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Introducing EPAD: An engineering-oriented curriculum track for William & Mary undergraduates

  • ‘The engineering mindset’:
    ‘The engineering mindset’:  The new curriculum track in engineering physics and applied design draws on faculty from applied science as well as physics, and will involve the burgeoning makerspace ethos at William & Mary.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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William & Mary is launching a new engineering-oriented curriculum track, a variation on the university’s undergraduate physics major.

The track, titled Engineering Physics and Applied Design (EPAD), combines elements from both the university’s Department of Applied Science as well as the Department of Physics.

EPAD was approved by the university’s Educational Policy Committee on Feb. 9. University Registrar Sara Marchello says students can begin enrolling in the EPAD track as early as the upcoming fall semester.

EPAD is the latest in a series of educational initiatives being launched at William & Mary to address the need for graduates that are at home in the practical worlds of data analysis, engineering and design. EPAD joins a new and popular program in data science at William & Mary, which offers a minor and a self-designed major, with courses already at capacity.

Associate Professor of Physics Irina Novikova describes the EPAD track as a modification of the standard William & Mary undergraduate physics curriculum, designed with a focus on solving real-life problems. She explained that because many such problems are cross-disciplinary by nature, it was natural for the EPAD track to be designed as a collaboration between applied science and physics.

Faculty members of both departments will contribute new courses for the EPAD curriculum. Novikova added that there is also a strategic refocusing of the existing courses in the standard physics curriculum for EPAD students.

 “For instance, take thermodynamics. In the regular physics curriculum, we teach how the universe works,” she explained. “The EPAD version will teach how engines work; it'll teach what you need to know to build the machine.”

At the same time, the EPAD track requirements were designed with enough flexibility so that physics majors will have time to investigate both options, as they won’t have to choose between the tracks until they’re fairly along in their undergraduate studies.

Novikova is the co-chair, along with Christopher Del Negro, chair of applied science, of a group of faculty who assembled the EPAD curriculum. Representatives of both departments worked together on the EPAD implementation committee, which included Mark Hinders and Hannes Schniepp, faculty in applied science; along with Bill Cooke and Jeff Nelson, who are faculty in physics.

Novikova said that if students are interested in the initiative, she expects the current track to evolve into an independent major. In this case new courses will be added to keep up with the advancing frontiers of science and technology. Also, there is a strong desire to get EPAD students who are interested in commercializing their ideas to work with faculty from William & Mary’s Mason School of Business.

She added that developers of the EPAD track arrived at a majority consensus not to immediately pursue a formal engineering program, one that would lead to a degree certified by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology.

“The standard engineering program cannot be easily incorporated into the spirit of William & Mary,” she said. “But engineering itself seems to be changing. Now, many people need to have more than one specific tool or set of skills. There's a great demand for people who are integrators, people who can build a team.”

In short, Novikova said the goal of EPAD is to produce physicists who also have an “engineering mindset.” Vice Provost for Research Dennis Manos has been spearheading the development of data science, EPAD and other nascent elements of what now constitutes William & Mary’s engineering program.

He listed some of the qualities that make up the mindset of an engineer: “Problem-oriented. In a hurry. Prepared to work on a set of answers that begin with a zero-order satisfactory answer, then are progressively improved for product-worthy development.”

All of William & Mary’s physics majors have been required to complete a year-long final research project, and Novikova says it will be the same for majors following the EPAD track. She expects the EPAD capstone projects to be a bit different, emphasizing training to prepare our graduates to work among teams of engineers from other schools around the world.

“The traditional physics major works as an apprentice scientific researcher, one-on-one with a faculty member. Our plan is that the EPAD capstone project will see the students working as a junior member of an engineering design team,” she said. “It will be a group project, still led by a faculty member and ideally tied to the faculty member’s research. But the idea will be for the project team to actually build something.

“In what I see as an optimum case, the students will work not only with the faculty but also with companies,” she added. “The companies will bring specifications and the capstone would be to actually work on delivering a product.”

Novikova said a number of William & Mary’s physics graduates are going directly into industrial and governmental labs — and they’re doing quite well. Manos explained that the EPAD track is designed to provide even better preparation for those physics students who do not want to pursue a terminal academic degree.

“This is for someone who is likely not going to a program for a Ph.D. in physics. They may go for a degree in engineering management,” Manos said. “Or they may go straight out into industry.”

Manos added that a large component of the EPAD experience will come from working in William & Mary’s growing makerspace environment. Jonathan Frey became the first director of the Small Hall makerspace recently; Manos says that Frey will help students acquire hands-on experience working with 3-D printers, laser cutters and other computer-controlled tools that are becoming standard equipment in labs and design shops.

“Even if we can’t provide them with the biggest version of a prototype machine, it’ll be something that operates on the same fundamental principles using the same human interface,” Manos said.