S5-FY7-1 - Stirring up a Special Sauce: Marrying Electrical and Computer Engineering with Threshold Concepts for ECE 101

Panels / Special Sessions
David Reeping1 , Desen Ozkan1, Lisa McNair1, Tom Martin1
1 Virginia Tech

Description of Session

In this session, participants will reconceptualize electrical and computer engineering (ECE) curricula at the undergraduate program level by applying threshold concepts theory. Through sharing content and experiential knowledge, the group will produce thematic maps of (1) how threshold concepts are introduced and mastered in undergraduate ECE programs, and (2) how paradigm shifts in ECE historically resulted from new concepts coming to light. Threshold concepts are concepts that reorient the way a student thinks about knowledge. According to Meyer & Land (2005), a “threshold concept is akin to a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something. It represents a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something without which the learner cannot progress.”  Common examples of threshold concepts include the ideas of gravity and imaginary numbers. In ECE, Thevenin and Norton equivalent circuits, superposition, voltage, current, pointers, and object-oriented programming are cited as potential threshold concepts. In this session, we will put Meyer and Land’s enticing metaphor into practice by using threshold concepts to design an “ECE 101” course meant to introduce students to fundamental concepts in ECE. 

Starting with backward design, we will guide participants in distilling projects into the electrical engineering (EE) and computer engineering (CPE) concepts they embody, ranked by whether the concept is introductory or more advanced. These concepts will then be reconstituted based on complementarity and categorized into larger themes that all students learn in ECE programs. This special session will focus on the themes that are appropriate for an introductory electrical and computer engineering course with an eye toward overall program goals. Drawing from the historical development of the field’s landscape, participants will also reconstruct the progression of discovery in the field by adding in threshold concepts between major scientific paradigm shifts. The results of these two activities can then be adapted by participants in multiple pairings in their own curricular programs.    

Session Goal

The primary goal of the session is to engage faculty in using the Integrated Threshold Concept Knowledge framework to identify cross-cutting ideas in ECE to develop a sketch of an Introduction to ECE Course. 


This workshop will be useful and intriguing to ECE instructors teaching lower-division courses in the discipline; to faculty and administrators invested in program evaluation; and to history buffs interested in scientific revolutions. Also, ECE faculty teaching courses later in the curriculum can benefit from exploring ways that fundamental knowledge can be valued and learned by students as they progress toward advanced practice in the discipline. Those researching first-year courses, conceptual knowledge/change, threshold concepts - in the discipline or otherwise - can also benefit from the workshop interactions. 

Justification of Session Novelty

Electrical engineering historically underwent a sustained period of expansive (dis)integration (Jesiek & Jamieson, 2017), where the field gradually subsetted itself into highly specialized areas with little communication between them. With the advent of Computer Engineering, shifting many Electrical Engineering departments to Electrical and Computer Engineering departments, the task of introducing students to both disciplines faithfully in a single course can be daunting, which is complicated further by different subfields jockeying for priority in such courses. We contend this session presents a thought-provoking opportunity to consider the Integrated Threshold Concept Knowledge framework as a lens to rectify the expansive (dis)integration and find compelling cross-cutting ideas that can form a balanced introduction to the full spectrum of ECE. 

Interaction Plan

Participants will be engaged with the backward design of a hypothetical Introduction to ECE course with consideration to how it fits into the broader curriculum. Attendees will be grouped to brainstorm big ideas in the disciplines, which will involve discussing projects they have done in their courses or projects they would like to implement and have yet to do so. These discussions will be abstracted into the underlying concepts inherent to the projects and the other concepts generated. The concepts will then be sorted to examine them for integrative ideas across the disciplines, and also provide an opportunity to reflect on major progressions in the discipline over time. We will discuss the implications of the attendees’ findings to close the session. 


This 110-minute session will progress via brief activities for information gathering and sharing, resulting in alternative concept maps of Intro to ECE courses, ECE undergraduate program goals, and historical arcs of the fields’ progressions. 

Preheat (15 minutes): The start of the session will entail an introduction to the curriculum change efforts in the ECE department at [Mid-Atlantic Institution]. The authors will then outline a brief history of ECE to outline how the integration of Computer Engineering into Electrical Engineering has affected the field’s disciplinary identity and its reflection in ECE curricula at large.

Ingredients (20 minutes): Participants will brainstorm ECE cornerstone and capstone projects that are imagined or existing (15 minutes). Next, facilitators will discuss an example project and distill it into ECE concepts that the students must know how to work through the project (5 minutes). 

Combine (20 minutes): Next, participants will organize these concepts by discipline and then decide whether the concept should be taught in introductory or advanced courses (5 minutes). From here, the participants will continue to cluster the concepts based on complementarity while still keeping track of disciplinary identity (ranging from EE to CPE) and difficulty level (5 minutes). These clusters will yield the larger themes, which we will use to introduce the framework, threshold concepts (10 minutes).  

Heat (15 minutes): In the discussion of threshold concepts, we will provide a brief overview of the literature as well as a high-level timeline of the development of ECE as a discipline. Participants will populate the timeline of paradigm shifts with ECE threshold concepts that add historical context (15 minutes). 

Whisk (20 minutes): Next, we will use these newly identified threshold concepts to build an introductory ECE course that reflects EE, CPE and the integration of the two (20 minutes). 

Thicken (10 minutes): We will use the last 10 minutes for lightning talks by groups presenting results and questions.