New first-year courses integrate foundational math and physics with modern engineering challenges

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By Molly Sharlach, Office of Engineering Communications
Jan. 4, 2019


Princeton Professor Andrew Houck’s calculus students had just finished grappling with a set of equations on the forces of tension and gravity when he pulled a large pendulum back to his shoulder and let it go.

The copper disk swayed back and forth in front of the blackboard as Houck directed the students to time its swings. He later explained that the math describing the pendulum’s motion could be used to tackle practical problems such as using vibrations of atoms to detect pollutants or minimizing the shaking of skyscrapers in an earthquake. 

Houck’s course, “The Mathematics of Shape and Motion,” is part of a new sequence of courses for first-year undergraduates in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. The courses present the same math and physics as more traditional course offerings, but place a greater emphasis on problem-solving in the context of modern engineering challenges.

Houck, a professor of electrical engineering, said faculty members wanted to provide students with more meaningful exposure to engineering in their first year. Beginning in 2014, he chaired a strategic planning committee that reviewed the engineering school’s undergraduate program, and later led a team of faculty who developed the new courses. The courses were piloted during the 2017-18 academic year with the aim of boosting student retention rates in engineering.

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