Magazine Preview: The Politics of Gateway’s Redesign

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Sean Zimmermann goes behind the scenes of the controversial engineering core.

On the 12th floor of Seeley Mudd Hall is the Botwinick Multimedia Learning Laboratory, a state-of-the-art computing classroom outfitted with more than four dozen computers, two digital projectors, and 20 terabytes of networked storage space. The facility is used by a number of engineering courses and faculty, but at the moment, the classroom is under the careful instruction of Promiti Dutta, a tall, soft-spoken woman in her late twenties. Dutta is in the middle of teaching her ENGI E1102 section — the course goes by the name “Design Fundamentals Using Advanced Computer Technologies” in the official SEAS bulletin, but to every first-year engineering student at Columbia, it’s known simply as “Gateway.”

Dutta is leading her students through a round of midterm evaluations today. Unlike the vast majority of Columbia College courses, many SEAS courses offer students a chance to give instructor feedback through evaluations conducted at the semester’s midpoint. These evaluations are anonymous, but rather than entering the ether of tenure committees and departmental files, students’ private opinions get aired publicly like dirty laundry on washing day. Dutta’s role during this process is to discuss the responses with her class, acting as both moderator and public relations officer while students are given the floor to debate the merits of their previous weeks’ experience.

Tensions are running high. One student writes in an evaluation that, in a class designed for first year engineers, “the engineering feel is absent.” Another questions the group project, which allows students to work with real clients to design real projects, writing “Is Gateway really intended to implement solutions? I feel the whole international client business is just a promotional tool for Columbia University.” Though some student evaluations are positive, numerous informal student interviews echo these sentiments. Mid-way through the year, Gateway students are not just finding problems with the course—they are questioning what the purpose of Gateway actually is.

Such existential concerns are endemic among core courses. “Frontiers of Science,” for example, has had more than its fair share of detractors since its 2004 introduction to the university, and even the vaunted “Contemporary Civilizations” has endured withering criticism over the decades for its potential to leave students with only “a smattering of knowledge,” as one professor objected when the course was first established. Because of their broad nature as survey courses, required classes tend to go hand in hand with superficiality.

But Gateway was conceived of as no ordinary survey course—if anything, Gateway was designed to be the opposite, bringing first-year SEAS students and faculty together to produce meaningful projects and build lasting academic relationships.

Such goals would have been unheard of a generation ago, for until the course began in the early 1990s as a project of now-Vice Dean Morton Friedman, it was standard practice for engineering students to spend their entire first two years mastering the fundamentals of calculus, physics, chemistry, and other sciences. Rarely, if ever, would students actually work within their desired engineering fields or even speak to engineering professors before their junior years.

But when increasing numbers of faculty around the country began to perceive this lack of interaction as unhealthy, a reform movement emerged. Led by Dean Friedman, professors from 10 engineering schools partnered to develop the Gateway Coalition, a National Science Foundation-funded consortium with a mandate to rethink undergraduate engineering educations. For Columbia, this reform movement resulted in the 1994 introduction of the Gateway course, which exposes students to real, applied engineering as freshmen, not juniors.

Despite the growing calls for curriculum reform, the first incarnation of Gateway encountered some resistance among the SEAS faculty. Many professors scoffed at the idea that freshmen could grasp engineering concepts without at least a few semesters’ worth of rigorous grounding in the math and science. But various departments eventually did develop introductory short-courses covering their engineering sub-fields, several of which filled out the modular framework of the new Gateway class. Dean Friedman soon became concerned about the lack of coherence in the course, though, and hired applied psychology professor Jack McGourty to revamp Gateway in 1998. McGourty’s goal was to replace the old topic-specific modules with a unified program centered around service learning, and in 2003 the freshmen class became the first to team up with “clients” from the local New York community to tackle social issues using engineering solutions – designing a rooftop garden for an AIDS clinic, for example, or developing a one-handed video game controller for amputees. “This course is an excellent example of ‘technoscience,’ the integration of multiple disciplines where the projects, not the disciplines, drive the investigation and research,” said Dean Friedman in a 2004 SEAS newsletter article explaining the genesis of the new Gateway. By giving students real-world problems to solve from the get-go, the new engineering knowledge they pick up along the way immediately finds an application in service of the project’s goal. Abstract theory gives way to concrete, tangible know-how.

