State of the Undergraduate

Curriculum at RPI


William E. Bobrowski


Undergraduate Student

Acadernic Affairs Chair, Student Senate

Independent Council Senator

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute




This report will attempt to summarize briefly the current issues and concerns regarding the Undergraduate Curriculum from a student perspective.  The report integrates input from discussions on the Undergraduate Education Performance Plan and various selected topics of concern to the Academic Affairs Committee.  It also includes information gathered from the general Senate memebrship and discussions within the Faculty Senate Curriculum Committee.


   This presentation will touch on each of the following topics:


            Laptops as a tool in the classroom

            Potential changes to the core curriculum

         Studio format classes

         The 4x4 curriculum

         The new scheduling system

         Final exam scheduling

            Classroom facilities and equipment

            Undergraduate research opportunities

            Teaching Assistants

            Advising .

      IDEA surveys and course evaluation


Most of these points have been discussed to some degree in the Student Senate Academic Affairs Committee during the current term of office.


Laptop Usage in the Classroom

Gathering of data and surveys

      A survey was conducted last Spring in certain laptop classes.  We feel that this survey was largely useless, thanks to distribution methods and the questions which were asked.

n We wish to see a course specific survey effort to determine which courses are using laptops effectively and how they are doing so.

a A future survey should include student and instructor input during development.  Pursuant to this, we have already given the Provost's office suggestions for such a survey.

Specific concerns

      While some professors and courses use laptops well, other do so very Poor Y.

      In some courses, laptop usage is trivial and largely contrived.

      In many courses, instructors lack technical skill and rely on untrained students and TAs to fix technical errors which can severely impede leaming and instruction.

a There is uncertainty as to how sophomore and later classes are integrating laptops.  Is this a required $2000 investment which is only useftil for the first year?


Core Curriculum


The Rensselaer Plan calls for various additions

to the core curriculum

          Biotechnology and Entrepreneurship requirements.  We feel that both of these may represent simply more load on the student with marginal benefit.  Serious consideration should be given before adding these.

n Information Technology requirement.  This could be useful, but we have many of the same reservations as with the preceding point. 0 A 6 4 major scholarly work" requirement.  This could represent a substantial drain on faculty and Graduate student time.  We would suggest that co-op or internship count towards this.

Communications Requirements

          Discussion has occurred on the possibility of expanding or adding communications and writing requirements.

o Perhaps a course focusing on cross disciplinary communication would be beneficial for some students.

o Overall, we feel that this is an area which certainly merits further investigation.


Studio Format and the 4x4 Curriculum


Studio Format classes

      Over the past decade, the Institute has shifted towards a non-lecture style of teaching which emphasizes group work, hands-on activities and computer usage.  This style is known as the studio method of teaching.

o In many courses, we feel that this method has great benefits, improving learning.  This is, of course, dependent on the quality and dedication of the instructor.

o There are certain courses, however, where we feel that perhaps a studio format does not best meet the needs of the student and professor.  As such, we feel that such classes should remain in or return to lecture format.

4x4 curriculum

       During the mid to late 1990s, the Institute switched from a credit distribution of 5 courses at 3 credits each to 4 courses at 4 credits each.

       Some feet that this change reduced course variety, depth and academic rigor.

      The current Academic Affairs committee has not discussed this and largely lacks the necessary frame of reference.


                        Class Scheduling


New Mon./Thur. and Tue./Fri. system

s      Last year, it was decided that the scheduling of classes would switch to M/R-T/F instead of M/W-T/R.  This was done to encourage weekend activities at the Institute and better utilize the entire week.  Also, time was set aside Tuesday 4-6 when no classes may be held.

      The new system was implemented last fall,

and student dissatisfaction was high at first, but seems to have subsided. m There, is great uncertainty as to whether the new system has indeed improved weekend activities.  Also, Athletics now frequently cuts into class time.

o Mondays and Thursdays are markedly heavier than Tuesdays and Fridays in number of classes.  This makes for difficult days for many students, interspersed with easy days.  The process for allocating classroom space is insufficient.  Many classes lack necessary equipment and facilities while other courses have rooms with equipment they do not require.  These concerns and thoughts have been sent to the Institute Scheduling Committee and the Provost's office for review.


