottom less pit. You are going to make them look bad. They are going to start saying "No" at every opportunity. Turn this around. Name their behavior. Create nick names (Dr. No) and being using them.

Process Junk

There is a flow of broken printers, computers, and exotic equipment out of physics, chemistry and biology labs of a community college. Get into this flow. Take apart everything and play with it.

No Paper

Electronic, Learning Management System, Email, Wikiversity are all better tools than any piece of paper. Constantly ask "who owns the information I or my students create?" Anyone that asks you to write on paper, print paper, pickup paper and hand you notes is establishing a bottleneck to throttle you.


Celebrate engineering week, pi day, toilet day, Ada Lovelace Day. Create a projects day and invite everyone to come. All institutions calendars and rooms are always full. Fight the battle to gain access to these resources.


Student government organizations often sponsor projects, Service Learning departments, Work Study, Learning Assistants, Career Services .. there are often more Support Staff than teachers on a community college campus. Make them work.


Market internally. The entire community flows through a community college. Market to the people already at the college.

Edit[edit | edit source]

  • Entrance into the Program
  • Facility Access
  • Elevator Speeches
  • FAQ
  • Volunteers
  • Safety
  • Facility Design

Operate[edit | edit source]

Demo[edit | edit source]

Next Steps[edit | edit source]

  • Fill in the implementation steps above
  • Develop presentations of these issues