Prospective SEAS students hear Gateway described in similar terms when they visit for Days on Campus, and the opportunity to interact with engineering professors, create an original design, and solve a real-world problem makes Gateway seem almost too good to be true. Current students recall being mesmerized by presentations about the course only to be disappointed when their first-year experience lived up to none of their expectations.

“Gateway was, on paper, such an appealing class that it was part of the reason I chose Columbia,” says Max Gilmore, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering. But in practice, Gilmore says, the course was “frighteningly far” from the pitch he had received at Days on Campus. Aside from a perplexing grading system, Gilmore laments that the “service” element of Gateway faded into the background while tedious, procedural assignments took center-stage. “This class was so ineffectively done that I felt cheated out of the class I was supposed to have taken—the class in the course description,” he says.

Below are the descriptions of actual Gateway projects completed by students in the class in recent semesters.

Family Greenhouse

Design a low-cost greenhouse with attached rainwater-harvesting system that could be marketed and sold to rural communities in developing countries.

Hearing Aid

Develop a self-fitting hearing aid that does not require an earmold nor a computer to program the hearing aid, and runs on solar power.

Adjustable Desk

Design an easily adjustable, light-weight desk for a handicapped student in the School of General Studies.

Irrigation System

Create a low-cost graywater system with attached drip irrigation systems to be powered in the most appropriate, low-cost manner.

Electrical engineering junior Natalia Baklitskaya was also taken in by the grand Gateway talk, particularly that of McGourty himself. Based on the presentation he made to admitted students at Days on Campus, Baklitskaya believed that the course would enable her and her team to “design something cool,” and even the course’s negative reviews on CULPA did not dissuade her hopes initially. But, like Gilmore, Baklitskaya ultimately feels that the project she worked on did not help anyone. She remembers how her group struggled to meet the exacting demands of their client, whom she feels was “solely in it for the publicity anyway.” Gateway did teach her how to work with a client who has no technical training, Baklitskaya admits, but she feels that lesson could have been conveyed just as well through a better-managed course and less repetitive assignments.

Dean Friedman acknowledges that student complaints about their projects’ final outcomes are not unfounded. “It’s unfair, in a way,” says Friedman. “It’s a freshman level course, and we often do exaggerate. We’ve had a lot of disappointments, where it looks exciting as you start out, then you realize, we—not the students—overlooked some things, and it’s not possible.” But, as he points out, part of the course’s mission is to expose students to real engineering projects—twists and turns included. “Many of the projects did end up with something,” says Friedman, “But we cannot guarantee that even half of them will end up at all.”

Part of the problem may simply be the nature of first-year engineering students. “You have people from all backgrounds coming into that class and can’t assume any thing,” says Dutta, whose current title is the assistant director for community-based learning programs. “I can’t assume that everyone has taken two years of calculus, so teaching anything highly technical becomes a challenge.” These knowledge gaps necessarily limit how much “real” engineering that freshman can do on a project, lowering the overall chance of successful completion and forcing instructors to focus instead on holistic, big-picture themes of design, communication, and teamwork. Gateway may at times feel more like philosophy than physics, but as Dutta explains, freshmen generally get quite “frazzled” the moment as an integral appears on the blackboard.

Some faculty, however, do believe the Gateway curriculum should encompass more detailed pre-professional instruction. “There is no technical rigor to Gateway,” says electrical engineering Professor Ken Shepard, who echoes the complaints of many SEAS students that the course is light on the element they are most excited about—actual engineering. According to Shepard, most faculty share this perception, but no one thus far has stepped up to call for change. “It takes some activism on the part of the faculty to do this [change the course], and the faculty are busy and so there is a certain laziness,” says Shepard. “We have lots of other things to worry about, and, okay, so there is a problem. Somebody else will worry about it. Somebody else will fix it.”

This collective action problem is made worse by the charged atmosphere within the administrative ranks of SEAS. Professors decline to criticize the course publicly, fearing that their grievances may be perceived as personal attacks on Dean Friedman, whose legacy is intimately entwined with the creation and evolution of Gateway. He is well-respected as an administrator and highly popular among faculty, so no one wishes to “rock the boat,” as Shepard puts it. “It’s become the third rail of Columbia engineering politics,” he says. “And I just don’t understand it because the intentions here are all noble ones.”