                        Final exam Scheduling


*     A new "conflict free" system for scheduling final exams was implemented last semester.  This new system matches class time with the time of the exam, reducing conflicts to a minimum.

*     Many students are upset with this new system, especially with finals starting as early as 8:00 AM and ending as late as 10:00 PM.

*     In the current semester, improvements have been made on explaining policy and the system to students.


Classroom Facilities


*     Many of the classroom facilities are in terrible condition (ex.  Carnegie, Ricketts, Sage).  Problems include climate control, condition of desks, and condition of equipment.  We feel very strongly that this impedes leaming.  In addition, some classes in great need physical repairs are being neglected while other rooms are wired for laptops.

*     Many instructors seem to have great difficulty in using the equipment such as projectors and computers which are necessary for their classes.  AS&MS provides insufficient service in this area.


Undergraduate Research


9 Publicity of Programs

      A website exists which outlines opportunities in Undergraduate Research.

     This site should be expanded to be inclusive of more professors and more opportunities both within and outside RPI.

m The site should be publicized, as most students know nothing of its existence.

      Expansion of programs

The Provost's office has indicated plans to seek greater funding for URP programs.  We strongly encourage this.

Possible additions to graduation requirements may cause need for expansion of the research opportunities available.

o We feel that the development of an Undergraduate Research Center similar to the CDC would be beneficial.  Such a center could, through professional staff, publicize opportunities and offer a central repository through which students could seek research experiences.


Teaching Assistants


Graduate TAs

Although many TAs are excellent, some require greater training in teaching and communications.  Perhaps greater Institutewide @raining programs should be provided.

Many TAs and students suffer from a language barrier.  We understand the departmental need to support Graduate students, but this concern hurts Many students, especially in courses taught mainly by TAs o Undergraduate TAs are an excellent resource which we feel more departments should utilize.


Academic Advising


      In many departments and cases, Academic Advising is very poor.

      Advisor selection and training needs to be modified; Advisors need to be selected on their ability to do the job, not simply on the basis of availability.

      BettQr mechanisms need to be developed to distribute curriculum information.


                   Academic Advising (continued)


      Overall, the Advising and Leaming Assistance Center meets the needs of students.

      This is the subject of an ongoing discussion which includes Bob Conway, the Director of the ALAC.


Course Evaluation


9 IDEA Surveys

s     The IDEA surveys are a valuable tool which meets the needs of the Institute in many ways.

     There is a need to communicate to students the value of these surveys and the role they play in evaluating instructor effectiveness.

     Howqver, it may be worthwhile to add more questions to the current survey, hitting on specific, questions such as laptop usage, effectiveness of TAs, and whether classroom facilities meet the needs of the class.

s We also feel that there is a need for a survey whose results are publicly available, in order to help students make more informed decisions on course selection

Methods of evaluating instruction quality and leaming other than surveys (i.e. diagnostic exams, peer review) should be encouraged and increased.


List of issues for Laptop Program evaluation

#  Frequency of Usage

      How many classes does a student use his laptop for?

      Do professors tell students not to bring their laptops?  If yes, how frequently?

How frequently in a given class do students use the laptops (number of class days)?

+  Instructional Techniques

      How are students using laptops in class? (i.e. note taking, data collection, Internet classwork, etc.)

Are professors merely using laptops for in class demonstrations (i.e. Maple plots), or are the students actively using the laptop?

      Are techniques developed in pilot programs being effectively transferred to large sections?

0   What is being done to modify sophomore and higher level courses for laptops?


*     Technological Considerations * Does configuration or setup of laptops and peripherals cut into instructional time?  If so,

how much?

*     How informed about features are the owners? (i.e. infrared port / serial port conflict)

* How much, if any, work requires a different type of machine or capabilities beyond the laptop? (i.e. graphics or CAD rendering, Mac usage in certain fields) * What provisions exist for upperclassmen who may not have laptops, but are enrolled in

laptop classes?

*     Could any of the work currently done on laptops be done with desktops in the classroom?  If yes, what work?


