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Author: Hanchen Huang and Jim Williams
As research assumes an increasingly central role in the research-active engineering schools across the country, we argue for an alternate and complementary curriculum pathway for students who plan to work as practicing engineers with a bachelor’s degree in engineering. The research-active path is important not only for students but also for faculty because it helps keep them technically current.
The closest thing to such a pathway is available at four schools that have a formal cooperative education program: Drexel University, University of Cincinnati, Rochester Institute of Technology, and Northeastern University. These schools do an excellent job of educating “job-ready” graduates, but out-of-state public school tuition or private school tuition can be a deterrent for prospective students. Students at these institutions earn money during their cooperative education, and this helps, but the “coop” periods also require the use of summer time for full curriculum coverage. Against this background the following question seems appropriate: “Is it time for some innovation in undergraduate engineering education?” We say “Yes!”
The reality today is that changes in educating students in the post-covid-19 era have introduced possibilities for innovation in engineering education—and the following three areas are ripe for innovation:
Creating an additional educational pathway that accomplishes these things represents a significant deviation from the traditional curricula in place today. What we propose is intended to complement the traditional research-active curriculum, not supplant it, and would still be consistent with accreditation (ABET) requirements.
We believe that the second pathway not only is possible but also would be beneficial and therefore of interest to a significant fraction of undergraduate students. The following points summarize our thoughts on how the proposed approach would address the three areas above.
We have briefly described an alternate approach to undergraduate engineering education. Clearly the first year as technicians and virtual students would not be easy, but it is already true that a not insignificant fraction of highly qualified high school graduates who enroll in a traditional engineering program find it too challenging and transfer out of engineering in the second or third year. Those hopeful, capable students are thus lost to the engineering workforce. Such losses are not helpful to the country’s technically intensive industrial sector.
Finally, we do not propose a complete transformation of engineering education to this new model. Rather, we suggest that this new pathway may be attractive to students who are interested in engineering because of its role in successful product-making companies.
This path will not be for everyone, but neither is the current, traditional path, especially those who enter college thinking that they will go on to graduate school. We believe a two-track system will create better opportunities and better outcomes for young folks who like the idea of engineering but have little basis for understanding it in any detail.
The authors thank Gordon England (NAE) for his useful comments and encouragement as we drafted this piece.