McGourty rejects such criticisms as unfounded. “There are people [on the faculty] that have opinions but don’t know the facts,” he says. But McGourty also admits that there is almost “no mechanism for dialogue” between the faculty at-large and those who run Gateway. Shepard agrees, citing the lack of faculty oversight as “the fundamental problem” with the course.

For his part, Friedman says he welcomes suggestions and input from professors. “We’d love the faculty to get involved, but they all plead, ‘We’re busy; we don’t have time; use the TAs,'” he explains. Until the various departments within SEAS are ready to invest time and effort in revamping the course, Friedman believes it will be difficult to make meaningful improvements to the Gateway curriculum.

But the first breezes of change may be starting to blow. Shepard, Friedman, and representatives of McGourty’s staff have met at least once to discuss the state of Gateway, and it seems that the degree and depth of technical content will eventually be addressed. “I have worried from the beginning about this very issue: is there enough technical content?” says Dean Friedman. “Somehow I’ve had the sense that we don’t have enough of that. Maybe we’ve gone too far in the other direction, worrying about all these other things because it’s easier [and] worrying that the technical stuff is hard.”

And Shepard argues that more and more professors feel prepared to step up to the plate and begin reshaping Gateway. “I can find five faculty that would be willing to do this,” he says with a dash of dramatic flair. “We’re losing an opportunity with the Gateway course to provide a good technical introduction, a broad overview of all the engineering disciplines.”

Just as Gateway was created to respond to the needs of undergraduates who were kept too far away from engineering for too long, the course may adapt and evolve to stay relevant to a new generation of SEAS students. “That’s what Gateway was originally about,” says Friedman. “Maybe it’s time to change a little bit of it again.”

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    And in other news:


    A) An average-looking Columbia girl with lots of family money but always bitching about how guys in finance/law/medicine ruin the world and hipsters are awesome.

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    C) A HOTTTT and smart sorority chick from Cornell and you guys have a hott and intense 3 year relationship before she commits suicide on the 4th year and you will no longer have her anymore.

    D) A HOTT girl from Brown who smokes weed all day, no job, will never leave you, but already has 6 kinds of STDs.

    • yes

      damn wtf this place is turning to b@b except posts are longer... and i choose E) None of the above. i would take a big beautiful barnard woman any day... on a pink scooter

  2. seas freshman  

    the concept of this class is nice, but there were lectures that were focused on meaningless things like teamwork and the seven steps of design... the professors treat students as if we're freshman in high school. the course has potential, but is an overall letdown.

    and i never once saw the infamous jack mcgourty

    • be thankful  

      that guy is a Grade-A head-up-his-ass douche.

    • Anonymous  

      I think they screw all this service learning stuff, because let's face it, we can't help the clients, and the clients don't get anything from our "expertise".

      What would be great, in my opinion, is a lecture series, where every week, someone from each department talks about the interesting stuff they're doing. Maybe throw in some field trips. If you need a group project -- get the freshmen to write case studies on research the PhD candidates are doing.

      • Anonymous  

        That kind of sounds like frontiers of science....which from what people say isn't too great either

      • another SEAS freshman

        They actually required us to attend two departmental presentations... which can be considered lectures, although it was really more about giving an overview of the department.

        But I think the whole point of Gateway is giving students practical experience. Having a class structured around guest speakers defeats this purpose.

  3. actually...  

    Thank you for posting this article! SEAS students read Bwog too and information specifically relevant to our course load is much appreciated!

    Gateway was a bit of a let-down, but not so much this semester as in years past (so I've heard, I took it this semester). The projects this semester seemed to be really pertinent to engineering as a discipline and I hope that the clients we worked with will take all of our hard work into consideration when implementing these products in the Micro-Consignment model. As a member of Engineers Without Boarders I felt as if our Gateway project was something we'd work on in EWB as well; the same clientele, the same kind of rural community setting and the same engineering concerns to address. Gateway just offered more structure to what was essentially an EWB project.

    Unfortunately, with the positives come aspects of the course that are fundamentally flawed.

    1.) The Team Developer. Please. If you don't know how to work effectively in a team then I question your placement at this school. This book was (thankfully) given to me; it was the Illiad of Gateway (free, if you attended the summer info session). It is completely pointless and seems to be written for middle schoolers or socially mal-adjusted teenagers.

