CEEatGT Awarded $1 Million Educational Grant

Thursday, 24 September 2020
Undergraduate students in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Photo: Zonglin Jack Li 

The School of Civil and Environmental Engineering has been awarded a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to develop innovative changes to the School’s curriculum and culture.

Known as a RED grant—Revolutionizing Engineering Departments—the funding will be used to create resources to instill in students a greater sense of understanding and belonging to the civil and environmental engineering fields.

“We are thrilled to receive this support that will enable us to begin developing new courses to enhance our undergraduate experience,” said Karen and John Huff School Chair Donald Webster. “This is a phenomenal opportunity to think holistically about our curriculum, particularly framed around a sense of belonging through an instructional thread that will connect each year of our undergraduate degree programs.”

The RED grant will be used to enhance students’ connection to the civil and environmental engineering professions while creating a safe and inclusive environment for all CEE students, particularly women and underrepresented minorities.

The funding will also help to increase engagement for students throughout their undergraduate studies and improve student retention within the School.

CEE programs across the country struggle with retention. A main culprit is that students often aren’t significantly engaged with civil and environmental engineering material until after they’ve completed their core courses halfway through their college experience.

Kevin Haas, associate chair of undergraduate programs, conducted a recent analysis of CEE students at Georgia Tech to determine when they enter and exit the program. What he found was a net zero loss: While around 50 percent of students transfer into the School, about half of students who initially declare civil engineering or environmental engineering as their major do not stay in these programs.

School leadership began to think about ways to address this attrition and concluded that early and continuing engagement in the discipline would help keep more students in the program.

Haas and Assistant Professor Emily Grubert developed a course called “Exploring CEE” as a way to engage undergraduates during their first year in the program. The course, which was offered for the first time in Fall 2019, introduced first-year students to the work civil and environmental engineers do through interdisciplinary research topics, guest lecturers and team problem-solving exercises.

Grubert said students have told her that the course is helping them understand all that civil and environmental engineers do across a variety of engaging topics.

“It's been a real pleasure to watch students realize the scope of what we do as a profession, while simultaneously realizing that we're a supportive community with a ton of interests,” Grubert said. “I'm very excited to continue developing this class in the context of the RED grant, knowing that there will be a clear path forward for the students to continue those kinds of discoveries as they gain skills.”

With the RED grant, the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering aims to build on the Explore CEE class by developing a series of courses that will ground students in the kind of work they will be doing as civil and environmental engineers.

“The development of the freshman and sophomore classes are going to allow us to engage with the students early and start introducing important concepts vital for their engineering education at an early stage,” Haas said.

Over the next five years, the School will develop and implement a spine of four mutually informing and highly interactive courses with an emphasis on problem-finding and problem-solving.  The courses will address society’s grand challenges and help students develop computational, teaming, and reflection skills. Each course will build on the last, with increasing rigor, ending with the Capstone senior design class.

“This RED grant will support us to enhance the quality of our civil and environmental engineering curricula, and augment the experience of our students in the School by engaging them early and consistently throughout the Program,” said Adjo Amekudzi-Kennedy, associate chair for global engineering leadership and entrepreneurship. “With this grant, we will be able to do all this in an integrated and thorough manner – improving the internal climate and programs while enhancing the impact of our graduates beyond CEEatGT, with contributions to advance engineering education scholarship.” 

As part of the program development, the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering will partner with Georgia Tech’s Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering, which received a RED grant in 2017.  The biomedical engineering RED project team focuses on preparing students to harness diversity by shaping and leading teams of people who have different backgrounds and perspectives. CEE will also work with Clemson University’s Civil Engineering RED team to learn from their framework for building technical and professional skills throughout the curriculum.

“NSF’s program for Revolutionizing Engineering Departments encompasses more than simply how or what we teach – it seeks aggressive, fundamental change in how departments operate to prepare diverse students for future engineering careers. NSF RED projects serve as models for other academic programs across the U.S.,” said Edward Berger, NSF program director for Engineering Education. “Georgia Tech’s new RED project is noteworthy because of its robust plan for changes that will help all students feel they belong, inspire them with grand challenges, and equip them with valuable computational skills. The connection to Georgia Tech’s ongoing RED project in biomedical engineering creates an exciting convergence opportunity for change across engineering.”

Ultimately, with this new program Georgia Tech’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering aims to graduate more engineers who are equipped to help solve the mounting problems facing our world: climate change, natural disasters, water scarcity, infrastructure renewal, urban congestion, pandemics and more. 

“Civil and environmental engineers are well-positioned to lead and play major roles in addressing the grand challenges of the 21st Century,” Amekudzi-Kennedy said.

CEEatGT RED Core Team Members

PI: Donald Webster
Co-PIs: Adjo Amekudzi-Kennedy, Kevin Haas, Wendy Newstetter, Terry Blum
Investigators: Kari Watkins, John Koon, Iris Tien, Susan Burns, Emily Grubert, Robert Simon, Wesley Wynens, John, Taylor, Joe Le Doux
Evaluator: Julia Melkers
Advisory Board: Jennifer Ogle, Rudolph Bonaparte, Bill Higginbotham, Jenny Hirsch