CLEMSON — The 500 students who study civil engineering at Clemson University and the 28 faculty members who teach it can expect changes as part of a groundbreaking restructuring that is backed by $2 million from the National Science Foundation.

The project will be the first major restructuring of the Glenn Department of Civil Engineering in 50 years and is aimed at creating a model for academic departments around the nation to follow. Eighteen civil engineering faculty members and social scientists developed the project over two years.

A Clemson team that recently attended a conference in connection with the RED project included (from left): Wayne Sarasua, Russ Marion II, Lisa Benson, CJ Bolding, Juliann Lloyd, Sez Atamturktur, Gemma Jiang, Jennifer Ogle, James R. Martin, and Brad Putman.

A Clemson University team that recently attended a conference in connection with the RED project included (from left): Wayne Sarasua, Russ Marion, Lisa Benson, CJ Bolding, Juliann Lloyd, Sez Atamturktur, Gemma Jiang, Jennifer Ogle, James R. Martin, and Brad Putman.
Image Credit: National Science Foundation

James R. Martin, chair of the department, said the project will lead to innovative new ways of engaging students, evaluating faculty members and partnering with industry.

Innovation and productivity will rise, he said, when the system encourages the participants to focus on how big of an impact they can have and less on incremental evaluations that often set the bar too low.

“It really doesn’t matter if you’re going to write one or two journal papers,” Martin said. “The question is, ‘Are you going to change the world?’ You might write one journal paper, but that paper might win you the Nobel Prize. This is the way to get the most productivity out of every single person. Innovation becomes everyone’s business.”

Martin expects his role as department chair to shift, with less emphasis on routine evaluation and more on impact and mentoring.

The project will apply complexity leadership theory, which is popular at many tech companies, to an academic department. The idea is to create a system that encourages faculty members and students to interact dynamically under pressure to be innovative, adaptive and productive.

Researchers are calling the project called CULTIVATE, which stands for Clemson University: Learning Teams and Innovation Ventures for Adaptable Training in Engineering.

It is supported by a program the National Science Foundation calls Revolutionizing Engineering and Computer Science Departments, or RED. It is aimed at fostering what researchers describe as “ground-breaking, sustainable innovation and inclusive environments in engineering and computer science.”

The Clemson team expects to share its findings with other departments at the university and with 60 other civil engineering departments across the country.

One of the biggest immediate effects will be on undergraduates who major in civil engineering at Clemson.

They will begin learning about various real-world projects by sophomore year, enroll in one and work on it until graduation. The project will guide their entire undergraduate education.

The approach is expected to keep students engaged and less likely to drop out while building their professional engineering skills and knowledge.

In the more traditional approach, students hold off on participating in real-world projects until their senior years.

Sez Atamturktur, the Distinguished Professor of Intelligent Infrastructure, said the Clemson faculty will seek out student projects that focus on real, timely problems throughout the state.

“These are not hypothetical problems,” she said. “For example, one county has a potential flood risk. They only have so much money, but it’s going to take more than they have to build what they need. What should they do? We need practical relevance and immediate applicability that leads into actionable findings.”

Wayne Sarasua, an associate professor of civil engineering, said students will still learn the foundational classroom topics, but they will be incorporated into the real-world projects to help illustrate the relevance.

For example, students could learn transportation design by developing a parking lot and roadway for their real-world project, said Sarasua, who is co-principal investigator on the grant and the chair of the civil engineering curriculum committee.

“This is an opportunity to make a big difference in how students learn and comprehend,” he said. “We want to better engage students in our classrooms. What we’re trying to do is connect the dots.”

For students, the changes will start with a sophomore-year “cornerstone” class that will include team-building, communication skills, problem-solving and an introduction to the real-world projects. Sophomores could start taking the class en masse as early as fall 2019, but an optional cornerstone section could be offered as early as spring 2018.

