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Introducing the Special Issue on Mathematics in/for Engineering Education: Evolving from tool to inspiration for engineers

Wednesday, 8 September 2021

Blog by Birgit Pepin (4TU.CEE leader at TU/e)

In recent engineering and mathematics education conferences, many papers and posters related to “Mathematics in/for Engineering Education” were presented, reflecting an increasing focus on this domain from a research perspective. In the light of this development, it is timely to bring the field closer together and announce the Special Issue (SI) of the International Journal for Research in Undergraduate Mathematics (IJRUME), guest-edited by Birgit Pepin (Netherlands), Rolf Biehler (Germany), and Ghislaine Gueudet (France).


The aim of this SI is to investigate innovative teaching and learning practices in mathematics in engineering education, and to develop deeper understandings of the characteristics of current teaching and learning practices that can inform the design and implementation of future innovative practices. The focus of this Special Issue is to provide an overview of this emerging field at the cross-roads between mathematics and engineering education. We posed the following guiding questions for the articles:

  1. How can current (teaching/learning/study) practices of mathematics in engineering education be characterized with a view towards innovation?
  2. What are the “resources” (cognitive, material, digital, social) used, and what are those that appear also well suited for innovative courses?
  3. What are promising innovative practices in engineering education, and what are the implications for curriculum reform?

The eleven papers that were finally accepted for publication in this special issue were grouped under the following four headings:

  1. Bridging mathematics and engineering sciences: understanding and relating different praxeologies
  2. Designing, supporting and studying problem-based learning in mathematics for engineering
  3. Studies on innovative practices of Mathematical Modelling (two papers)
  4. Analysis of institutional re-designs of mathematics curricula for engineering students

You are welcome, and we invite you, to read the eleven papers:

Promising innovative practices in engineering education

From our literature review and reading across the nine papers, we identified four themes regarding promising innovative practices in engineering education:

(a) Modelling was seen as an innovative practice, as it seems to be close to and useful for engineering practices (e.g., conceiving and designing models, trialing them out and checking against reality, etc.).

(b) Active student learning on open-ended real-life tasks and self-regulation are the main ingredients of a second group of innovative practices. Here, students develop their own learning trajectories, in order to overcome a ‘compartmentalized curriculum’ and atomistic approaches to learning.

(c) In line with new innovative teaching and learning practices, assessment practices also changed, to include more formative practices and iterative feedback loops.

(d) In order to prepare students for the mathematics in engineering education and to forego the high drop-out rates, many pre-university “bridging” courses were initiated introducing pre-first-year students to the ‘new’ mathematics that expects them in the first year, and in this way attempting to bridge the gap between school and university mathematics.

Curriculum reform

The implications for curriculum reform are the following: The mathematical competencies in and for engineering are developed by working on real-life professional tasks/problems/challenges (rather than on mathematical topic areas that might or might not be used later in projects), with support and guidance from the instructor. The curriculum design involves the development or identification of complex learning tasks/challenges and their ‘monitoring’ (in terms of assessment of student learning), in addition to the provision of an infrastructure (for instructors and students) to work in such innovative environments.  

Introducing innovative practices

Promising innovative approaches to teaching and learning mathematics in and for engineering education have emerged in various places, but it is not clear to what extent these strategies (a) are coherent and effective (e.g. for different learning environments or disciplines); (b) can be scaled up/down (e.g. larger/smaller courses) and across the years; (c) are practically possible (e.g. with the digital resources available); (d) fit within the present curriculum structures (in line with present goals and assessment strategies); and (e) are relevant for engineering students of different engineering disciplines. Studies into these aspects would be necessary, in order to convince educators and policy makers to introduce innovative practices of mathematics teaching and learning in/for engineering education.

Mathematics is more than a tool

Regarding the mathematics, traditionally, mathematics education has been expected to provide the pre-requisite knowledge for the engineering curriculum, because it has been said to lay the foundation for basic mathematical knowledge as well as for good analytical and problem-solving skills often required in traditional engineering work. More recently, and with the advent of digital technology, a new goal for mathematics in and for engineering education is of growing importance: the ability to interpret the meaning of mathematics in engineering. This is particularly significant in the use of computer software applications. Particular applications offer approaches that foster and support students’ development of their problem-solving abilities. Digital resources and educational technology (e.g. virtual reality) can make such problem-solving authentic. In this sense, mathematics evolves from being a tool, to also becoming an inspiration for engineers, as it offers mathematical structures that become potential solutions to engineering problems.

Please send your comments and questions to:  

Prof. dr. Birgit Pepin