NSF Funds $2 Million Skunk Works to Improve STEM Education

Purdue University creates a lone-wolf team to help transform mechanical engineering education in the U.S.

Skunk Works helps determine what ideas are most likely to improve how engineering is taught in universities. Courtesy of Edward Berger, Purdue University.

Skunk Works helps determine what ideas are most likely to improve how engineering is taught in universities. Courtesy of Edward Berger, Purdue University.

Purdue University has created an independent engineering education ‘Skunk Works’ as part of a National Science Foundation (NSF) effort to improve mechanical engineering education at universities in the United States.

Edward Berger, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue who conceived of the concept, explained that the independent nature of the team will allow engineering students to bring concepts to the forefront that are most likely to work.

Berger said that mechanical engineering programs are typically stagnant due to various traditions that span decades. As an independent body, the ‘Skunk Works’ can operate outside that tradition and red tape. “It is designed to be a birthplace of new ideas that can be tested quickly to see what has legs and what doesn’t,” he said.

“We’re not just talking about improving or changing classes,” said Berger. “We are talking about the entirety of the experience. So it could be something about the way we deal with people. It could be something about the experiences that our undergraduates have or that we, the faculty, have with them. It could be something about our physical space or the culture of the department or the policies that are too restrictive and that squelch off innovation prematurely.”

He said, “Usually in educational organizations we take a year to evaluate ideas and see if they are likely to work … What we want to do is take an idea, do some research on it, perhaps implement it on a small group of students and faculty, not for a semester but only for a month. So if the outcomes are not favorable, and the ideas didn’t work, there is no reason to waste another three months on it. Get rid of it, come up with a new idea and move on from there.”

The ‘Skunk Works’ will include 15 students and various faculty members, including an economic advisor and an anthropologist. As such, it will focus on more than just engineering; it will focus on the culture and overall education experience.

“Graduates must have better communication skills, both written and oral, and they must be more globally connected and focused on innovation and entrepreneurship early in their undergraduate careers,” said Anil Bajaj, professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue. “They must be able to use their technical knowledge for outside-the-box solutions.”

The ‘Skunk Works’ project will be funded by the NSF as part of a $12 million initiative aimed at revolutionizing engineering departments (RED). The NSF has awarded six organizations a total of $2 million over five years.

“An underlying premise of RED is that department heads can be critical levers for change,” said Donna Riley, NSF program director. “RED focuses on transforming department structure and faculty reward systems to stimulate comprehensive change in policies, practices and curricula.”

Programs such as this ‘Skunk Works’ and the RED programs are essential to the growth of STEM education. As ‘Skunk Works’ operate and thinks outside the box, they are ideal to breed the innovation we need in STEM education.

Far too many STEM education programs have been stagnated by unchanging gender gaps, minority gaps and teaching styles. Recently, Purdue launched a program aimed at fixing engineering culture to be more inclusive, and it will be interesting to see how this will interact with their new ‘Skunk Works’.

As for education styles, in general universities have not changed from the traditional university model for hundreds of years. It’s still a lecturer talking to a crowd of sleepy individuals. Education needs a change and the faster we can work through permutations the faster we can see what new models will work. We need to work outside the red tape.

Other STEM projects funded by the NSF’s RED awards in 2015 include:

  • “Revolutionizing Roles to Reimagine Integrated Systems of Engineering Formation” from Colorado State University
  • “The Connected Learner: Design Patterns for Transforming Computing and Informatics Education” from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte
  • “Additive Innovation: An Educational Ecosystem of Making and Risk Taking” from Arizona State University Polytechnic School
  • “Developing Changemaking Engineers” from the University of San Diego
  • “Shifting Departmental Culture to Re-Situate Learning and Instruction” from Oregon State University
Written by

Shawn Wasserman

For over 10 years, Shawn Wasserman has informed, inspired and engaged the engineering community through online content. As a senior writer at WTWH media, he produces branded content to help engineers streamline their operations via new tools, technologies and software. While a senior editor at Engineering.com, Shawn wrote stories about CAE, simulation, PLM, CAD, IoT, AI and more. During his time as the blog manager at Ansys, Shawn produced content featuring stories, tips, tricks and interesting use cases for CAE technologies. Shawn holds a master’s degree in Bioengineering from the University of Guelph and an undergraduate degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Waterloo.