Enhancing the ECE101 Curriculum Through
Diversity Harnessing

Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


Principle Investigators:
Michael C. Loui, loui@illinois.edu
Christopher D. Schmitz, cdschmit@illinois.edu
Jocelyn Davis (graduated!)
Renata A. Revelo
Brian Larson
Emmanuel Vazquez

Our staff in the NEWS!

I-STEM article on ECE101 (November, 2011)
Dr. Loui and the National Center for Professional and Research Ethics (October, 2010)

Quick Summary

It is our desire that ECE101 alumni across multiple and varying disciplines will be able to reflect upon the course they once took and say that it impacted their life in a very profound manner. We believe that the key to making this happen is to guide them in acheiving small but meaningful impact through personalized assignments and open-ended projects while in the class. Students can benefit from both working on a rich selection of problems constructed by other students and themselves while not being limited to the handful of "standardized" problems proposed by the instructor. The diversity of the students (with respect to their disciplines and experiences) will enrich the class while providing material fully relevant to each new group of students. This project aims to implement, document, and evaluate a sustainable plan called diversity harnessing.

full proposal text

What is ECE101?

How do digital audio devices play music? How are digital images and videos produced, stored, and enhanced? How do computers add numbers? How is information transmitted efficiently, reliably, and securely over communication networks? In ECE 101, students will learn the answers to these questions, the principles that underlie the operation of CD players, PDAs, cell phones, and the Internet. In the laboratory, students will digitize and synthesize sounds, design a small digital system, and create an interactive Web site.

ECE101 Exploring Digital Information Technology is a course at the University of Illinois in engineering directly focused towards non-engineers. ECE101 fulfills General Education requirements in Physical Sciences and Quantitative Reasoning, two inarguably mathematical fields. Basic algebra is an unavoidable a prerequisite. Occasionally, a declared engineer or computer science major will enroll for the benefits of exploring this field, but they do so as a free elective. The majority of students enrolled come from vastly differing disciplines: new media, economics, business, architectural studies, mathematics, rhetoric, music, psychology, political science, theater, art foundation, etc. They enroll in ECE101 for equally different reasons: learn about computer usage, build web sites, build circuits, process audio or video, etc. Many others are not sure what they will learn. They have enrolled just because they wish to learn anything about technology which they find to be rather mysterious...

But how does one instruct engineers, mathematicians, musicians, political scientists, accountants, actors, psychologists...and all of them sitting in one room?! This audience is extremely diverse and their reactions to the instruction provided in 50 short minutes are quite varied. Their backgrounds and interests are too diverse to collectively maintain their interests with one set of "generic" applications. The diversity of the class can be easily seen as a detriment to one's ability to teach!

Could we turn the diversity of the students from being a detriment to teaching and into a rich enhancement for the class? Could we help them recognize the vast ways in which technology can touch each and every field? Can we "harness" the rich diversity of the student body in order to make it a course specifically tailored to them?

Objectives of This Proposal

ECE 101 Exploring Digital Information Technology strives to prepare students for a meaningful role in an increasingly technological society. Unfortunately, many students fail to see underlying connections between course content and their own personal interests. The goals of this project are to
  1. better engage the students in the course topics,
  2. quickly integrate diverse student-driven subject matter back into the course, and
  3. empower the students to more effectively apply new skills to their lives and careers.

When students recognize the impact of their own ideas on the course direction and see the immediate application to their own interests, the “Diversity Harnessing” cycle (see figure below) feeds upon itself and presents a driving force in their education.

Description of Diversity Harnessing

Consider the Diversity Harnessing "wheel" shown in the figure.

Input from the students is harnessed through the use of questionnaires. The questionnaire seeks to find applications and ideas "outside of the box" for use within the course. As the students witness aspects of their own interests entering into the course material, they find themselves becoming engaged in the course.

The content from the questionnaires must be analyzed and fed back into the course material. It cannot be assumed that all inputs from the students will create usual materials for the course. Some inputs may be tangential to the instructor's intention for the question. Other inputs may fall too far beyond the expertise of the instructor. Even the best materials are likely to require massaging to place them into a form that allows the students to recognize the connections between the topics being studied and the application being suggested. In any case, the instructor can expect to devote significant time into facilitating the integration of the material back into the course.

