Preparing students to take on the world’s most complex challenges means staying abreast of an ever-changing industry. It is necessary to challenge assumptions in this context, and two Mechanical and Materials Engineering (MME) faculty have tackled a skills gap by integrating coding into the department’s curriculum.

The joint efforts of Laurent Beland and Levente Balogh have created MECH 202 and MECH 203, a pair of fall and winter courses designed to strengthen the coding skills of Mechanical Engineering students. In early 2020, the two assistant professors began drawing up a way to correct what they saw as a deficiency for their students.

“In the 21st century,” Beland explains, “a large fraction of engineers will encounter computer programming in their career. We don’t expect mechanical engineers to be the ones who will go work at Google or Apple and develop cutting edge software. But a good number of our students will end up doing programmable logic controllers. They will build controllers for mechanical systems. We want them to be comfortable with modern tools!”

With a stream of positive feedback under their belts, Beland feels the results speak for themselves. “I conduct a poll in the classroom near the end of each semester to ask, ‘how many of you got internships this summer? And what percentage of cases did your programming skills help?’ These days, 30% of my class got an internship that was at least in part facilitated by their newly acquired computer skills. In this particular case, Python skills,” he says. “That’s really rewarding.”

In recognition of his work, Beland has received the Silver Wrench Award in two of the past three years, an award voted on by MME undergraduate students that recognizes superior commitment to excellence in teaching. “The reception from students has been extremely positive,” says Keith Pilkey, Professor and Department Head of Mechanical and Materials Engineering.

It isn’t easy to bring the idea from conception to development, however. For this, Beland and Balogh enlisted the help of the Engineering Teaching and Learning Team (ETLT). Headed by Eric Tremblay, the team was eager to help bring the courses to life. “The fact of the matter is you need coding in all disciplines,” he says. “They came to us and said, ‘We have two courses to build. Are you cool?’” Eric grins and replies, “We said, ‘we’re super cool. Come on down!’”

“We paired them with a good instructional designer, and a good educational producer,” Tremblay says. “Together they made a plan that included what they need to design, what decisions to make now and where they have to consult with people in the department. They built these two courses and they had them ready to go for the first day of class! Laurent and Levente deserve tons of credit because they took a big risk.”

Another challenge to get the two new courses off the ground was unexpected: the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result of the pandemic, the courses weren’t launched until the 2020-2021 academic year. “Pre-COVID, what they would have done for a coding course, with proctored exams, is asked students to code on paper because you can’t have them bring their laptops to class. There’s just too much temptation for departures from academic integrity,” Tremblay says. “COVID forced our hand to go electronic, so during COVID, we worked with the manufacturers of our proctoring software to build a spin-off product that locks down the student’s computer so they can’t access the Internet while they’re writing exams.”

Being able to let students use their laptops for their work is something Tremblay and his team are particularly proud of. “It’s very exciting for students to use the coding software that real engineers use. This is authentic in the sense that, in the real world, people don’t code on paper!

Beland backs up this observation. “We want something more immersive, more closely tied to the skill set we want them to have as engineers,” he says. “These days, if you’re going to deal with statistical data, you’re most likely going to require a computer. You’re not going to print out some tables and some curves the same way you would in a pen and paper exam.” He stresses that Mechanical Engineering students who felt they had a deficiency in computer science discover otherwise after they take the courses. “The issue is usually that they didn’t have a high school programming course, so it means that these high potential individuals didn’t get a chance to really be hands-on and practice.”

One of the biggest challenges Beland and Balogh faced was how their students would receive these new courses. Students rely heavily on prior year exam banks, so introducing a pair of courses where there were no past exams for students to consult was tricky. “The other aspect is when you do things module by module, it means you’re no longer following a single textbook and moving along. And we thought, well, if we’re going to do something like that, let’s fully flip the classroom and do these very modern teaching methods.”

“These second-year courses developed and implemented by Drs. Balogh and Beland, with vital support from the ETLT, represent the future of engineering education,” says Pilkey. “Students learn more and retain more when content is presented in a problem-based, active learning environment. The use of real-world engineering tools (e.g. coding platforms) in the classroom contributes to experiential learning, and we leverage the world-class expertise of our faculty by not simply following a standard textbook.”



This article is relevant to the following Strategic Actions as defined in the Strategic Plan: