In This Issue
Summer issue of The Bridge on Undergraduate Engineering Education
June 12, 2013 Volume 43 Issue 2

Innovations and Opportunities in Engineering Education

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Author: Diran Apelian

The societal challenges of the 21st century are profound and wide-ranging. Basic needs such as energy, food and water, housing, mobility, and health will become even more acute as the world population exceeds 9 billion. The demands for sustainable development will require redefined and innovative engineering talent and leadership.

In parallel with these changes and challenges, engineering education is embarking on a transformation as significant as the birth of engineering as a profession in the 19th century and the establishment of scientific knowledge as the foundation of engineering in the mid-20th century. These changes are driven by the emergence of a connected, competitive, and entrepreneurial global economy, in which successful engineers increasingly need technical competency and professional skills that differ from what worked in the past. The stage is set for a Renaissance period for engineering education.

But at a time when more engineering talent is needed to address the world’s challenges, the number of students who are interested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) is decreasing. This trend is observed in North America and Europe, the exception being the Asian countries, especially China and Korea.

Recent initiatives aim to reverse this trend by attracting the best and the brightest to engineering. As discussed by the authors in this issue, these initiatives teach and nurture the “soft” (people) skills, ensure that the first year of undergraduate study is an engaging one rather than a “turn-off,” integrate and offer a holistic approach to engineering education, introduce entrepreneurship and the skills that support it, create pathways to attract talent to STEM-oriented careers, and adapt the curriculum to ensure inclusive learning modalities.

The curriculum of engineering schools is also beginning to change to highlight the creative nature of engineering. The schematic shown in Figure 1 is one that my colleague Grétar Tryggvason and I have used to illustrate the creative function of engineering. It shows dimensions of four broad areas: the humanities, arts, science, and engineering. The humanities are characterized by the study of culture (e.g., literature, art, history), practitioners of the arts create culture, science entails study of the physical world, and engineering involves creation in the physical world.

FIgure 1

This issue of the Bridge focuses on engineering education and how it must evolve to prepare engineers to exercise creativity in developing approaches to the world’s challenges. The authors take a critical look at both the design and specific components—both existing and proposed—of the engineering curriculum. They also think broadly about the means of delivery of engineering education, taking advantage of new technological capacities. Moving to the larger picture, they consider the roles of the state and of industry.

First, to prepare students for college study of engineering, Enrique Lavernia and Jean VanderGheynst take up “the algebra challenge,” which too often deters students from further study in related subjects. They explain why algebra is particularly difficult for students, and why mastery of it is crucial to STEM education and even high school and college graduation. The authors describe a number of innovative approaches to this subject that can enhance the success of both students and teachers.

Susan Ambrose, coauthor of How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (Jossey-Bass, 2010), then assesses undergraduate engineering curriculum as the “Ultimate Design Challenge,” describing concepts that have been tested and validated. Importantly, she makes the point that it is time to stop tweaking curricula and instead be audacious and embrace and implement what works. The article is well documented and contains a wealth of references.

Rick Stephens calls for a holistic approach in engineering education, making the point that technical skills alone are not enough. Engineering education must also nurture the “soft” skills that are critical to a successful and satisfying career. He presents four measures to help students learn to work well in teams, communicate effectively, and create useful products.

David Spencer and George Mehler review educational approaches to better prepare engineering students for the changing engineering workforce. They describe opportunities in student-centered education and, interestingly, highlight the importance of—and the feasibility of teaching—character and intuition as well as the freedom to fail.

Tom Byers, Tina Seelig,1 Sheri Sheppard, and Phil Weilerstein discuss growing interest in entrepreneurship education to prepare students for the innovation economy. In 2011, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded a $10 million grant over five years to launch a national STEM Talent Expansion Program (STEP) Center at Stanford University for teaching innovation and entrepreneurship in engineering. The authors review initiatives to teach entrepreneurship throughout the curriculum, and share examples and success stories.

In addition to the content of engineering education, the means of delivery is evolving with the development of new technological capacities. Richard Baraniuk addresses open education and considers the needs and opportunities for changes in methods of delivering instruction. He is a leader of the open education movement, which aims to share knowledge and teaching materials freely over the Internet. He launched Connexions, one of the first initiatives to offer free, open source textbooks via the Web. His comments reaffirm that the world has greatly changed in the past few decades, and those who do not adapt to new paradigms of instructional delivery will be left behind.

Curricular content and delivery are not the whole of engineering education. Engineers must integrate and practice their skills in the real world. To that end, educational collaboration beyond the classroom is essential.

Dennis Berkey and Joanne Goldstein illustrate the role of state government and private enterprises to close the STEM skills gap. Partnerships between institutions of higher education and the state government can address local issues that affect competitiveness and economic well-being. They describe state-sponsored initiatives in Massachusetts, such as community college internships, outreach to parents and students, and workforce training and development to support both career readiness and industry needs.

The final article is by three leaders in engineering education: Tom Katsouleas, Richard Miller, and Yannis Yortsos. Their focus is the NAE Grand Challenge Scholars Program and how it is attracting young men and women who want to contribute and want to make a difference. What better way to do so than through engineering?

Taken together, these articles clearly show that engineering education as it has been practiced for the last five decades is changing—and must—to adapt to the new realities of the world. And it is about time.


My involvement as editor of this issue got started over a lunch of a dozen oysters and a glass of Chablis with Bridge Editor in Chief Ron Latanision. I appreciate his invitation and hope I have done justice to the topic. I am especially indebted to Cameron Fletcher, without whom this project would never have come to fruition. She’s the best editor I’ve worked with and helped immeasurably in the writing of this introduction and the organization of the issue.


1 Byers and Seelig won the NAE Bernard M. Gordon Prize in 2009 for “developing and disseminating technology entrepreneurship educational resources for engineering students and educators around the world.”


About the Author:Diran Apelian is Alcoa-Howmet Professor of Mechanical Engineering and director of the Metal Processing Institute at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.