Dr. Daniel Burkey (School of Engineering)

Daniel Burkey: Re-gearing how engineers are taught

Daniel Burkey wants UConn engineering students to tinker in the lab, early and often.

Combining hands-on projects with coursework is the best way to engage and retain engineering students, he believes. It also aligns with industry’s need for creative problem solvers.

Burkey, associate dean of engineering for undergraduate education and diversity, was named teacher of the year by UConn’s student American Institute of Chemical Engineers chapter in 2010, shortly after he joined the faculty, and for two years after that. He is a 2018-19 CETL Teaching Fellow, and he won teaching awards at Northeastern University in 2006 and 2007, where he was a chemical engineering professor.

At UConn he has worked to redirect the engineering curriculum toward the needs of the engineering profession and of students.

“They go into engineering because they like to build things up and take things apart,” he said.

Today’s students also want to know that what they are doing is relevant and significant. They are comfortable with technology and have been exposed to a variety of teaching methods in high school, he said.

“Students entering college now are very different from even five years ago,” he said. “We have to up our game.”

Freshmen tackle global problems

Getting students into the lab early for a freshman design course – Foundations of Engineering – rather than waiting for the traditional senior design is one of his innovations. Even though freshmen lack the technical knowledge of seniors, they can learn how to approach a problem and solve it, he said.

The freshmen are divided into teams of three or four, and they work on two projects a semester, designing and building a prototype. They tackle problems that are global in scope but reducible, he said – designing a water filtration device that can meet the needs of a challenging environment, for example, or designing and building a wind turbine.

Burkey calls the projects discipline agnostic, involving various types of engineering – civil, mechanical, systems, electrical, chemical, environmental, and materials. Students present their work at mid- and end-of semester, so they learn communications skills, too.

Like some of his teaching colleagues in math and the sciences, Burkey embraces active learning techniques, which education research shows provide students with a better learning experience than a straight lecture format. Advances in technology are also driving change.  Students are used to working on their laptops, tablets, and mobile phones. They don’t need to go to the library to read a journal article but can download it from the internet.

They are also less likely to buy a textbook or even come to class. A chemical engineer at the University of Colorado has developed a National Science Foundation-funded website, “LearnChemE.com,” that is publicly available and covers the basic materials.

That makes it even more important that classwork incorporates digital resources and that it shifts to problem-based learning.

“It gives you the opportunity to bring in cultural relevance – here’s why we’re interested in fresh water or colonizing Mars,” he said.

Jobs demand broader skills

Students are looking for vocational relevance, too, and employers want them to have professional, or “soft” skills in addition to their technical baseline. This includes communications skills – writing and presenting – and an understanding of the financial aspects of a project.

“Engineering is increasingly global, flexible, multidisciplinary, and applied,” he said. Students who are creative problem solvers and effective leaders have an advantage in the job market, he added.

The creative component is particularly important. Students need to learn how to use the tools of the profession to synthesize solutions. “That is why you are well compensated as an engineer,” he said.

Burkey, who grew up in Pennsylvania, loved chemistry when he was a child. He had a chemistry set (“back when those things were dangerous!”) and was going to study that subject in college, when a high school advanced placement teacher recommended engineering for its broader job opportunities. He earned his chemical engineering degree at Lehigh University in 1998 and, in 2003, his PhD at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After teaching at Northeastern, he was a senior research and development engineering at GVD Corp. in Cambridge, Mass., a company founded by his former MIT colleagues and advisor.

He returned to the classroom because he missed teaching and interacting with students.

Opening the door to students

His office at UConn tells of his interest in tinkering and technology – Legos and gadgets abound. An original Macintosh computer – the type of floppy disk-drive model that Apple introduced in 1984 – sits on a shelf. He has a reputation for using humor in the classroom, part of his effort to be approachable.

“I think students are comfortable if they see teachers as human.”

Part of his role with students is devoted to increasing diversity in the engineering school. Women now account for about 30 percent of the incoming classes. Attracting minority students is a complex problem because students may lack the pre-collegiate background they need. For both efforts, he looks at why students turn away from STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields in the fourth or fifth grade.

“We do a lot of outreach. We interact with K-12 students. It’s a long game,” he said. “We’re really talking about pipeline building.”

He marvels at how much students today take on – in leadership and service activities and research, in addition to classes.

“The way they juggle that – it’s amazing to me,” he said.

For more about Daniel Burkey: https://cbe.engr.uconn.edu/person/daniel-burkey/