Logo: University of Southern California

Modernizing the Curriculum with Engineering “Degree Projects”

October 23, 2007 —
With funding from the National Science Foundation, the USC Viterbi School has created an innovative new model for engineering curricula that includes a nanotechnology degree.
Professor C. Ted Lee, Mork Family Department
of Chemical Engineering and Materials
In an effort to modernize undergraduate studies and close the gap between traditional, macroscopic topics and emerging fields such as nanotechnology, the new structure capitalizes on Viterbi’s drive to stay at the forefront of education.
“By examining how the traditional subjects of chemical engineering can be applied to advanced topics, Mork Family Department students will be better prepared for today’s increasingly molecular-oriented workplace, while simultaneously being trained for jobs in the chemicals and fuels industries,” says C. Ted Lee, assistant professor in the Mork Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science.
Led by Lee, a principal investigator of the project, a team of experts last year developed a new approach to blending contemporary technology with core engineering courses by incorporating a concept called “degree projects”.
The projects, according to Lee, are a sequence of laboratory modules focused on nanotechnology and biotechnology that students take in conjunction with traditional chemical engineering studies right at the start of their education.
The degree project structure was also selected in large part because of its effectiveness in encouraging women and students of color to remain in majors such as chemical engineering, says Gisele Ragusa, a professor of clinical education and a co-principal investigator on the project.
Women and minority students are more likely to remain in degree tracks such as chemical engineering if they become involved in practical, collaborative research early on, Ragusa says. The new application aims for just that – immersing students in long-term nanotechnology and biotechnology labs from their very first classes.
In the new structure, students begin a degree project as freshman and follow it as it increases in complexity across the four-year USC program.
“For example, students in the nanotechnology emphasis participate in a degree project entitled ‘Nanoparticles,’ says Lee. “In the freshman year, they synthesize nanoparticles in the mass balance course and in successive laboratory courses they continue the orientation with project-oriented studies. 
“They examine nanoparticles interactions in the thermodynamics course. They fractionate nanoparticles in the separations course. They investigate nanoparticle catalysts in the kinetics course, and examine the thermal conductivity of nanocolloids in the heat transfer course,” he explains.
Finally, in their senior year, all of the laboratory modules culminate with an independent research-based degree project, he says.
The application of the degree project structure to the chemical engineering department constitutes the pilot phase of the program, Ragusa said. In coming semesters, Viterbi plans to roll the program out to other majors, she said.