Mechanical Engineering resources,TAs strained by enrollment

Department leaders say increased enrollment has created problems for staff.

Jill Jensen

The mechanical engineering department is busting at its seams with students, and its equipment, space and staff are struggling to accommodate them.

An increase in the number of students has led to bigger lecture sections, forced the department to add 7 a.m. labs and is pushing teaching assistants to work longer hours.

Rohini Bala Chandran is grateful sheâÄôs a morning person.

She has to leave her Dinkytown home before sunrise each Friday to supervise a required 7 a.m. three-hour lab section for mechanical engineering students.

Scheduling required labs at nonstandard times is one of many solutions to increased enrollment that hasnâÄôt been matched by more enough TAs.

Since fall 2006, the enrollment of junior and senior mechanical engineering students has increased by more than 100 to 580 this semester, according to department head Uwe Kortshagen.

âÄúI look at it more as a challenge to provide better student services, but also as an opportunity to keep our departments in the college afloat and competitive,âÄù Kortshagen said.

While he is pleased with increased enrollment, Thomas Chase, director of undergraduate studies in the mechanical engineering department, said via email that it has created several challenges for staff, including a âÄúpoorâÄù student-to-faculty ratio.

While the number of TAs âÄî who usually grade the problem sets students are assigned each week âÄî has been relatively stagnant, the number of students in lectures has increased, Susan Mantell, the associate mechanical engineering department head, said.

âÄúIt hasnâÄôt kept up with the enrollment,âÄù she said.

Popular labs fill up even quicker, making it difficult for students to get into required classes.

âÄúWhat we try to do is open up more sections and make our sections bigger,âÄù Mantell said.

Pushing the teaching assistants

Professor Peter McMurry, who devises the curriculum and syllabus for the lab Bala Chandran teaches, said the increasing number of lab sections may have an adverse impact on the TAs.

âÄúWeâÄôre really pushing the TAs very hard,âÄù said McMurry, who has seven TAs for his required labs.

He said they are paid for a maximum of 10 hours per week, but most are required to teach two-and-a-half or three labs. Each lab is three hours, which totals nine hours of their pay, leaving only one hour to grade papers or do other work associated with the course.

Bala Chandran said the time for preparation and grading often totals âÄúa lot more than 10 hours.âÄù

Mantell said a TA employed at quarter-time is paid for 10 hours each week and is given instate tuition, with half of tuition paid.

While the TA budget has increased by more than $100,000 over the past three years, the number of TAs employed has stayed relatively stable, Kortshagen said.

He said the department has employed about 55 TAs since the 2008-2009 year. TheyâÄôre usually employed at quarter-time or 0.25 full-time equivalency, which equals about 14 full-time TAs available to students.

He said the budget has increased because fringe benefits like health insurance have increased.

 

An adapting department

Mantell said in order to give weekly feedback, faculty have tried different methods like online submissions, weekly quizzes or group projects.

In order to reduce the number of lab sections offered next semester, McMurry said a third apparatus for doing experiments is being built, which will allow nine students to be in each lab âÄî or three students per piece of equipment âÄî instead of six. It will end the need for 7 a.m. sections.

He said the College of Science and Engineering will pay for the roughly $50,000 equipment.

An unfulfilled demand for students skilled in science, engineering and mathematics, combined with high starting salaries, has led to the increase in students, said William Durfee, a professor in mechanical engineering.

âÄúPeople do see that mechanical engineering is a degree that can get them to a job,âÄù he said.

As the undergraduate student body grows, he said itâÄôs âÄúabsolutely essentialâÄù that the faculty follows that lead to keep class sizes reasonable.

Durfee, who teaches Introduction to Engineering, has had to increase the number of discussions offered. His lecture size totals almost 250 students, making it hard to find classrooms big enough to accommodate everyone.

âÄúItâÄôs always an interesting challenge to accommodate more students and make sure that each individual student is still getting a good learning experience,âÄù Durfee said.

The motion control lab taught by Rajesh Rajamani fills up almost the day registration opens. Then he gets more than 20 emails from students begging to be admitted as well.

But students arenâÄôt let in because some instructors want to ensure that each student gets to do the work, rather than working in lab groups.

âÄúEach person needs to get the experience of working by him or herself,âÄù Rajamani said.