With the material harnessed from the students fed back into the course as homework problems, test problems and both closed- and open-ended designs, the students will have the opportunity in class to apply their newfound skills and have impact outside of the course boundaries. Having already suceeded in having impact beyond the course, it is believed that many students will find success in applying their skills beyond the classroom beyond the semester's end.

For myself, the term ``harnessing'' brings forth an image of a horse hitched up to a cart. In this analogy, I wonder who is driving the cart and who the horse may represent. The traditional thought of the instructor driving the course seems to leave us thinking that it is the students who have been harnessed, but this view is truely misguided.

Within the structure of diversity harnessing, it is the students who ride in the cart, all of them holding tight to the reigns and assisting in guiding the harness. Does that leave the instructor as the solitary horse? Without proper course structure (eg. Cooperative Learning techniques), this may very well be how the instructor will feel as he tries to achieve the goals of diversity harnessing. With cooperative learning techniques, the instructor becomes the reigns and harness; the instructor connects the students to the horse in a manner in which they can control the progress. The burden of the work should be carried by the course structure, itself!

-C.D. Schmitz

Greasing the Wheel through the Three C's

Several barriers stand in the way if we expect to succeed at the proposed Diversity Harnessing structure proposed. First of all, we need students to "buy in" to the idea and provide inputs in a timely manner. Secondly, the instructor needs to be able allocated time to the facilitation of the harvested applications. Thirdly, the students require time and structure to allow them to apply their skills in unique ways in order to have a real-world impact through their work. A partial solution to all of these problems lies within commonly understood methods in cooperative learning. Through techniques of Cooperative Learning, we seek to build community, promote cooperation, and ensure accountability throughout the student body. We call these the "three C's" around which we can succeed in Diversity Harnessing.

Assessment and Evaluation Plan

By incorporating [diversity harnessing] methods into ECE 101, we aim to achieve three goals: better student engagement in learning, integration of students’ experiences into the course, and empowering students to apply skill sets obtained from ECE 101 to their lives and careers. We will collect baseline data from the old version of ECE 101 in [2010–2011] and additional data from the new version of ECE 101 in [2011–2012]. We will be able to compare the experiences of students in ECE 101 before and after the incorporation of [diversity harnessing] methods.

For the first goal, student engagement, we will use the Student Course Engagement Questionnaire, SCEQ (Handelsman, Briggs, Sullivan, & Towler, 1998). Unlike the famous National Survey of Student Engagement, the SCEQ is designed to measure student engagement during a single course. The SCEQ is a reliable measure of student engagement along four internally consistent factors: skills, emotion, participation, and performance. After we pilot-test the SCEQ in the fall of [2010], we will obtain baseline data in the spring of [2011] by administering the SCEQ in ECE 101 at several times of the semester. We will then administer the SCEQ to collect student engagement data for the new version of ECE 101 in the [2011–2012] academic year.

For the third goal, application of skill sets, we will interview students before and after they take ECE 101. For the baseline assessment, in the fall of [2010] and spring of [2011], we will conduct cross-sectional 30- minute individual interviews of twenty students who previously completed ECE 101 one, two, three, and four semesters ago. The interview protocol will prompt students to reflect on how topics from their general education courses—particularly in ECE 101—relate to their current courses or their other recent experiences (Suskie, 2004, chapter 9). Then we will interview a random selection of a total of twenty students in the new version of ECE 101 at the beginning of the fall [2011] and spring [2012] semesters. We will follow these twenty students longitudinally, interviewing them individually each semester for the duration of the project.

We will conduct a qualitative analysis of the interview data (Miles & Huberman, 1994). Because there appears to be no accepted model of how students use knowledge from general education courses in science and engineering, we will take a standard grounded theory approach (Strauss & Corbin, 1998): after individual members of our research team code the interview data independently, we will construct themes that describe how students apply ideas from ECE 101 across time. We will compare the responses of the two populations: students who took the previous version of ECE 101, and students who took the new version of ECE 101.

Project Highlights By the Date:

December 7, 2010: SCEQ pilot test given to ECE101 students.

January 26-28, 2011: PI Michael Loui attends 2011 TUES (CCLI) conference in Washington, DC.

January 31, 2011: Abstract due to ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference.

May 9, 2011: Paper (Work-in-Progress) accepted to FIE. Final version due June 7.

