Skip to main content

Faculty given support to create innovative curriculum

The 2017 recipients of The Alumnae of Northwestern University’s Award for Curriculum Development will spend the summer honing two new undergraduate courses designed to expand digital learning and enhance understanding of societal challenges impacting engineers in the real world.

The awards are administered by the Office of the Provost and provide $12,500 to support the development of innovative course materials and new modes of teaching over the summer in preparation for the upcoming academic year.

Jeremy Birnholtz is an associate professor of communication studies in the School of Communication and an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science (by courtesy) in the McCormick School of Engineering. Jeremy also directs Northwestern’s Social Media Lab and is the founding coordinator of the undergraduate curriculum module in Digital Media. This summer, he will develop a course that helps undergraduates develop digital literacy. Through a series of informal workshops, students will develop valuable knowledge communication strategies required for interactions with software engineers and developers.

Amanda Stathopoulos is the William A. Patterson Junior Chair of Transportation and an assistant professor in the civil and environmental engineering department in the McCormick School of Engineering. She works at the intersection of science and humanities and is a teaching fellow in Northwestern’s Searle Center for Advancing Learning and Teaching. Her course will focus on connecting students’ understanding of civil engineering with knowledge of current societal challenges. They will learn to identify problems in urban environments and customize engineering solutions for individual communities and cultures.

With a focus on deepening fundamental contextual understanding, each of these courses will enable students to build upon connections between technology and humanities, helping them improve critical thinking skills and setting them up for success within and outside of their disciplines.

Each of these courses embodies the innovation that is paramount for recipients of The Alumnae Award for Curriculum Development. Through the immersion of real-world problems in Stathopoulos’s discipline-focused introductory course and the application of technological learning in Birnholtz’s humanities-oriented classroom, these classes will help develop and strengthen the undergraduate curriculum at Northwestern in creative ways.

Computing everywhere

Jeremy Birnholtz’s course will provide communication studies students exposure to foundational computational thinking and the opportunity to develop basic digital competency. The class bridges the gap in students’ familiarity with digital technology by giving them prior preparation for additional courses and a foundation for future technological interaction in their personal, academic and professional lives. By providing learning opportunities through a series of workshops in novel settings, this course will draw on examples from students’ everyday lives to teach them how to critically engage with software, algorithms, engineers and developers.

“Just as media literacy was essential in the past, computational literacy, or the ability to understand and critically engage with software and programmers/engineers, is an essential skill for all Northwestern undergraduates,” Birnholtz said.

According to Birnholtz, the class “will position students well for careers in industry user-experience research or product development, graduate programs in information and communication technology and introductory coursework in computer science.”

Birnholtz’s class builds on a 13-student pilot class first offered in spring 2016. The summer class will be an informal, zero-credit course without formal grades. Birnholtz said the format will incorporate valuable informal learning, facilitate risk-taking within the classroom and possibly reduce student stress and anxiety in a topic area known to be technically intimidating, time consuming and often too detailed to meet students’ needs.

Engineering possibilities

In her course, Amanda Stathopoulos invites civil and environmental engineering freshmen to develop a holistic understanding of potential options and outcomes of interventions in urban systems, specifically those in response to environmental, energy, health and mobility challenges. The goal of the course is to “prepare students to address the complexity of problems and engineering solutions with pervasive (and conflicting) impacts.”

The course will give students multiple perspectives on global problems while helping them understand how local conditions contribute to the success or failure of real-life engineering projects. Through a mixture of lectures, discussions with industry professionals and experts, in-class exercises and teamwork, students will be able to identify urban challenges, research and apply analysis tools and find relevant data and metrics to rank possible solutions with an understanding of implications and trade-offs.

“There is ample evidence that young engineers are eager for space and tools to reflect on the social impact of their work,” Stathopoulos notes.

Through teaching students how to evaluate technological, economic and policy implementations as well as the benefits, costs and trade-offs of competing solutions, Stathopoulos says she hopes this course will provide these opportunities for students in the beginning of their engineering courses, helping to increase critical thinking and engagement throughout their education.