Architectural engineering awarded grant to redesign first-year seminar

Assistant Professor Nathan Brown (second row, second from left) poses with one of his first-year seminar sections. The students completed a scavenger hunt around campus, where they identified campus buildings based on clues like building materials and historic markers.  Credit: Mariah Chuprinski All Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — First-year engineering students likely do not expect to tour and redesign Beaver Stadium, work with full-scale construction robots, or create Lego models of existing academic buildings at University Park — all within their first year on campus.

But thanks to a $57,000 grant from the Leonhard Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Education, the Penn State Department of Architectural Engineering (AE) made those innovative educational experiences a reality by revitalizing AE 124: Architectural Engineering Orientation, a one-credit first-year seminar. 

Tom Litzinger, assistant dean for educational innovation and accreditation and director of the Leonhard Center, believes first-year seminars are a critical part of helping new students engage with the College of Engineering and the University, something the AE department achieved with its revamp.

“The AE seminar is an innovative, modular approach to introducing students to exciting, cutting-edge topics, while at the same time meeting the University’s strategic curriculum goals for the seminars,” he said.

Associate Teaching Professor Ryan Solnosky, who coordinated the course redevelopment, said the new curriculum was the joint effort of several faculty members, including Professor Kevin Parfitt, Teaching Professor Moses Ling and Assistant Professor Nathan Brown.

“It was a goal of the faculty to introduce engaging, modern engineering applications, modernize the topical and delivery standpoint of the course, and to become aligned with the University’s recommendations for first-year seminars,” he said.

Solnosky explained the revitalized AE 124 is divided into three modules of roughly five weeks each. One module focuses on campus engagement, where students are introduced to the basics of Penn State and how to succeed as a student. Students look at the University’s history, learn to navigate campus, hone study habits for college-level courses, and gather the concept of academic integrity. This module also addresses AE-specific skills like how to study for certain required course exams and how to best manage time in studio courses.

The second module deals with career-readiness skills like resumes and LinkedIn profile-building, career counseling, and construction site visits to explore real-world job opportunities for architectural engineers. Students also are required to attend the AE Career Fair as part of this module.

The third module focuses on special topics themes, which vary depending on the section a student chooses when scheduling courses. In one section, taught by Ling and titled “Engineering Cities: Lego City Penn State,” students explore engineering solutions, sustainable features and period architecture of buildings on the Penn State University Park campus and create Lego models of them.

“The revamp introduces a lot of excitement to the course,” Ling said. “I really believe that one of our teaching objectives is to generate inquisitiveness in the students. I’m excited about all the experience they’ll get looking at built environments.”

Parfitt is teaching a section on the “greatest building failures of all time,” where students look at the “worst, most tragic, most ridiculous and most preventable building failures” throughout history, according to Parfitt’s course description.

“I think the way AE 124 is organized is interesting,” Parfitt said. “With five different themes, students have more say in an area they’d like to explore. The big thing is we have more engagement with the students — we are not lecturing them. They’re participating in active learning through tours outside of the classroom and just getting out around campus.”

Brown is leading three sections of AE 124: one on redesigning Beaver Stadium using physical and/or virtual design concepts, another on exploring the use of robotics in construction applications, and another on using 3D printing technology in construction.

“I like that we’re really introducing students to the design process — both in redesigning the stadium and in 3D printing,” Brown said. “They’ll use computation to think creatively related to buildings.”

Brown said initial reactions to the revamped course content have been overwhelmingly positive. 

“It’s an opportunity to think about different content areas we might want to explore, while having the support of materials and equipment to offer advanced engineering activities,” he said. “We have a sophisticated framework in order to ask for feedback from students on their goals and objectives in taking the course and adjust as necessary in the coming years.”

Sez Atamturktur, Harry and Arlene Schell Professor and head of the Department of Architectural Engineering, said the revamped course can benefit any engineering student, even one majoring in another engineering discipline. 

“AE 124 has the potential to help all engineering students build an interest in architectural engineering and to encourage them to pursue careers dedicated to engineering better structures,” she said. “The course engages students in learning techniques and orients them to the AE department and community, all while facilitating their adjustment to a demanding workload and other aspects of the transition to college life.” 

Last Updated October 01, 2019