May 11, 2011: Final Exam for ECE101 administered. Spring Semester has ended!

May 16-19, 2011: Co-PI Chris Schmitz attends FSI2011 (Faculty Summer Institute).

Year 1

Building the Baseline Assessment

Fall semester [2010]:

Conduct pilot test of SCEQ.
Accomplished on last lecture of semester in parallel with ICES evaluations for nearly 100% participation.
Conduct cross-sectional study of past students.
Difficulty encountered in attracting participants. Continued into Spring 2011.
Ms. Davis graduates and materials are passed to Ms. Revelo.

Spring Semester [2011]:

Conduct cross-sectional study of past students.
12 participants as of mid-March
Submit abstract to ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference
Abstract accepted. Work-in-progress submission due April 5, 2011
Work-in-progress accepted. Final submission due June 7, 2011
Collect baseline SCEQ data at several times throughout, continue cross-sectional study.
SCEQ given on Thursday, March 31.

Summer [2011]:

Attended the Faculty Summer Institute at the University of Illinois from Monday, May 16, 2011 - Thursday, May 19, 2011 to network with other instructors regarding best practices in teaching and learning. [Dr. Schmitz]
Transcribe the spring 2011 interviews. [Mr. Larson, Mr. Vazquez]
Analysis of interview data. [Dr. Loui, Ms. Revelo, Mr. Vazquez]
Map course notes into warm-up, lecture core, and transitional material. [Dr. Schmitz]
Construct tiered homework, separating core content from prerequisite and adding student-generated problems as possible. [Dr. Schmitz]
In fall 2010 and spring 2011, the core assignments were mapped into Lon-Capa forming on-line assignments. Some pre-requisite materials have been added. [commented added 3/22/2011]
Choose educational technologies for community-building framework for handling student direction and facilitating teamwork. [Dr. Schmitz]
In spring 2011, we are using PBworks.com wiki as the project coordinator for the class in replacement of Wetpaint.com. [commented added 3/22/2011]
Elluminate was added to Moodle, allowing the opportunity for an online-version of office hours. Now, students can be provided an opportunity for weekly guidance by offsite faculty during evening hours to augment the TAs' efforts.

Year 2

Fall Semester [2011]:

Begin teaching course under diversity-harnessing structure.
It was discovered that using online-homework structure through Lon-Capa was counter-productive to community building. The students felt that the homeworks were naturally suited to individual effort and failed to build learning communities. Going into the spring 2012 semester, we plan to make 1/2 of the weekly assignments specifically team-based.

Administer SCEQ. Begin longitudinal interviews.
1st SCEQ given on Thursday, September 9, 2011.

2nd SCEQ given on Tuesday, October 25 (9am) and Tuesday, November 1 (11am), 2011.

Presentation at ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference in October.
Renata A. Revelo-Alonso presented early findings at FIE. The paper can be found here.

ACM SIGCSE Submission Deadline: Friday, September 2, 2011
Camera-Ready Copy: November 28, 2011

Spring Semester [2012]:

Continue longitudinal interviews.

Administer SCEQ Presentation at ACM SIGCSE Symposium on Computer Science Education in March.

Summer [2012]:

Complete analysis of current data. Begin dissemination of materials at cnx.org and

Enable IT resource for across-institution collaboration for instructors.

Year 3

Fall Semester [2012]:

Nov. 8, 2012: It has been an exciting semester. The methodology for incorportating Diversity Harnessing into the course is becomming easier and easier. I now can see some places for improvement in other aspects of the course design.

Continue longitudinal study.

Presentation: Teaching with Technology Forum at the University of Illinois.

Presentation at ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference in October.

Spring Semester [2013]:

Complete longitudinal study.

Present results at ACM SIGCSE Symposium on Computer Science Education in March.

Summer [2013]:

Complete analysis of current data.

Complete dissemination of materials at cnx.org.


Supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant DUE-0942331. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the University of Illinois or the National Science Foundation.


Handelsman, M., Briggs, W. L., Sullivan, N., & Towler, A. (1998). A measure of college student course engagement. Journal of Educational Research, 98(3), 184-191.

Strauss, A. L., & Corbin, J. M. (1998). Basics of Qualitative Research: Techniques and Procedures for Developing Grounded Theory, 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.