Skip to content

Engage Turns 20: Program Continues to Boost Education of Freshmen

Students in the engage Classroom

A little more than 20 years ago, near the end of the 1996 fall semester, then-Engineering Dean Jerry Stoneking challenged a committee to totally reimagine how freshmen engineering courses were taught.

The Basic Engineering Renovation Team (BERT) spent much of the next year reviewing programs at other universities and poring over new initiatives and ideas that the National Science Foundation was beginning to tout, adding in other ideas cultivated at UT.

From those efforts, the engageTM program was born, giving the college a new opportunity to get students more involved earlier on in their studies.

Chris Pionke, currently an associate professor in the Cook Grand Challenges Honors program,  Roger Parsons, retired professor in mechanical engineering, Danial Yoder, professor in the Department of Biosystems Engineering and Soil Science, and Fred Weber, retired associate professor in chemical engineering, served on the BERT committee and as the first teachers of engage.

Other members of BERT included Fred Symonds, retired professor in electrical engineering, Elaine Seat, industry representative from ORNL, and Gary Klukken, who served as the committee facilitator. The BERT committee chair was then-Associate Dean for Student Affairs Fred Gilliam.

“We did a pilot session with just 60 students in two groups of 30 in the fall of 1997,” said Pionke. “At the same time, we proposed new curriculum and an “Engineering Fundamentals Division” to the college, both of which were passed resoundingly.”

The two concepts became official in the fall of 1998, making 2018 the official 20th anniversary of the program.

Engage saw rapid growth and implantation from there, with one-third of incoming freshmen taking part that year and full, class-wide representation beginning in 1999 and continuing today.

Officially renamed for Stoneking after his sudden death in 2001, the program is a highlight of the freshmen experience in what is now the Tickle College of Engineering and will be housed in the soon-to-begin-construction 228-000 square-foot new engineering complex, but it wasn’t always so glorious.

“Our very first BERT committee meeting in Estabrook Hall Room 111 included a lonely pigeon that had flown in an open window and was trapped.  Quickly dealing with that gave us some confidence in each other and how we would tackle problems,” recalled Yoder. “In naming the program, we knew wanted to engage students, yes, but, in all honesty, we took the name from Star Trek, for how Captain Picard signaled the ship to move forward.

From that humble start, the program has grown in leaps and bounds and now provides opportunities to use equipment that hadn’t yet been dreamed up in the 1990s and allows students to be “hands-on” with projects far earlier than had been the norm.

Current program director Richard Bennett pointed out another advantage that the program has now come to include.

“There are other places that have freshman-only courses, but we encourage work across all class levels,” said Bennett. “That helps give freshmen early exposure to projects upperclassmen might be working on, and it helps upperclassmen get ideas from their younger peers.”

The building, equipment, and lecturers might be different now, two decades after it began, but Parsons and Pionke both note that many of the basic ideas remain, and the freshmen are something that they sometimes weren’t before the program began: engaged.


David Goddard (865-974-0683,