College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

The new engineering education

Iowa State University’s Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECpE) department knows there is more to these subjects than just equations and code. Postdoctoral researcher Nick Fila is on a mission to prove the depth of electrical and computer engineering through new learning experiences.

Fila was hired as the post-doc for Iowa State’s Reinventing the Instructional and Departmental Enterprise (RIDE) project last summer. RIDE, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), is focused on creating a new collaborative instructional model for course design to develop the next generation of engineers within ECpE. Fila collaborates on course design through a cross-functional group called an x-team, including faculty from ECpE, Industrial Design and Aerospace Engineering. His position involves researching how ECpE courses are being redesigned and helping faculty instruct students with a design-thinking approach to help students recognize the applicability and impact of their engineering projects in people’s lives.

Fila completed his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. It was during this time, especially his sophomore and junior years, he lost his original zeal for the subject.

“Those years were really demoralizing for me,” Fila said. “It seemed all of my classes were mostly focused on theory and formulas without any connection to the societal and user problems I wanted to solve as an engineer.”

This realization led Fila to pursue a path in education, not just engineering. He went to receive his master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and later his Ph.D. in engineering education at Purdue University.

At Purdue, Fila studied how engineering students characterize and approach the constructs of innovation and empathy within engineering. This work culminated in his dissertation, which identified eight distinct ways that engineering students experienced innovation during over 40 different engineering design projects, both within and outside of their coursework. This study has informed Fila’s current work by demonstrating the multitude of ways and contexts within which students engage with technical and societal problems and the important role individual priorities and interests play in motivating innovative work.


Because of his own educational experience, Fila found a connection to the RIDE mission. He said he enjoys working with students and faculty at Iowa State and finds their contributions and ideas inspiring.

“It’s really invigorating to see these different perspectives and reflect on my own thinking in this redesign process,” Fila said.

One of the major changes Fila and the RIDE team are incorporating into engineering courses here at Iowa State is a human-centered, collaborative and iterative mindset, called design thinking, especially during the second and third years of the ECpE curriculum. Fila says students have given positive and constructive feedback on this approach and other changes they have introduced, including reflections on their course experiences and a jigsaw activity with data sheets. A jigsaw activity is a teaching method where students are broken into small groups and assigned to work on problems or topics to bring to the whole class to determine a final solution.

Along with an encouraging student response, the RIDE team also credits Fila for his work in the project and its success.

“Nick has been a breath of fresh air,” said ECpE Professor and RIDE Co-Principal Investigator Joe Zambreno. “His design-minded strategies and experience have been invaluable to our team.”

Diane Rover, ECpE Professor and Co-Principal Investigator, has worked with Fila and x-team members on course redesign and said Fila envisions and synthesizes concepts in novel ways that lead the RIDE team.  

“Our progress can be directly attributed to Nick’s efforts and insights,” Rover said.

Fila joined the project in July 2017, one year after the NSF grant was awarded. Fila and team members of RIDE have created project strategies and implemented design-thinking practices into the first ECpE course, CPR E 288: Embedded Systems I: Introduction. They plan to adopt these new strategies into another course, EE 230: Electronic Circuits and Systems, next semester.

“We are continually improving and evaluating these strategies,” Fila said. “These improvements will be reflected in the additional course we revise.”