In This Issue
Spring Bridge on Postpandemic Engineering
March 14, 2021 Volume 51 Issue 1

Op-ed Undergraduate Engineering Education: How Can We Do Better?

Monday, March 29, 2021

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:

  1. reduction of on-campus time to earn a bachelor’s degree in engineering,
  2. reduction of the net cost to earn this degree, and
  3. inclusion of a significant amount of experiential coursework in the curriculum to better prepare graduates for the workforce.

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.

  1. The freshman engineering curricula at all schools are more similar than different, essentially providing the tools—calculus, physics, chemistry, economics, and, for some majors, biology—to grasp the concepts central to engineering. Online teaching is appropriate for these subjects, its effectiveness is constantly improving, and, because of the pandemic, it has become pervasive. Why, then, can’t these subjects be taught this way while students also work as technicians? Learning some of these subjects online, on their own time, while working full-time will enable students to spend less time on campus to complete a degree program. After all, many technicians are hired straight out of high school; why not hire high school graduates who also are academically strong enough to go to college? Some of these students opt out of college for financial reasons that are unrelated to their ability to succeed academically. Those who work as technicians become “known quantities” as potential future coop interns for the companies that initially hired them.
  2. A second benefit of this approach is that first-year students hired as technicians will be paid while working and taking their virtual courses. These earnings will help cover the cost of their tuition and course materials during on-campus time. Not only do these students benefit directly but the hiring companies have a larger pool of qualified potential employees to choose from, since it includes those who otherwise might not have gone to college because of financial concerns. Taking some courses virtually during work will further cut costs, since online courses cost less. 
  3. After students spend their first year working as technicians and taking classes virtually, they will be more attractive candidates as interns, positioning them to gain relevant work experience, learn what engineering work is like, and contribute in the workplace. And the companies will have an idea of how the interns would perform as full-time employees. This translates into higher retention numbers, which is good for both parties.

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.


About the Author:Hanchen Huang is dean of the College of Engineering and the Lupe Murchison Foundation Chair at the University of North Texas, where Jim Williams (NAE) is a distinguished research professor in the Materials Science and Engineering Department.