Starting from Scratch: A Holistic Framework for Designing Digitally Delivered Graduate Programs for STEM Working Professionals

Michael D. Hughes, Susan Riello, Aric Krause


Provided the opportunity to create new, high-quality graduate programs from scratch, a framework was sought to help meet the intersecting needs of employers and employees, while cultivating a learning environment that honors the individuality of working professionals. Given Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s (RPI) nearly 200 years of engineering and research excellence, it was natural to leverage the engineering design process to develop a modern solution. Though there are many variations of the engineering design process, this paper presents it as a sequence of six steps: identify, explore, design, create, test, and improve. The first three steps (identify, explore, and design) are the focus of this work. From these emerged a series of strategic decisions in program logistics (face-to-face, online, hybrid, etc.), curriculum design, and learning interface informed by thorough consideration of employer and employee needs as well as the latest in learning science. Due to the abundance of variety in how graduate programs are designed, this paper provides a detailed description of the design process such that other institutions looking to develop quality, digitally delivered programs, may consider this work. Consequently, clear connections are made between the needs of employers and employees, learning science, and research design. In all, eight graduate certificates, 10 sets of learning goals and competencies (LG&Cs), 25 project-based courses, and more than 60 projects have successfully been designed, developed, and delivered using the described process as a framework for program development. Future papers will explore how these courses and projects were created, tested, and improved through course development and review and revision processes that incorporate regularly cadenced instructor and student feedback.

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Copyright (c) 2023 Michael D. Hughes, Susan Riello, Aric Krause

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International Journal of Higher Education
ISSN 1927-6044 (Print) ISSN 1927-6052 (Online) Email:

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