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
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" (http://www.umassd.edu/specialprograms/impulse/).
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.
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
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.
UMD designed and built studio classrooms much like those developed
at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute . 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.
- "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
- 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.