Lassonde team reinvents Renaissance engineering course

Bergeron Centre

Don’t expect traditional subject matter or standard delivery from the team now teaching Renaissance Engineer 1: Communications, Ethics & Problem Solving at York University’s Lassonde School of Engineering.

Andrew Maxwell
Andrew Maxwell

“We always had a vision of the Lassonde School of Engineering as a different type of engineering school that embraces diversity, social science, the United Nations Sustainability Goals and experiential learning,” says Professor Andrew Maxwell, Bergeron Chair in Technology Entrepreneurship and one of the course’s instructors. “To do that, we needed to transform the way we teach.”

Luckily for first-year engineering students, the four faculty members involved with this mandatory course are among those at Lassonde most comfortable with online technology: Maxwell; Jeffrey Harris, an assistant professor in the teaching stream; Mojgan Jadidi, an assistant professor in the teaching stream; and Kai Zhuang, a sessional instructor and educational developer.

Jeffrey Harris
Jeffrey Harris

“If you picked four people to embrace educational innovation at Lassonde, it would be the four of us,” Maxwell noted. “It just happened that we were all teaching this course.”

The four decided to work as a team and reinvent the course – which was originally designed to pioneer the spirit of Renaissance engineering and has continually evolved – for a remote audience, with each person focusing on one area in-depth: communications, ethics, problem-solving and assessment. They had each taught all of the topics previously, so they had no qualms about dividing the work.

“To transition to a fully online environment, we all thought about the pedagogy of remote teaching and learning and tried to incorporate a lot of the best practices for content delivery, engagement with students and assessment,” said Zhuang. “We changed the whole course.”

Each student is assigned to one of the instructors as their guide through the course – their administrator and mentor – but they are able to benefit from the perspectives of all four. Prior to the synchronous class session each week, students are asked to watch videos in preparation. Afterward, the students are asked to reflect on the material individually and to complete related assignments. The faculty also ask them to discuss the material in groups of five or six – groups that will remain the same throughout the year so the students get to know and rely upon each other – guilds, to use the course’s Renaissance language. The guild members are chosen based on their interest in various U.N. Sustainability Goals, since they will be the focus of a winter term project.

“Their job as guild members is to support each other in class and at Lassonde,” said Maxwell. “It’s a way of building community.”

Mojgan Jadidi
Mojgan Jadidi

The teaching assistants hired for the course aren’t just the standard TAs, either. In addition to the usual graduate student TAs, the team has chosen recent engineering graduates or upper-year undergraduates who have experienced the Renaissance engineering course themselves. Zhuang created a training workshop for them that included some training in coaching.

“They meet every other week with the students to act as mentors for them during their first-year experience,” said Harris.

The course material this year is also a bit different from the past syllabus.

“One thing we’re emphasizing a lot more this year is equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI),” said Harris. “When you have a number of different perspectives, you get better ideas – ideas that work for more people. We also want to open our students’ eyes to how they should treat each other; they need to develop empathy. Teamwork is a big part of being a professional, so we need engineers who know how to treat each other well.”

Maxwell noted that the ethics section of the course, too, is always changing as the world changes.

“Every time there are advances in technology, new ethical issues arise that we’ve never before considered,” he said. We use examples from current events, as well as case studies. We emphasize to our students that people my have the best intentions, but there can be a negative impact. We’re consciously making this a bigger part of the course.”

The communications section of the course also needs regular tweaking, said Jadidi.

“We definitely have a section on fake reporting and one about how students can learn to present their arguments about technology in a way the public an understand,” she said.

Kai Zhuang
Kai Zhuang

As for problem solving, the Lassonde team takes a different approach from many other schools where the students are presented with a problem and asked to solve it. At Lassonde, the teaching team first asks the students to identify the problem.

“We want to help them understand the importance of defining a problem before proceeding,” Maxwell said. “We also offer additional immersive activities outside of class, such as hackathons, that that require them to apply this skill and others they’ve learned.”

Then, there’s the revolutionized grading system for the course. During the semester, students won’t receive numerical grades; the only options are Exceeds Expectations, Meets Expectations or Revise and Resubmit. The final course grade is a letter grade, but it will be based on assignments, not an exam. In addition, the team is trying to co-ordinate due dates for major assignments with other professors who teach first-year courses.

“We’re trying to look at the first year holistically so we can be sure our students are set up for success,” said Harris, the first-year coordinator.

The overarching motivation behind the course redesign is innovation.

“We try things and the result is innovative,” said Maxwell. “We want to share our passion for research and new knowledge with students and hope they get excited, too.”