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Communication, engineering education cited as 2006 University Exemplary Department Award winners


BLACKSBURG, Va., Nov. 20, 2006 – The Department of Communication in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, and the Department of Engineering Education in the College of Engineering will receive the 2006 University Exemplary Department Awards at ceremonies to be held Monday, Nov. 27 at The Inn at Virginia Tech.

Presented annually since 1994, the University Exemplary Department Award recognizes the work of departments or programs that maintain a first class teaching and learning environment for students and faculty.

This year, the awards were presented to departments which developed and sustained innovative and effective approaches to introductory courses at the graduate or undergraduate level.

“The Exemplary Department Award pays tribute to the collaborative efforts and successes of a group of dedicated colleagues who perform work that is essential for sustaining a truly excellent academic environment,” said Ron Daniel, associate provost for undergraduate education, who oversees the awards program. We acknowledge that the academic excellence of individuals is achieved within distinctive working and learning environments to which many individuals contribute in meaningful ways.”

At the Nov. 27 awards ceremony, Provost Mark McNamee will present plaques and $20,000 awards to Rachel Holloway, associate professor and head of the Department of Communications, and to Hayden Griffin, professor and head of the Department of Engineering Education, on behalf of their respective programs.

Department of Communication, College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences

Piloted in 1997 and expanded to a course sequence in 1998, Communication Skills I and II—more commonly known as “Comm Skills”—provides a broad-based foundational communication course and a learning community through which to become fully engaged in the college experience.

Communication Skills was designed to integrate multiple forms of communication in a series of increasingly complex assignments over a year-long experience. Course assignments encourage students to develop research skills; to become skilled interpersonal and public communicators using written, oral and visual forms; to understand and follow best practices in group process; and to learn about the standards, practices, and resources of the academic discourse community they have joined.

The course design also creates a learning environment focused on engagement. Students are registered in cohorts of 22-25, and stay together as a group with the same instructor for their first year.

The sequence currently serves approximately 550 students per semester who are enrolled in variety of majors, including communication; business; biology; human nutrition, foods, and exercise; university studies; and apparel, housing, and resource management. The inclusion of a broader range of majors in the course creates a greater network and richer experience for the students involved.

The team of instructors teaching the course, under the direction of course coordinator Marlene Preston, continually evaluate and update course content to meet the needs of first-year students. There has been increasing emphasis on effective use of technology, for example, through discussions of effective use of e-mail; incorporation of computer-based presentational aids; increased practice with database searching, and participation in the E-portfolio project. With enhanced computer and software availability, some students are incorporating digital photos and digital video in presentations.

As gleaned from a survey, graduating seniors overwhelmingly agreed that they were better able to develop their ideas through the process of writing and revising and oral communication as a result of taking Comm Skills. It was also rated useful and relevant in subsequent coursework; and 100 percent of those surveyed would recommend the course sequence to an incoming student.

“Comm Skills was invaluable in helping me transition from high school to college,” wrote one graduate. “The small group dynamics allowed me to learn about conflict resolution, listening skills, and compromise… Unlike other courses, Comm Skills not only introduced me to these practical concepts, but it also gave me opportunities to apply those concepts.”

Another graduate, who went on to earn an MBA wrote: “The instrumental factor in my transition to college was the course’s uncanny close-knit and family-like atmosphere. Various tools, such as impromptu speeches about one another and team-building exercises, helped to promote this. While many of the things I learned in other classes were valuable, working in teams, speaking publicly, and writing concisely are the three things that I do every day, and Communication Skills was the reason I have been able to succeed.”

Engineering Education, College of Engineering

In 1968, the College of Engineering’s Division of Engineering Fundamentals began teaching and advising all freshmen enrolled in the college. In 2004, in a move recognized by the National Academy of Engineering for its leadership, the college transformed the division into the Department of Engineering Education with a new graduate program in engineering education and a redesigned undergraduate course sequence that continues to train more than 1,200 freshmen each year.

While the college’s freshman curriculum has long been a national leader in providing hands-on laboratory instruction, Engineering Education has developed a number of innovative approaches. One example is the new format for EngE 1024, students’ first engineering course, which now offers one-hour lectures followed by two-hour hands-on workshops that reinforce learning.

“From my own experience with the sophomore students who have taken the EngE classes, there seems to be an increased desire towards learning,” said G.V. Loganathan, a professor in the Via Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “The hands-on labs inspire them most.”

One of numerous examples of innovative lab experiences is the Earth Sustainability Project. Students in EngE 1024 are given a few simple materials—such as clay, plastic bottles, and bamboo skewers—and are instructed to design and build projects related to energy, agriculture, and other sustainability issues.

Impressed with the college's concept for revamping engineering education, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has made major grants supporting two Engineering Education projects. "Bridges for Engineering Education" initiated collaborations between Virginia Tech engineering and School of Education faculty, as well as with K-12 educators around the state, and initiated development of a Technology Education Teaching Licensure Option for engineering graduates.

NSF then awarded a $1 million grant for “Reformulating General Engineering and Bioprocess Engineering Curricula at Virginia Tech,” an interdisciplinary project to develop a “spiral”—or increasingly complex—curriculum focused on sustainability.

“As a result of these innovations, students in the first-year engineering classes are now completely engaged in the learning process,” said EngE department head Hayden Griffin. An indication of that engagement is that the success rate (achieving a grade of C- or better) for students in EngE 1024 has increased to more than 90 percent.

The department’s new graduate curriculum also has proven to be a success, with students from throughout the College of Engineering and the School of Education taking courses in engineering education. The next set of graduate courses to be developed, Griffin said, will be in engineering communication.