The emphasis on real-world projects follows a nationwide trend toward more research for undergraduate engineering students. Proponents say research sparks creativity and keeps students interested as they pursue some of higher education’s toughest majors.

The approach is backed by the National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges Scholars Program.

Many Clemson students could be exposed to real-world projects as early as freshman year, when they are taking basic courses in the General Engineering program. It’s part of a program called SEED, which stands for Student Envisioned Engineering Discoveries.

As part of SEED, civil engineering upperclassmen will show their real-world projects to freshmen at a new SEED Recruitment Fair.

Personal invitations to the fair will go out to students who are enrolled in pre-college mathematics courses and are considered vulnerable to dropping out from engineering majors. They will be eligible to attend an invitation-only reception, where they will be introduced to a voluntary, one-credit SEED class.

Students who enroll in the class will be paired with more senior student mentors, who will provide guidance in a range of topics that determine college success, including managing time, participating in student organizations and finding help for classes.

The faculty is also planning outreach activities for students in the K-12 system.

Lisa Benson, a professor of engineering and science education at Clemson, said only a chosen few institutions receive grants through the NSF RED program.

“The stars really have to align to get one,” said Benson, who is a co-principal investigator on the grant. “You have to have the right expertise, and you have to have strong support from the department, the faculty and even the students. This is about revolutionizing engineering departments. It’s deep, meaningful change.”

What separated Clemson was the team effort, buy-in from the faculty, strong leadership and education research expertise on campus, she said.

Civil engineering faculty members can also expect changes as part of the CULTIVATE project. The restructuring will be aimed at empowering them to play informal leadership roles and give them a larger role in determining the department’s direction.

The idea is to create a shared vision that encourages a sense of community where members are united toward a common goal and want to contribute rather than an approach in which the main concern is what they can get for their efforts.

“They can come up with an idea and can coordinate a new project,” Atamturktur said. “They can take a subgroup of faculty and identify a new area of study. The essence of it is giving informal leadership skills through hands-on projects and training activities.”

Russ Marion, a professor of education at Clemson, is an expert in complexity leadership theory and will be helping guide the restructuring as a co-principal investigator.

“Our effort is to foster change from the bottom up working with individual actors within the organization,” he said. “We identify informal leaders among those actors, particularly people who play roles that are conducive to change.

“And we devise strategies to make them more complex, which means they are more interactive and dynamic in their actions. We work to make their groups more interactive. We identify places that have no actors, then encourage agents to move into those spots in the network. We’re maneuvering the network to move in generally predictive ways. We’re trying to move them toward greater interaction, dynamism, creativity, amounts of learning and productivity. ”

Civil engineering faculty members are now hired under six groups and tend to remain siloed within them: water resources engineering, construction engineering and management, construction materials, geotechnical engineering, structural engineering and transportation systems.

In the new system, faculty members will be freer to self-identify their specialty areas as part of an approach called soft-wiring. It will allow the faculty to organize around societal problems and provide more flexibility for teaching assignments, co-teaching, scheduling and hybrid teaching formats.

Also as part of the CULTIVATE project, an advisory panel called the Discomfort Zone will take a look at how top civil engineering programs are succeeding, even if the information it finds is uncomfortable. Topics will include diversity, attrition and changes that have been made elsewhere.

Fred Switzer, a Clemson psychology professor, will moderate the gatherings.

“We’ll look outside at other universities, look at the innovations they’re doing,” Atamturktur said. “Not that we’re going to take every bit and implement it, but we’ll learn from them and understand what they’re doing right.”

Anand Gramopadhye, dean of the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences, said the CULTIVATE project positions the Glenn Department of Civil Engineering to play a leadership role in revolutionizing engineering and computer science departments not only at Clemson but around the nation.

“Faculty, students and staff across the department are coming together to create sustainable change that will lead to a more inclusive environment and students who are better prepared to solve 21st-century challenges,” he said. “I congratulate the team on its hard work and commitment to positive change.”