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Dr. Brian Frank

[Brian Frank photo]

Associate Professor
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering

Dupont Canada Chair in Engineering Education Research and Development

Brian Frank has always loved taking things apart, so it is not surprising that he found his way into engineering. "I had always done well in math and science in high school, but I also liked the hands-on stuff like electronics and auto mechanics. And when my guidance counselor told me that engineering not only required math and science but also was also really tough, that was it. I like a challenge! And I liked that it was about the application of math and science to benefit humanity."

Since Frank had been familiar with computer programs from the wise old age of nine, he found electrical engineering to be a good match. "I had a really interesting professor in my first year physics class who was engaging, down-to-earth and really cared about his students. He was personable and had great enthusiasm for the material. He related things to his own life and you could always talk to him outside of class time."

Not only were some of his professors inspiring, but so too were some of the cutting-edge courses he took at Queen's. "One of my professors was a pioneer in project-based courses. His course was our fourth-year capstone design course, which pulled together engineering knowledge development from all three years. It presented problems that were not the traditional, math-focused problems prevalent in engineering at that time. Instead we were challenged with an open-ended design problem with a client and had to manage everything about the resulting project from time to money to technical design."

I do problem-based learning; my focus is on providing a context for knowledge and skill development. Everything I teach is based on being able to solve that problem.

"Interestingly, that same prof also started each class with a Word of the Day. It was the first thing he said each day in class which encouraged us to arrive on time to hear it. He even gave out prizes for this, but never told us why he did it. Still, it had an impact."

Frank fell in love with teaching after he got his three degrees at Queen's and went to do some electrical engineering teaching at RMC. "I had taught first aid and life-guarding at seventeen, but RMC was my first chance to teach at the university level. And since I loved to work with people, I was happy to combine both engineering and teaching."

Developing the characteristics of great engineers...

Early in his teaching career, Frank was focused on content delivery, but after taking a number of higher education courses, he knew that he needed to help his students develop the other characteristics that are essential for great engineers. "Those skills go beyond content and move into professional skill development – how to work with people, how to work with teams, how to make arguments, problem solve and manage projects."

These days Frank teaches APSC-100, a course created in 1996 by one of his mentors. This course introduces design projects, introducing students to the craft of engineering early on. "In first year we still draw on content, but the objective is more to develop skills that complement the content of other courses. I teach two of the three modules – one on complex problem solving and modeling that draws on knowledge from other first year courses; the other a semester-long design project with clients in the local community. Students can't just give a single number solution in these courses. They have to do a model of some physical system. Everything I teach revolves around solving those kinds of problems."

One of the problems students had to work on was an evaluation of whether Queen's should use solar panels on the rooftops. "They had to look at the math portion of the project – the sun's position and how much revenue would be generated, but they also had to decide if it would be useful long-term and what the social and environmental impacts would be. This allows students to do big picture problem solving while using their math and science skills from other courses."

[Brian Frank lecturing]

Brian Frank leading a workshop

In the second part of this unique course, first year students work with local community groups. "In first year, students haven't developed specialized knowledge, so we create less technical projects for them. For example, one association needed the students to adapt exercise equipment to suit the needs of those with physical disabilities. We run about 40 projects with local non-profit groups, schools and hospitals." By fourth year, students have stronger technical skills, and in many cases, will move on to work with industrial clients.

As an added bonus, upper year students are hired as project managers to guide the 700 students who make up the first year teams. "I train the project managers and give direction as needed. This is an amazing opportunity for upper year students to manage projects on their own. The 60 or so upper years involved develop leadership and the first years see them as mentors."

Former APSC 100 TA Connor Langford says, "Dr. Frank has shown an unwavering commitment to engineering education in the Faculty of Applied Science and has worked tirelessly to incorporate sound engineering design principles into the first year curriculum. Teaching design is far from an easy task, but it is a critical component in engineering development. It helps teach students that engineers have to go beyond math and science and focus on how to apply their knowledge to develop creative solutions for real world problems. By bringing his experience as an engineer to the classroom, Dr. Frank has helped to build a program that embraces design, helping students to become more well-rounded and capable engineers in the future."

The third module is run by Associate Dean (Academic) Lynann Clapham. "The primary objective here is to get students to design an experiment themselves, rather than following a procedure developed for them. They might, for example, create an experiment to determine how the vitamin C content of orange juice changes when left sitting out on a counter. It requires investigation because the goal is to make decisions on how you are going to solve a problem."  Dean Woodhouse, with her background in industry, teaches the teaming and communication skills.

And when Frank needs time alone to solve some of the stickier problems, or simply wants to clear his mind, he hops on his bike. A triathlete, he loves having time to cycle or swim, as well as time just to be with his two sons. The break is well-deserved. The response to the project-based design course has been overwhelmingly positive. "Fourth year students come forward to be project managers because they remember doing the course in first year. Many say it was the first time they got to see what engineering is all about. They enjoyed it and want to give back to the first years. This is so encouraging."

Profile by Patricia Henderson