Eli Fromm: Bringing engineering into the first-year experience

Eli FrommEli Fromm has held many positions at Drexel University, including teaching in the biological sciences and electrical engineering departments, as well as senior administrative positions. After more than 20 years in bioengineering research, he was instrumental in curriculum reform for the freshman/sophomore engineering experience starting in 1988 with the E4 program (Enhanced Educational Experience for Engineering Students). In 1992, he started the Gateway Coalition program, which implemented many of the same ideas as E4 (with significant extensions) at ten partner institutions. This program helped shine a spotlight on engineering education reform throughout the country.

This profile was authored by Matthew W. Priddy, Georgia Institute of Technology, based on an interview with Dr. Fromm in 2014.

Dr. Eli Fromm

Professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering
Leroy A. Brothers University Professor
Director, Educational Research & Development
Drexel University

Ph.D., Bioengineering/Physiology, Jefferson Medical College, 1967
M.S., Engineering, Drexel University, 1964
B.S., Electrical Engineering, Drexel University, 1962

Early years in academia

I joined the faculty at Drexel University as an assistant professor in the Biological Sciences Department and the Biomedical Engineering Program in 1967, where I performed research in bioengineering, sensing, and implantable transmitters and transducers for long-term acquisition and analysis of physiological information (a nice marriage between my electrical engineering and physiology background), while also teaching classes. In the early 1980s, I transferred to the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department while maintaining my position with the Biomedical Engineering Program, where most of my research colleagues resided. In the mid-1980s, I started to think about the reform of engineering education when I noticed the lack of hands-on experience the students were getting. Our engineering students needed to have some early context of why and how engineering fits with the math, the sciences, and the other aspects of their education. Additionally, I read some journal articles published by Dr. Mac Van Valkenburg, Dean of Engineering at the University of Illinois at the time, where he discussed the need for reform of the engineering education system—for example, to include new or modernized courses that introduce emerging technologies.

Around the same time, our Dean of Engineering, Richard “Dick” Woodring, wanted to increase the research emphasis in the college and revealed a plan to replace the Associate Dean for Undergraduate Affairs with an Associate Dean for Research. At this point, I had been at Drexel approximately 20 years, and knew Dick well enough to suggest that, by doing so, he would send the wrong message to the faculty regarding the importance of undergraduate education. Several weeks later, I happened to see Dick again, and he asked if I would take the Undergraduate Affairs position. After a few days of careful thought, I told him I would take the job, with the condition that we hire clerical staff to take care of day-to-day tasks such as student schedule issues or course counseling. I wanted to focus on big-picture ideas like program development and new ideas for the college. Dick agreed to my request, and I took the position in 1987.

E4 curriculum reform

Once I became Associate Dean for Undergraduate Affairs, I formed a committee that was interested in the future curriculum of the College of Engineering, with a special focus on determining the desired outcome of the degree program and the requirements needed to achieve that outcome. In essence, we treated the engineering curriculum as an inverse-design problem. This committee was comprised of enthusiastic faculty from various engineering departments across the college, with no requirement that they have previous experience in curriculum design. We met every week and sometimes invited speakers from departments outside of engineering (e.g., math or hard sciences) to learn more about their particular course design and methodology. Later we also asked faculty from the social sciences to join the committee. One of our main goals was to introduce students to engineering up-front and for the students to not wait until they got to their third year of our five-year co-op-based curriculum to get to engineering and engineering sciences.

After a number of meetings, we wrote down all of our desirable goals and concepts for the students. Some in the group felt that there was no way we could do all that we had listed. I insisted that of course we could, already having the concept of vertical curriculum integration in mind, and that it was a matter of how we packaged the different pieces. I drew a line underneath the long list and wrote “192” on the blackboard. That was the number of quarter-system credits required for graduation in the College of Engineering at the time. It was a tall task to achieve all those goals in 192 credits, but I soon realized we could combine similar aspects of courses such as early physics, statics, and calculus. With these groupings of courses, we were able to meet the credit demand for graduation while also providing the students with engineering classes at the onset of their education at Drexel. We designed courses with titles such as “Mathematical and Scientific Foundations of Engineering” that combined calculus and physics with statics. With this strategy, we were able to eliminate a large number of traditional stand-alone courses and replace them with combined courses that made the curriculum more efficient.

Our original plan to reform the curriculum was not dependent on receiving outside funds, although it would have taken much longer to complete the task without it. Therefore, it was fortuitous that soon after we put this plan together, the National Science Foundation (NSF) published a program announcement that encompassed making significant structural changes to engineering curricula. We submitted a proposal that was very well received at NSF but created a dilemma for them, because we requested over $2 million, which was approximately 60% of the program’s budget at that time. After much discussion, we were awarded $2.1 million for our program titled, “An Enhanced Educational Experience for Engineering Students (E4).” Concurrently, we received $200,000 from the General Electric Foundation, as well as support from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and industrial support.

