First-year Curriculum at University of Massachusetts
University of Massachusetts - Dartmouth


The context and goals of IMPULSE

Since the 1980s, colleges of engineering have been responding to forces for change in engineering education. In particular, the National Science Foundation and the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) have articulated the need for, and provided resources to support, changes that enable students to learn concepts that they can apply in novel settings, and to problem-solve effectively in multidisciplinary teams. In 1998, the College of Engineering at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth (UMD) successfully acted in response to these forces. Led by Nick Pendergrass of the Electrical Engineering Department, and with funding from the Davis Educational Foundation and subsequently as a member of the NSF-sponsored Foundation Coalition, UMD launched the Integrated Math, Physics, Undergraduate Laboratory Science, and Engineering (IMPULSE) program.

The goals of the IMPULSE program are to improve retention rates in engineering while also improving students' learning of engineering fundamentals, teamwork, and communication skills. This case study recounts how, in a short time, this program led to significant documented improvement in retention rates of engineering students.

What is the IMPULSE program?

The Integrated Math, Physics, Undergraduate Laboratory Science, and Engineering (IMPULSE) program is "a learning community that combines an integrated curriculum with active collaborative learning, teamwork, and the latest technology" (

It offers a two-semester sequence (11 units per semester) for first-year engineering and physics majors that integrates mathematics, physics and introduction to engineering. The sequence includes the following courses: Physics for Scientists and Engineers I & II, Introduction to Applied Science and Engineering I & II, and Calculus for Applied Science & Engineering I & II. Each course is taught by a faculty member, assisted by an undergraduate teaching assistant (a junior or senior hired by the professor) and technical support staff. Students progress through the sequence in cohorts. Each professor assigns the grades for his/her own course. When they give assignments that span more than one course, each professor incorporates outcomes from these projects into the grades for their individual course.

At the time of our visita to UMD (Spring 2000), 87 students who started IMPULSE in the fall were continuing with the second semester, and another 41 (who had to take precalculus in the fall) had just begun the IMPULSE program. (Since then, the program has grown by about 10 percent.) UMD physics majors and approximately 80 percent (all but Civil Engineering) of the engineering majors participate in the program. If IMPULSE students with undecided majors choose to major in Civil Engineering, the IMPULSE credits are accepted.

What problems does IMPULSE address?

Like many other universities nationwide, UMD had a poor retention rate in its engineering programs. Forty percent of their first-time full-time freshman dropped out between enrollment and the sophomore year. In addition, students did not see the need for the lower division science courses, showed weak interest in engineering content, and failed to see connections between introductory courses and engineering majors and careers.

What goes on in the IMPULSE program?

The IMPULSE program combines:

  • a curriculum that is informed by research about how students learn physics and mathematics, and that integrates calculus, physics and engineering;
  • a student team-based approach to learning;
  • a "studio" classroom for 48 students, equipped with networked engineering workstations set up with up-to-date math, physics, and engineering software, and reserved specifically for this program.

Research-based curriculum.

The IMPULSE faculty designed a curriculum in which students take calculus and calculus-based physics simultaneously so that the faculty can use physics to motivate and enhance students' intuition for calculus. Using the research-based Real Time Physics methods developed by David Sokoloff, Ronald Thornton, and Priscilla Laws, and the Harvard Calculus approach, the faculty make ample use of engineering applications to teach calculus. Likewise, they include an engineering course each semester to motivate students to learn science and math fundamentals and also to provide engineering foundations. Just as they use physics to motivate the learning of calculus, the IMPULSE faculty use projects in the engineering course to help the students make sense-through application-of what they are learning in calculus and physics. The IMPULSE faculty also use assessment tools (like the Force Concept Inventory test) that have been shown to accurately measure conceptual learning.


