Curriculum Development: An Integrated Approach

D.E. Beasley, S.B. Biggers, C.O. Huey, and J.A. Liburdy
Department of Mechanical Engineering
Clemson University


Considerable attention is currently being paid to the development of innovative curricula that are responsive to today's demands on students, faculty, and resources, and are attentive to the needs of graduates. In engineering, these curricula are under several external constraints such as ABET standards, industrial advisory board recommendations, number of faculty, diversity of faculty effort, number of students, available resources, etc. The development of a modern curriculum requires the optimization of course offerings (and other elements of the curriculum) within the imposed constraints.

A method, based on a scheme for innovation and continuous improvement, for the development of an engineering curriculum and an example case of its application (mechanical engineering) are described. The method was specifically intended to be useful in the context of engineering departments having busy faculty who are being subjected to numerous competing demands for time and energy. It also had to be applied in academic units that are subject to the due process of faculty governance, remain compatible with the ideals of academic freedom, and be conceptually simple and convenient to implement, regardless of existing administrative structures. Further, to overcome the ``not-invented-here'' syndrome, any curriculum renewal process must not become an issue in its own right, and it must not threaten any of the particular interests that might exist within a faculty.

The process that resulted identifies key elements of the curriculum and helps integrate them through a four year program. This integration is based on a rationally defined distribution of curriculum elements. These elements consist of (i) fundamentals (ii) defining elements, (iii) complementary elements, and (iv) integrating experiences. Each was defined based on faculty consensus. A distribution of credit hours among the elements was determined so as to yield a logical progression from the fundamentals to the defining elements and complementary elements, all coupled with integrating experiences in several different forms. Based on this credit hour distribution, a series of possible courses was determined to form a concept curriculum. The topical coverage of these courses, at this point, is left for development. The concept curriculum courses are constrained by content of the curriculum elements and level of mastery for those elements. They must also satisfy any externally imposed constraints from ABET, etc. The concept curriculum assists in planning for the flow and integration of key elements and to maintain a proper balance of the various curriculum elements.

The final step in the curriculum development is the identification of specific courses and the topical coverage of each. This is an iterative process that is best achieved using a coordinating committee and faculty subgroups reporting back to the faculty as a whole. The subgroups for individual courses develop topical coverage in detail. Subgroups discuss with the faculty as a whole, course coverage, distribution of topics, and expected student mastery of topics. This procedure provides a method for continuous improvements as changing demands and constraints are imposed and new challenges to the educational mission are presented.


The procedures described here have provided a means of addressing curriculum improvement and management from the point of view of overall structure and composition. They constitute a systematic means of establishing currency, balance, and focus of the entire curriculum and assessing and maintaining these as well as relationships between courses within the curriculum over time. The process establishes overall structure and composition of the curriculum, identifies fundamental principles and key concepts, and to traces them through out the curriculum. In addition, the methods help delineate topical content, define linkage, topic by topic, of courses with other courses in the curriculum. A mastery scale which fixes expectations and the level of emphasis on individual topics in individual courses is an integral part of the process.

These procedures and their philosophical basis have been described previously and will not be elaborated in detail here[1]. However, the previously published descriptions were based on anticipated outcomes and not on actual experience. Most of the salient ideas that are imbedded in the processes can be inferred from the case that is described here. Even though the example is restricted to a Mechanical Engineering curriculum it is a general procedure, applicable to a range of disciplines.

The Clemson Effort

At Clemson, the overall process was coordinated by a committee of four which led some initial discussions of the faculty as a whole and developed a loose consensus on some basic curriculum concepts. The coordinating committee then formulated a ``straw man'' to be submitted to the faculty for discussion and debate. To avoid turf battles all discussion of individual courses, credits, prerequisites and the like were delayed until later in the process. All of the early discussion was restricted to curriculum-level issues. These issues were the determination of basic principles that should be traceable through the curriculum and an overall, governing structure for the curriculum.

The ``straw man'' was very simple and took the form of Figure 1, without the lists of specific elements shown, which were identified later in the course of the early faculty discussions. As shown in the figure, the curriculum was seen as consisting of four principle components, viz., defining elements, complementary elements, foundation material, and integrating experiences. Each of these components is defined as follows:

Foundation Material: The component of the engineering curriculum that introduces the vocabulary of science and mathematics, develops a fundamental comprehension of the basic laws and principles that govern the physical world, and provides sufficient analytical ability to treat these basic laws and principles quantitatively.