From conception to implementation

In 1988, the first year of the E4 program, 15% of the incoming class (approximately 100 students) enrolled in the program. The students had to volunteer to be a part of the program because our university admissions office insisted that students and parents had to indicate a desire to participate, since this was an experimental program. I was concerned that parents would not want their children to be part of an experiment, so I wrote an explanation of the program objectives and what we hoped to achieve, which the admissions office sent to each accepted student. We were happily surprised when over 300 students volunteered. From that pool, we randomly selected 100 participants. For the first year of the program, all the participants lived in the same dorm as a learning community, but we were not able to sustain that effort in subsequent years. Interestingly enough, dorms have now transformed into communities for learning, with classrooms and groupings of students from similar programs. The first year of the E4 program was a large success; we improved retention in engineering by a large margin. The president and provost wanted to enact the new program university-wide immediately, but after further discussion, we decided to incrementally increase the number of students enrolled.

With the E4 program, the challenge was to convince other faculty to join in. From the beginning, many of the science departments were very agreeable to the curriculum change. I believe it helped that I had previously been a faculty member alongside them, so I had some friends in the various science departments. However, we still had a lot of dissent around campus, and I didn’t want to cause more conflict by expanding the program too quickly. So we increased enrollment numbers in years two and three, and the faculty senate accepted the request to make this the official curriculum after year three. The next year, all 900 freshmen engineering students were taking part in this program. This program involved more than 40 faculty members from various departments and ran in the same manner until 1994, after which it was modified.

Gateway Coalition Project

The E4 program was generating much attention, on campus and at other universities, due to our increase in student retention and the positive feedback from our co-op employers. In 1990, I was invited to give a presentation about our program to Erich Bloch, Director of NSF at the time. One of the questions he posed to me was in regard to accreditation, to which I explained that this program would fit very well into the forthcoming ABET 2000 criteria. Also during that meeting, I vividly recall Erich asking colleagues around him why, if this worked so well at one institution, could it not work at a combination of multiple institutions? I cannot be certain, but I believe that was the kernel that ultimately grew into the Engineering Education Coalitions program.
I had also come to know and befriend Dr. Joe Bordogna, who was the Dean of Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania at the time. Most likely this happened through my interim deanship at Drexel and the fact that our offices were just several blocks apart. Joe was well aware of our E4 program and its success; in the mid-1990s he suggested that we expand that initiative to include other institutions. It was, in essence, the initial discussions of an Engineering Education Coalition, although at that time we were thinking mostly of the curriculum model and content. Joe and I put together the proposal for what we called the “Gateway Engineering Education Coalition.” It was a multi-university coalition that implemented reform for the engineering education culture through a variety of directives. The E4 program was designed to transcend boundaries across colleges within one university and to encourage teams of faculty from across those college boundaries to work together on educational initiatives. The coalition was designed to take that concept a significant step further by forming teams of faculty across institutional boundaries to work together in developing new educational paradigms.

We modeled the Gateway Coalition after E4 as its initial emphasis, because most of the ten member schools did not have engineering in their first-year program. The first proposal we submitted to NSF was not funded, so we drafted a revised proposal with some modifications in partner institutions and focus themes. This time it was awarded, but Joe had been asked to serve at NSF prior to our development of the revised proposal, so he removed himself from involvement with the proposal and its consideration once it reached NSF. At the five-year mark, the coalition resubmitted another proposal, again with some change in partner institutions but also a much broader set of focus areas beyond curriculum development, including assessment, instructional technologies, improving participation of underrepresented populations, and professional development. These were linked to changing the culture of the undergraduate engineering experience and were awarded five more years of funding.

The Gateway Coalition ran from 1992 to 2003, and we were awarded $28.3 million from NSF plus equal matching from institutional and industry/private-foundation sponsors. To this day, most of the member institutions still have a first-year engineering program and have addressed the method of delivery and relevant content presented to the students. Between a combination of the E4 and the Gateway Coalition, I think we really started a whole ball rolling of bringing engineering into the freshman year and, to an extent, what we referred to as inverting the older, traditional curriculum.
From the 1991–92 to the 2000–01 school years, the Gateway Engineering Education Coalition partner institutions awarded 12.7% more engineering undergraduate degrees, and even more compelling were the increases in undergraduate degrees to female, African American, and Hispanic students: 46%, 118%, and 65%, respectively. Furthermore, the Gateway Coalition partner institutions demonstrated a significant increase (greater than 15%) in student retention from freshman to sophomore year, particularly for women and minorities.

People are the biggest factor in reform

In 1996, I was informed that I was to be the recipient of the Computer World Smithsonian award. I asked that the Gateway Coalition, as a collection of institutions and materials, be included in that recognition as well. As a result of this recognition, many of our materials were archived at the Smithsonian Institution. One of the things I was asked was to clearly identify the biggest factor in the success of this program, to which I responded, “The people.” If the people involved really want to make it happen, they will find a way to make it happen. For example, I had the pleasure of working under Richard Woodring, who really provided me a lot of latitude and support when it came to exploring new ideas. And when I brought forward this idea of curriculum reform with an emphasis on the first-year experience, Richard gave me his full support. It was one thing for us to implement E4 at a private university, but large public institutions like Ohio State University or private, research-intensive institutions such as Columbia University were also successful in reforming their engineering curriculum, and that is directly attributable to the people at those universities wanting change to occur.

Reflecting on this pioneer’s story…

  • Dr. Fromm reflects that successful curriculum reform often depends on key people “wanting change to occur,” yet also recalls the challenge of convincing faculty to join or support the E4 program. What attitudes toward change (curricular or otherwise) do you see in your setting?

Photo provided by Dr. Fromm.