#  Training and Equipment for Instructors

      What, if any. training do Graduate and Undergraduate TAs and Instructors receive in laptop usage in the classroom?  Do all TAs and Instructors receive such training?  If no, then which do?  Is this training sufficient for the classroom needs?

      Do Graduate TAs and Instructors need laptops in order to teach effectively in laptop sections?  If yes, are they provided with laptops?

      What, if any, training do professors receive on using the laptops in the classroom?  Is this training required If not, what incentives exist for a professor to be trained?  Is this training sufficient?


School or Department Specific

      What inequities or differences exist between schools and departments as far as laptops in the classroom?

0   How necessary are laptops for certain majors? (i.e. EMAC, Humanities)

*  Distribution of Survey

      Could Banner or WebCT be used to distribute this survey?  Perhaps Banner modules for surveying exist.

      Will this or any other survey be distributed to Graduate Instructors and TAs?  Undergraduate TAs?  Professors?

      Will this survey or some other be distributed to sophomores who are now in their second year of laptop usage in the classroom?


Student Senate Academic Affairs Committee

Suggestions for the Undergraduate Education Performance Plan


> Undergraduate Research Programs

*     There need to be better methods of getting information on opportunities from professors to students.

     Possibly an introductory class in various majors which showcases various research interests within the department, with attempts to recruit students into URP.

*     The URP webpage needs updating and publicity.

*     Paid staff for organizing URP, perhaps in an organization like the CDC to market URP programs to students, making them equally competitive with industry.

*     Encourage mentoring relationships between Graduate and Undergraduate students in research.  Maybe stipends for Grads in such programs.

     Idea to increase the stipend per student by $200 is excellent.

Academic Facilities

+   Classroom Space

Faculty need methods of requesting certain equipment with classrooms.  Maybe a checklist, with equipment needed, frequency of need, and reason for need.

#Group study space

Most buildings and spaces are locked up tight far too early.  Areas like lounges should either be open late or available by card access.

There is a need for more group and lounge space across campus.

*Computing Facilities

          Concerns exist over the availability of computing facilities for students engaged in academic work.

          Some majors do not use software which may be useful in real-world applications. (i.e. Finite Element Methods, VLSI design, schematic capture, Pro-Mechanica, CAD)

          Perhaps some curricula should include requirements of demonstrating some level of understanding certain software.

Interactive Learning

+   Evaluation techniques need to be carefully developed.  The current methods of evaluating leaming and teaching are insufficient.  Methods could include course surveys and testing.

+   Effort should be made to avoid two-hour lecture classes.  Either flexibility in scheduling to allow some shorter classes, or design classes to break up lectures with interactive methods like labs and activities.

Potential Core Curriculum Changes

"Major Scholarly Work7'

A research requirement would be drain on faculty and Graduate students' time.  Also, the potential for bad experiences with LJRP is greater.



* Entrepreneurship

            Possibly requiring a business or economics course could ftilfil this function, rather than a specific "Entrepreneurship" course

            Perhaps have faculty from various departments teach this course, keeping it related to a student's curriculum.  Could also be a cooperative effort between the Laity School and the department.

How would this requirement benefit all students?

#     Biotechnology

Could AP Biology fill this requirement?  We would advise yes.

How would this requirement benefit all students?

+ Information Technology

Would Computer Science courses fill this requirement?  We would advise no.

+ Communications

      A foreign language requirement would be a bad idea.

      Instead, a flexible requirement in linguistics or communication theory may be more beneficial.  Ideas include linguistics, grammar, or Latin as options.  All would aid in understanding how to communicate.

      Maybe offer a course which focuses on communication between fields. (i.e. how managers, scientists, engineers, architects, etc. each communicate.  Emphasize both differences and similarities.)

      Need for improvement in communication skills is unquestioned.

Something needs to be done, whether in core curriculum, in the classroom, or outside of the academic arena.


      Ensure that all students have greater writing skills by increasing the quality, not the number. of writing courses.  Perhaps require a writing course Freshman year.

In all these cases, flexibility is key.  OfTer options rather than straight course requirements.  Keep the material relevant to the student's major if possible.