Adoption of Computational Modelling in Introductory Engineering Course Modules: A Case Study

Abstract for paper presented at the 8th Research in Engineering Education Symposium (REES 2019) held in Cape Town, South Africa, from 10–12 July 2019. The extended abstract can be downloaded HERE:


Traditionally, mathematics and engineering principles course modules constitute the bulk of undergraduate teaching in the first and second year of the engineering curriculum. These introductory course modules play a critical role in the study of engineering by laying the foundational engineering and mathematics principles that underpin the study of more advanced engineering modules in the latter stages of the undergraduate programme. However, students often perceive these foundational modules as being disconnected from the “real” engineering that they came to study, and this often leads to heightened student dissatisfaction and disengagement from further engineering studies. To alleviate this situation, most engineering education researchers and educators have advocated the adoption of computational modelling within these foundational engineering course modules.


MATLAB has been an integral part of teaching in first and second year engineering mathematics at University College London since 2013. This has improved student engagement with mathematics and raised their awareness of its relevance within their chosen engineering disciplines, and subsequently led to the adoption of MATLAB in other introductory course modules.. However, this adoption has not been uniform.  In the study that I report in this paper, I set out to establish the reasons why MATLAB adoption patterns are so variable amongst first and second year introductory engineering course modules. Specifically, I sought to establish the pedagogic and learning environment structural features that facilitate or impede the successful adoption of MATLAB as a teaching tool within the early-stage foundational engineering course modules.


To address these research questions, I adopted a multi-dimensional case study approach that incorporated interviews with students and lecturers in the first and second year of undergraduate engineering across five engineering departments, peer observation of teaching, evaluation of student performance and feedback, and interviews with programme leaders and directors of education. To facilitate this analysis, I framed the study as an innovation diffusion case study. This enabled me to evaluate the data and to frame the outcomes using a variety of innovation diffusion models that have been applied to the study of curriculum change in various educational establishments.


Whilst the study is still very much a work-in-progress, key findings that are emerging are largely consistent with emerging views of innovative learning diffusion within educational practices. Specifically, my findings point to the need for effective learning support mechanisms that incorporate both top-down and bottom-up approaches to driving innovation. The study also highlights the detrimental effects of institutional focus on disciplinary research on the adoption of innovation in learning and teaching practice. In addition, the study also highlights the need to open up the undergraduate education landscape to emerging educational practitioners such as learning technologists and education administrators.


The teaching and delivery of first and second year undergraduate engineering course modules can be substantially improved by incorporating computational modelling, visualisation and analysis techniques. However, this adoption process is not straightforward, and requires cultural and structural changes within engineering schools if it is to be effective. For this to happen, institutional leaders have to demonstrate a willingness to go beyond rhetoric by actively advocating and supporting the adoption of innovative practices within the undergraduate engineering curriculum.


Computational modelling and analysis, visualisation, undergraduate engineering education

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