Defining Elements of the Discipline: Those elements that, either individually or in combination, constitute the essential and unique character and scope of the curriculum; a canon.

Complementary Elements: Those elements that by complementing the defining elements broaden the scope of the curriculum as appropriate to insure readiness to enter the profession.

Integrating Experiences: Those elements of the curriculum that involve students in the integration of disparate concepts, analytical processes, principles and practices, sometimes for the purpose of analysis, sometimes for synthesis, and often for both.

Several candidate lists of items in each category were developed in small subgroup meetings of about five faculty each and compiled by the coordinating committee. The results are shown in Figure 1.

A second ``straw man'' of sorts was developed by the committee showing a proposed credit distribution within the curriculum for each component. Also, to guide the ultimate decisions on credit hour distribution and course definition, a measure of time and effort on the part of the students and faculty that was needed for each of the individual elements was prepared. In the case of the defining elements, Table 1 was the foundation for the process. Here, each of the defining elements is listed and the mastery level for each is identified by year (sophomore, junior, senior). Using the scale shown below the table, a measure of effort required to advance in level was estimated and used to provide a reasonable balance from year to year. Obviously, the sophomore and senior years are less burdened by the defining elements and thus are assigned greater portions of other components. The sophomore year is heavier in the fundamentals and the senior year emphasizes integrating experiences.

Using the information developed on levels of mastery and distribution throughout the curriculum the semester by semester distribution of all of the elements was generated in credit hour units. The result is shown in Table 2. From this model, a tentative identification of courses, shown in Table 3, was made and submitted to the faculty for discussion. In addition, the governing concept for each course was proposed using a skeletal syllabus. The whole process and the concept curriculum at any point in the process were treated as dynamic, with refinement and improvement an expected outcome at each step.

Through all of this, the discussion focused on what was needed in the curriculum. Typical arguments over the dropping or adding of courses were avoided scrupulously until the ultimate form of the courses began to emerge from the discussion. The result was an overall structure, the identification of material that is to be part of the curriculum, and the division of these materials into course sized segments. All of this was accomplished in an unusually orderly fashion. This process was very successful in allowing significant integration of topical coverage throughout the curriculum to assure proper mastery of key, identified, topics.

Current Status

Presently, augmented syllabi are being developed for each course by faculty subgroups. These augmented syllabi will be used to build the curriculum that conforms to the general concepts that have been agreed upon. They help do this by providing the following information in explicit form for each course:

Summary and Conclusions

A process for curriculum renewal has been developed and implemented which allows for an overall view of the curriculum and the integration of key areas across courses and years. The curriculum structure is established by a faculty using cross-cutting elements; such elements are defined in an example structure as fundamental, defining, complementary, and integrating elements of the curriculum. With this structure as a basis for establishing a credit distribution, and the traditional constraints, such as ABET and university general education requirements, a yearly credit hour distribution among the elements can be agreed upon by a faculty. From that base, courses can be proposed which fulfill the goals and satisfy the constraints. In the present case, faculty teams were formed to finalize course syllabi for consideration by the entire faculty.

The process of curriculum renewal proposed here has successfully yielded a new mechanical engineering curriculum for consideration and further development by the faculty. The proposed curriculum has significantly fewer credit hours, and is integrated to a greater extent than the existing curriculum across courses and years. Issues such as laboratories, communications, computers, among others, are being structured to provide a coherent development through the curriculum.

The authors feel that the process illustrated in this case-study has the potential to be adapted for any engineering curriculum, and that the curriculum review and integration process will provide the foundation for continuous improvement of a curriculum once in place.


The work reported here was supported by funds for Clemson University's College of Engineering and from the Southeastern University and College Coalition for Engineering Education (SUCCEED) which is part of the National Science Foundation's Engineering Education Coalition Program


  1. Beasley, D.E., Bishop, E.H., and Huey, C.O., ``A Process for Curriculum Renewal and Innovation,'' Proceedings of 1994 Annual Conf. and Exposition, ASEE, 1994.
Fri Oct 13 16:48:30 PDT 1995