    2.) The midterm exam. Simply a way to ensure that not all students receive A's and B's in the class. This test does not tell you who is paying attention/doing work in the class, it only tests a student's capacity for pointless, short-term memorization.

    3.) Engineering Design Fundamentals. I know maybe three people who actually did all of the reading. Good engineering information, but irrelevant to almost all of the projects. Also, those who did read? Few did better on the midterm than everyone else.

    Gateway needs engineering faculty involvement. At least bring in guest lecturers! Stop throwing grad students at us, I'm sure they're busy too! I'm sorry, but engineering students want to get to know engineering professors, not "applied psychology" professors. Thank you Jose for being one of the bright spots in this course, please, we need more of your kind (even though you're not an engineer) the skills (yes, actual, real-world skills) you taught us were the most productive part of class lecture!

    Make Changes. Keep Gateway.

  4. seas senior  

    The only useful part of Gateway was learning MATLAB. But they stopped teaching that after my freshman year.

    • seas kid  

      I totally agree that matlab was by far the most important part of gateway.

      I had my senior design expo today and that is the kind of class that makes engineering incredible. The problem with gateway is that as a first-year you have NO expertise or experience whatsoever, making any worthwhile project entirely out of reach. First-years can't be incharge of their own project; they need to instead watch how professionals go through the design process.

  5. Anonymous  

    i feel like it shud be taught sophomore year...i would probably take it more seriously now than i did freshmen yr because i found the concept stupid and didn't take it seriously at all

  6. Holy shit

    We literally did nothing for the past three weeks, which I liked.
    To me, that class was entirely a modeling course.
    They should have outlined what they were going to test on the Dieter exam a little clearer.

  7. SEAS Junior  

    Thank GOD this is finally being taken more seriously! This course was a joke and a letdown every single day.
    (1) Engineering Design? Pft, try Teamwork and Communication. I realize now that a course in this might be necessary for SEAS students, since all the groups I knew were ineffective and hugely lazy, but, my god... I am extremely pissed at all of the LYING in the advertisements for Gateway. Every time I walk by a tour group around Mudd, and the stupid tour guides are spouting on and on about the 'fabulous' course in which you do 'real engineering' and 'meet faculty' as a first year, I just want to scream at all the enraptured high-schoolers and their parents "DON'T LISTEN! GET OUT NOW WHILE YOU STILL CAN!!"
    (2) "Service Learning"? (a) My project was recycled - a group had done it in a previous semester, and proved that it couldn't be done! - and it took us (a group of freshmen!) a mere five seconds to determine that it was a huge waste of our time. I mean, with average wind speeds on top of Mudd a mere 4mph, HOW exactly is Columbia supposed to use wind turbines to replace even a small fraction of it's energy consumption with clean energy? (b) My clients were clearly dragged into this and totally uninterested in the pointless feedback we had to give them. Despite the fact that they were required as clients to meet with us at least twice throughout the semester and come to our midterm and final presentations, I never actually met either of them.
    (3) I was conned out of $200 on books that were NEVER actually used in the class.
    (4) Attempts to improve the course by having us attend 30-minute talks given by different departments in addition to all the pointless class time didn't quite work out. Rather than introducing us to faculty and exciting new research, they were more basic introductions to the departments, the courses they offered, etc. and ultimately exercises in 'how to choose your major'.

    The only thing that was even slightly interesting was the modeling in AutoCAD, although it always confused me as to how that was even slightly relevant to the advertised course...

    Earlier this year, Dean Pena-Mora invited a group of upperclass SEAS students to have an informal dinner with him to discuss how we like the school of engineering, and what we would like him to change. Almost IMMEDIATELY we were telling him how much Gateway sucked. This lasted for an uncomfortable half hour - you could see Pena-Mora shrinking back into his chair - until finally he politely asked us to shut up and asked us to talk about other things.

    I have found that this is ALWAYS the reaction to criticism regarding Gateway. Don't like what we have to say about it? How about you stop IGNORING us and DO SOMETHING about it!!

  8. Anonymous  

    do people think it would work better if it were part of some kind of capstone experience? like maybe some kind of senior project that's proposed by the students so that they actually care, have the technical knowledge, and have done the relevant background research (so that projects might actually DO something instead of being recycled)?

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