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NSF Grant to USU Bolsters Distance Education for Aspiring Engineers

Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013

Brigham City campuses' Angela Minichiello

Angela Minichiello is the principal investigator for a new NSF grant for a project aimed at improving retention of engineering undergraduate students within the critical first two years of study.

Engineering professor Christine Hailey

Christine Hailey, senior associate dean in USU's College of Engineering and professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the Logan campus, is co-principal investigator.

Utah State University has been awarded a research grant from the Division of Undergraduate Education at the National Science Foundation for a project aimed at improving retention of engineering undergraduate students within the critical first two years of study. The three-year grant begins in February 2013.

The grant will be led by principal investigator Angela Minichiello, principal lecturer in the USU Department of Engineering Education and assigned to the USU Regional Campus and Distance Education center located in Brigham City, Utah, and co-principal investigator Christine Hailey, senior associate dean in USU’s College of Engineering and professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the Logan campus.

The grant enables Utah State to implement and formally evaluate the use of online learning forums within distance delivered sections of the engineering calculus course sequence, taught within the USU RCDE system. By increasing student achievement in these courses, innovative instructional interventions, such as online learning forums, may help in graduating more professionals into engineering and other science, technology, engineering and mathematics — STEM — disciplines.

Researchers see potential for online learning forums to improve engineering student academic achievement in calculus, increase engineering student interest in learning calculus and, ultimately, to attract students to pursue engineering careers. 

“Currently, required calculus courses act as filters of potential engineers,” said Minichiello. “We want to turn them into funnels. Online learning forums are virtual meeting places where students, who may be located hundreds of miles away from other students or instructors, can come together to discuss concepts, solve problems and build community knowledge at any time of day, seven days a week.”

Online learning forums have transformative potential in that they can easily be employed throughout the spectrum of educational delivery methods, from traditional face-to-face teaching to online, asynchronous instruction known as e-learning. USU researchers hope this work will help to broaden the knowledge and use of online forums throughout STEM education.

“In addition to addressing a critical need of STEM education, that of retention, this NSF funded project will produce a new body of knowledge regarding the effectiveness of online learning forums as instructional interventions in engineering education,” Minichiello said. “One of our major goals is to create and disseminate guidelines to promote widespread use of online learning forums throughout STEM education, including K-12 and undergraduate settings.”

For more than 20 years, Utah State has been a leader in delivering distance education to residents within Utah and beyond providing academic programs in partnership with USU colleges and departments. These efforts are creating opportunities for students to complete degrees and receive training via online courses, interactive broadcast, independent study and face-to-face classes at campuses throughout the state. USU provides opportunities for professional and vocational learning in addition to providing lifelong enrichment through social and cultural programs. Persons in all situations and of all ages can access learning opportunities which will increase their knowledge and skills without disrupting their employment or lifestyles.

“It is widely acknowledged that to remain competitive, the United States must address the declining state of STEM education, and this project is another example of how Utah State is working to address those issues,” said Ronda Menlove, USU’s senior vice provost. “This NSF grant will help enable USU to support distance education students, particularly those who live in rural areas, non-traditional working students, and women, interested in engineering, achieve their educational goals.”

Contact: Eric Warren, director, media relations, 435-713-3054,

Contact: Paige Pagnucco, marketing coordinator, 435-797-1429,

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