17:13 PM

When One Size Doesn’t Fit All

Pitt researchers receive $500k from the NSF to develop a new personalized-approach to graduate education in chemical and petroleum engineering

Graduate education at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering is taking a different - and more individualized - route. 

Engineering programs for master’s and PhD students traditionally follow a “one-size-fits-all” approach by assuming all students begin at the same knowledge level while disregarding individual academic preparation, demographics, and professional backgrounds. However, not all students who want to earn an advanced degree desire to continue in academia or research - which is how graduate programs were designed for centuries, to educate the next generation of professors. Today, more students seek to advance industry careers or pursue startups.   

The Swanson School’s Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering received $500,000 through the National Science Foundation Innovations in Graduate Education program to create and validate a personalized learning model (PLM) for graduate STEM education. The program will be piloted within the department and will personalize education by offering one-credit modules and professional development streams to help students forge their own path tailored to their academic and research experience as well as their future goals. 

“Graduate students have unique career goals that most often do not involve becoming a professor – yet, that’s how we train them,” said principal investigator Susan Fullerton, associate professor of chemical and petroleum engineering, Vice Chair for Graduate Education, and Bicentennial Board of Visitors Faculty Fellow. “Most of our students go into industry, not academia, and increasingly we have students who are passionate about starting their own companies, but the graduate curriculum is the same for all these students and professional development is not a priority.” 

Starting with the End in Mind 

Götz Veser, the Nickolas Dececco Professor of Chemical Engineering and co-principal investigator on the grant, enjoys seeing the variety of students that walk through the Swanson School’s doors each new term and said this program is designed to meet their needs. 

“Our students come with vastly different life experiences, unique socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, and different educational experiences –  switching from science into engineering, or having received their undergraduate education abroad,” Veser said. “But these different backgrounds also constitute unique barriers for their graduate education. Our personalized learning approach aims to break down the barriers by mentoring and helping each student to identify their individual strengths, set their own personal goals for their graduate education, and select a professional development stream - industry, academia, or entrepreneurship - that aligns with these goals and guides them towards a successful transition into their professional careers.”   

Mary Besterfield-Sacre, senior associate dean for academic affairs and Nickolas A. DeCecco Professor of industrial engineering and co-principal investigator said the program starts “with the end in mind” to help individual students reach their own goals. 

Though students must complete the core curricular requirements of the program, this new flexibility will allow students to create individualized learning experiences in graduate school. 

“What we’re doing is taking a step back, establishing what a student’s goals are, and then establishing what needs to be added – or removed – to a student’s educational journey to fulfill their needs,” Besterfield-Sacre explained. “A student may not need all the content in advanced thermodynamics if their research is in a different area. This model embraces a different approach than traditional didactic learning.” 

The program is anchored by its professional development streams in industry, entrepreneurship and academia/national labs. The idea to develop these streams was sparked by Chris Wilmer, associate professor of chemical and petroleum engineering and Wellington C. Carl Faculty Fellow, when he thought about what tools and connections he needed when starting a business. Wilmer, who also serves as the Departmental Director of Entrepreneurship, is an entrepreneur and author in his own right in addition to being an academic and researcher.

The industry stream will be led by Veser, who will facilitate students and faculty in building relationships with industry and bringing emerging industry trends into the classroom.

Though faculty are well suited to prepare students for a career in academia, James McKone, associate professor of chemical engineering and senior investigator on the grant, will start students early in their PhDs to develop a standout CV required to land an academic job.

Along with these streams, students will engage in a more flexible curriculum – something that Sachin Velankar, professor of chemical engineering and senior investigator on the grant, has been advocating for the past few years. Bob Parker,  Associate Dean for Graduate Education and professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at the Swanson School, has hoped for the implementation of more flexibility in the program for many years, particularly through these one-credit modules.  

“Students will still have enough core knowledge to be chemical engineers, and they also have the depth to be technical experts in their research specialty,” Parker said. “These small classes also simplify prerequisites, as each credit is located in a dependency tree that branches out from core knowledge in a fan-like shape. From a faculty perspective, we can teach these more compact classes aligned to our areas of expertise, making preparation easier and instruction of difficult topics clearer.”

The process of implementing the program has already begun with an upcoming workshop co-led by April Dukes, Faculty and Future Faculty Program Director at the Engineering Education Research Center and senior investigator on the grant. The workshop guides students through goal setting via “Individual development plans.”   

The PLM will be fully operational in the Pitt’s Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering by fall 2025. Once the PLM is successfully deployed through the department, researchers are looking to integrate the model into other STEM fields both within and beyond Pitt.