Teaming, making use of collaborative learning methods, is another essential part of the IMPULSE program. These faculty found that in the past, when working alone, students often could not complete assigned projects. In teams, however, they complement each other's skills and as a result are more likely to be successful in completing projects. Designing their classes so that teams (not individuals) are the units that perform experiments, ask and answer questions, solve problems, debate and brainstorm, the faculty devote a substantial proportion of class time to student teamwork. They also structure their course assessment practices to foster a "team ethic." For example, teams are "responsible for ensuring that each member contributes and learns," and while many assignments are graded individually, some are graded on a team basis. The instructors assign students to teams (taking care that teams that include women have at least two women) and change team composition at their discretion in order to give students an opportunity to meet and work with new people.

The IMPULSE professors, their undergraduate teaching assistants and technical support people work as members of a team, interacting frequently about the curriculum and the progress of their students. The faculty find that it's easy for their undergraduate assistants (who are paid at student hourly rates in the neighborhood of eight dollars per hour) to relate to the freshmen. They rely on their undergrad assistants to provide role models and to keep communication channels open. The faculty also have noticed that, as a result of their teaching experience in IMPULSE, the undergraduate assistants learn a great deal while performing their role, and some began considering a future as a faculty member.

Studio classroom.

UMD designed and built studio classrooms much like those developed at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute [1]. In these classrooms, the IMPULSE instructors use computer-based technology to get students involved in key scientific processes: modeling, real-world and real-time acquisition of data, locating information, and communicating. Sometimes the faculty perform experiments and simulations for the students, and often the students work in their teams to carry out experiments and perform data analysis. As John Dowd (physics) explained, "In the physics section, we adopted lock, stock and barrel the curriculum developed by Priscilla Laws at Dickinson College. Students do experiments. The experiments are videotaped. The images are digitized and the data is extracted. They plot the data and perform several calculations on the raw data in real time."

Why is learning technology important in IMPULSE?

The IMPULSE faculty believe that the speed and other capacities of computer-based technology are critical to the success of this program. In particular, the technology enables instructors to perform laboratory demonstrations sufficiently rapidly that there is time for discussion of concepts and interpretation of results. The technology also enables students to carry out experiments and perform data analysis within a reasonable amount of class time. For example, as Nick Pendergrass (electrical and computer engineering) explained,

A student goes in front of the class and drops a ball. A camera records the path of the ball; a frame grabber records the activity onto a computer; the data is transferred into an Excel worksheet. Students plot position versus time, calculate quantities like velocity, acceleration, and so forth. In one class period, they can do this five times if they want. That's what technology does in the classroom - it allows you to accelerate the learning process.

But does it work?

There is hard evidence to support the success of this program. Outcomes on common exams indicates higher levels of conceptual understanding and performance in physics and calculus for IMPULSE students. In addition, the freshman to sophomore year attrition rate for IMPULSE students is 17 percent, a dramatic improvement from the 40 percent recorded before the program began. IMPULSE students acknowledge that, while the program is demanding, it goes a long way toward making them much more competitive as future interns and permanent employees of industry. Moreover, the UMD Admissions Office is very happy with the IMPULSE program, which has become an important recruitment factor for UMD.

Student Quotes

  • "I loved working in groups. I was really good at calculus, one of the guys was really good at chemistry and we end up teaching each other ."
  • "Hands-on is the best way for me to learn."
  • It [living with other engineering students] was definitely good because they [other students] were always right there...We always had study groups, and we actually had a dorm people get us a huge table with all these lights and we asked if they could put a huge white board on the wall. We could use it to teach each other, which we still use every day. —Foundation Coalition Student at UMD


The development of a new integrated first-year engineering program at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth began with a review of educational literature. It indicated that we should be able to improve first-year education while also reducing instructional time. The literature is consistent, and often overwhelming, in the following conclusions.

  • Active and collaborative learning techniques can result in higher performance and longer information retention compared to traditional methods.
  • Integrating Math, Science and Engineering courses is an effective means of teaching students to deal successfully with cross-disciplinary problems.
  • Integrating English into Engineering, Science and Math courses is an effective way to improve the performance of engineering students in oral and written communication.
  • Integrated first-year programs improve retention rates, especially of women and minorities.

In addition, there is evidence that studio classes using hands-on collaborative learning could cost less than the traditional lecture recitation-laboratory classes.