Inside CECS’ Experiential Honors Program
Now in its second year, this unique honors program gives students a way to earn credit for their internships, research and student team experience.
Learn-by-doing activities that extend beyond the classroom are becoming a bigger part of a university education. And there is no shortage of so-called “experiential learning” opportunities inside UM-Dearborn’s College of Engineering and Computer Science. Co-ops and internships have long given students a chance to see what a job in their field actually looks like. There’s a burgeoning culture of undergraduate research all across the college. And sign-up with one of several teams or clubs and a student can design and build everything from robots to rockets to race cars.
Recently, CECS added yet another way to encourage learning beyond the classroom, and this one comes with an added perk: The CECS Experiential Honors Program allows students to earn academic credit for these experiential learning activities.
Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Eric Ratts said that’s something students have wanted for a long time. But, as he explained, as soon as you enter the realm of awarding college credit, you have to make sure you’re checking certain boxes. Take a student engineering club like the formula race car team, for example: Ratts said the students there are involved in a ton of great engineering work. But in order to recognize a particular student’s work with credit, a faculty adviser must be involved to document it and “ensure that they are applying their engineering knowledge to solve engineering problems.”
Ratts said the Experiential Honors Program provides a pathway for that kind of recognition. Over the course of the four-semester program, students complete both an academic component and an experiential component. For the latter, they can choose from among a research project, a design project for one of the student teams or an internship in a professional setting. (Students have to complete a total of six to seven experiential honors credits over four semesters.) But in all cases, the student works closely with a faculty adviser, who ensures the experience is both tightly tied to something in the student’s academic studies and rigorous enough to be credit-worthy. The students even get a letter grade for these “experiential courses."
Right now, for example, industrial engineering student Omimah Bazzi is tackling a research project alongside Assistant Professor of Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering DeLean Tolbert. It’s a match that’s built on some solid shared interests: One of Tolbert’s main research focuses is the success of women and underrepresented minorities in STEM education, which is a topic that Bazzi has direct experience with. During her time at UM-Dearborn, Bazzi has worked as a supplemental instructor and facilitator in the STEMstart program (which is sort of a crash summer math and engineering program for incoming engineering students). And in both cases, she witnessed some of the struggles students face as they pursue an engineering education.
“I started to think about why it is that some students aren’t persisting in their programs,” Bazzi said. “Like, what are the different factors that influence this? And are our programs efficiently designed to help them? So because of this honors program, I have a chance to pursue research that looks directly at those issues.”
In Bazzi’s case, she’s exploring how things like ZIP code, availability of advanced placement courses and quality of high school math instruction may impact students’ success in college engineering programs.
Next semester, Bazzi will check another box in her experiential learning journey: a co-op at DTE Energy. There, she’ll observe work crews and design worksite optimization strategies — a topic she’s been studying in her industrial engineering program.
Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education Ghassan Kridli said it’s no accident that her classroom and internship experiences feel like two sides of the same coin. “The real power of experiential education lies in the connection students make between what they’re learning in the classroom and what they’re doing beyond it,” Kridli said. “So when you do an internship as part of this honors program, we’re not just going to send you out to work for a company and have an experience. We’re going to help you define some learning outcomes, and then identify an opportunity that’s tailored to that.”
One other notable aspect of CECS’ Experiential Honors Program: There is no GPA requirement. Kridli says that was, in part, to acknowledge the value of the long hours students devote to their research, internships and student teams.
“The reality is if a student is, say, an active member of a team, their grades may suffer a little because they’re putting in an incredible amount of effort on weekends, on holidays and on breaks,” Kridli said. “But these experiences can be just as valuable. So we’re trying to be unconventional in terms of ‘honor.’ We need to recognize that people can demonstrate they’re doing honorable things in more than one way.”