Writing New Chapters: $3M Grant Will Expand Story-Driven Learning in College of Engineering

Friday, 02 April 2021
Photo Courtesy: Suzy Hazelwood via Pexels

By Joshua Stewart
Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering

Storytelling is how we share ideas and culture. It’s how we build relationships.

Telling stories also helps us learn and integrate that new information into our existing knowledge, which is partly why helping students tell their stories has become an important part of the curriculum in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University. Now the idea is reaching other disciplines in the College of Engineering at Tech with the support of a $3.1 million grant from the Kern Family Foundation.

Under the new project, led by Coulter BME Professor Joe Le Doux, the Daniel Guggenheim School of Aerospace Engineering, the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and the College’s CREATE-X entrepreneurial program will infuse story-driven learning into their curricula to help students build “entrepreneurial mindsets.” The idea is to help students see themselves as engineers ready and able to act, using all the skills they’re learning to solve problems and improve the human condition.

“Throughout engineering education, I would argue, we often don't give students a chance to sit back, reflect, and make connections about what they’re learning and how they can use it,” said Le Doux, executive director of training and learning in the Coulter Department. “Some students do it on their own. But some don't. Those who do, really benefit from it. So, the whole concept of the story-driven learning piece is to help students make these connections about what they're learning, who they are, where they're going.” 

The Coulter Department has been developing this story-driven learning idea for a few years through the Foundation’s Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network (KEEN). It has developed into a thread that weaves throughout students’ courses: All along their journey, students have significant learning experiences that add to their bank of stories (Le Doux thinks of it like a pensieve from the Harry Potter novels — a storehouse of memories and stories).

Often, students are asked to reflect on what they’re learning and how it connects to their own life experiences. They spend significant time talking to each other about their work and doing peer reviews. They interview people to discover real-world problems to solve and understand user needs. They even write articles in the style of the New York Times.

Then, near the end of their coursework, they take BMED 4000, The Art of Telling Your Story, where they pull from all their experiences at Tech and beyond. It’s here that they learn what makes a good story with the help of award-winning Atlanta playwright Janece Shaffer. She co-teaches the course alongside Le Doux and another faculty member, Cristi Bell-Huff.

“We're teaching them how to tell real stories that make the movie run in your head, so to speak,” Le Doux said.

The new grant expands these ideas into the other programs, scaling up story-driven learning.

“It's really exciting, because 40% of College of Engineering students will be impacted,” Le Doux said. “Every civil, environmental, aerospace, and CREATE-X student will get it — but in different ways.”



The idea of an entrepreneurial mindset isn’t really about creating startups or taking ideas to market. That can be one piece, but it also can manifest when students work for existing firms. The goal is for students to always be thinking about how they, and their companies, can solve problems and create value for society using the resources at hand.

“We believe that entrepreneurial confidence is a life skill that every Georgia Tech student should possess when they graduate,” said Joyelle Harris, associate director of CREATE-X LEARN programs. “We see story-driven learning as an effective methodology to help students understand the entrepreneurial confidence they have gained by participating in CREATE-X programs, regardless of whether they have launched a successful startup.”

CREATE-X will infuse story-driven learning techniques in each component of the LEARN-MAKE-LAUNCH pathway that forms the core of the program.

Most of the 2,000 students who participate in CREATE-X courses each year don’t launch a company. Those who don’t sometimes wonder what they’ve gotten out of the experience, so using story-driven learning techniques can help them reflect on the confidence and skills they have learned and internalize them.


Civil and Environmental Engineering

In the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, the project will build on a larger, multi-year effort to transform the School’s culture and curriculum by improving students’ sense of belonging and connection.

School leaders are designing a series of four vertically integrated courses — for freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors — focused on interactive problem-based learning and problem solving around the grand societal challenges that civil and environmental engineers work to solve. The classes will feature elements of computational and team development, include reflective teaching and learning, and aim to create a greater sense of belonging among civil and environmental students.

“The overarching objective of this initiative is to incorporate entrepreneurially-minded learning pedagogies into our engineering programs, with a focus on value sensitive design and story-driven learning, to support the development of entrepreneurially minded engineers,” said Adjo Amekudzi-Kennedy, associate chair and professor in the School. “That means engineers who have a mindset and culture of value creation: for society, for the advancement of the economy, and for themselves in ways that formally incorporate societal values and minimize negative consequences.”


Aerospace Engineering

Aerospace engineering students will find storytelling modules integrated into several courses throughout their programs of study — again, with the goal of helping them reflect and articulate why they chose the field and how they can translate skills into solutions that create value.

“Our School is excited to be a part of the KEEN grant at Georgia Tech to make significant improvements to our educational program that enable students to think and act with an entrepreneurial mindset as they are exposed to and solve problems that enhance the human condition,” said Mark Costello, William R. T. Oakes Professor and chair of the Guggenheim School.

The School plans to create social learning spaces, where students and faculty can engage in activities outside the classroom and forge stronger connections. Leaders also will create do-it-yourself small-scale experiments for students to build, perform, and improve on their own.


It’s About More Than Georgia Tech

For Le Doux and Coulter BME, where innovative engineering education is built into the Department’s DNA, the goals are to continue developing story-driven learning as a teaching approach and create tools to train engineering faculty anywhere to use it. Building out the approach in disparate disciplines at Tech will offer key insights in how to do that.

“How does this roll out in the different units? Each unit has a different culture. We want to impact all of engineering education — it’s an ambitious goal — so we're looking at it from the prospective of organizational change,” Le Doux said. “When people try to adapt this in different programs, different cultures, what are the barriers? What works?”

Le Doux said adopting entrepreneurial-minded learning as a key part of the curriculum throughout the College will be significant: Georgia Tech’s size and reputation mean we have a major influence on engineering education around the nation.

“I would like to see as many colleges of engineering as possible adopting these kinds of approaches. We can share what we've learned with other campuses — and even expand these ideas beyond engineering,” he said. “Helping students see themselves as people who create value will make them more likely to actually do that when they get out in the world. And more generally, they end up knowing themselves better, and they know how to tell really good stories. That's a leadership skill.”