In This Issue
Reforming Engineering Education
June 1, 2006 Volume 36 Issue 2

Redefining Engineering Disciplines for the Twenty-First Century

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Author: Zehev Tadmor

Science and technology are becoming a single entity and igniting a new scitech revolution.

All engineering disciplines derive from military engineering,1 which was formalized in eighteenth-century France through the creation of technical institutes (Figure 1 - see PDF version). Inspired by the French Revolution and the “century of light,” the first institute, the ?cole Polytechnique, was established in Paris in 1794 (Bugliarello, 1991; Tadmor, 2003). The concurrent industrial revolution,2 and the so-called second industrial revolution associated with the rise of the steel, chemical, and electrical industries (Nybom, 2003), were driving forces behind the proliferation of the technical institute/university model that led to the establishment of a host of polytechniques in Europe, the Technische Hochshule in Germany, and institutes of technology in the United States (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 1824; Massachusetts Institute of Technology [MIT], 1861; Stevens Institute of Technology, 1870; Georgia Institute of Technology, 1885; California Institute of Technology, 1891; Carnegie Mellon University, 1900) and elsewhere. These early institutes, which focused mostly on the industrial arts, began by teaching civil engineering and then gradually introduced other engineering disciplines.

Creation of Modern Engineering Disciplines
During the first quarter of the twentieth century, a new educational philosophy emerged that transformed engineering education from high-level, vocational, trade school-like training in current industrial practices into a discipline firmly rooted in the sciences. One of the leaders who championed this transformation was Karl Taylor Compton, president of MIT, who made it the theme of his inaugural address in 1930 (Compton, 1930):

    I hope, therefore, that increasing attention in the Institute may be given to the fundamental sciences; that they may achieve as never before the spirit and results of research; that all courses of instruction may be examined carefully to see where training in details has been unduly emphasized at the expense of the more powerful training in all-embracing fundamental principles. Without any change of purpose or any radical change in operation, I feel that significant progress can thus be made.

As Compton foresaw, the movement toward fundamental principles became the dominant trend in engineering education throughout the century. Triggered by phenomenal successes in the natural sciences, which have expanded mankind’s understanding and horizons beyond all expectations, the scientific method was also applied to engineering. The movement gained momentum after World War II, when engineering curricula were gradually purged of vocationalism and were augmented by fundamental science studies. The impact of this change was so profound that it can be considered a revolution in engineering education. Indeed, the “science revolution” is the hallmark of engineering education in the twentieth century.

This profound restructuring of engineering education led to the formulation of engineering sciences, which still constitute the core curricula of engineering education in all disciplines. Thus, graduating engineers are no longer simply proficient in current engineering practices. They have been instilled with a solid engineering science foundation that enables them to cope with fast-changing technologies. In parallel, the engineering professoriate, whose main goal throughout much of the twentieth century was to create the engineering sciences using “tough quantitative and mathematical tools,” imparted “academic, scientific respectability” to the profession (Simon, 1969).

An inevitable by-product of the science revolution was that engineering design, because it did not have a formalized, quantitative, teachable core body of knowledge, was largely eliminated from engineering curricula. Instead, engineers were expected to learn design on the job. Indeed, the development of a formalized approach to engineering design remains an open challenge to the engineering professoriate.

Fusion of Science and Technology
Historically, the scientific revolution preceded the industrial-technological revolution by about two centuries. Until the end of the nineteenth century, the two movements ran on parallel tracks with little interaction between them. Their objectives were different, and they were led by different kinds of people. The objective of the industrial movement was to develop new technologies and improve old ones; this movement was led by craftsmen, artisans, and visionary entrepreneurs, such as James Watt and other inventors.3 The objective of the scientific movement was to understand nature and was led by philosophers and scientists.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the two revolutions began to converge, reinforcing and catalyzing each other.4 By the end of the century, they had effectively fused into a single entity, igniting a new science-technology (scitech) revolution, with more profound consequences for the human condition than either of the revolutions that preceded it. The scitech revolution is the cause, source, and alma mater of all high technology, globalization, and the subsequent explosive developments in worldwide economics. Scitech has blurred the distinction between basic and applied research, obliterated the classical linear innovation model (whereby it was assumed that the fruits of basic research lead in a linear fashion to industrial application), and shortened the time from invention to application. Scitech mandated multidisciplinarity in leading-edge research on the micro, nano, molecular, atomic, and even subatomic levels, and it made the research university the wellspring of technological innovation.

If the hallmark of engineering education in the twentieth century was the science revolution, which led to curricula designed to teach engineers5 science-based, all-embracing, fundamental principles, we must ask ourselves how the ongoing fusion of science and technology, and the consequent scitech revolution, will affect engineering disciplines in the twenty-first century. If science and technology are indeed fused into a new entity, doesn’t this blur the distinction between engineering and science? Perhaps we should no longer be talking about applying scientific methods to engineering, but rather inventing new curricula in which there is no separation between science and engineering.

In other words, perhaps we should reconsider engineering curricula in the most fundamental way and create entirely novel science-engineering (scieng) or engineering-science (engsci) curricula.6 From this perspective, the twenty-first century could herald the next revolution in engineering education. The dictionary definition of the engsci engineer or scigineer could be “a person who uses scientific knowledge and microscopic building blocks to create products, materials, and processes that are useful to man.”

Molecular Engineering: A Case in Point
In May 2002, an international workshop, Touchstones of Polymer Processing, was held at the Polymer Processing Institute, New Jersey Institute of Technology. Leading researchers in the field examined long-term trends of their profession and concluded that the relatively new discipline of polymer processing and engineering, which had split off from chemical engineering in the United States and mechanical engineering in Europe, rather than converging into a well defined, separate engineering discipline as had been expected, was, in fact, diverging into a broad, multidisciplinary activity (PPI, 2002). Of course, the divergence of disciplinary research into multidisciplinary approaches is characteristic of most engineering disciplines, but polymer processing, a latecomer as an engineering discipline, had diverged before it had a chance to converge into a separate, well defined entity.

As polymer processing becomes increasingly multidisciplinary, and looking from “inside the profession out,” the participants concluded that the name macromolecular engineering and science (MMES) described the current character of the profession better than polymer processing.7 Moreover, MMES is, in fact, part of a broader scene. On the fundamental level, the boundaries of MMES merge with molecular biology, complex fluids, polymer chemistry, polymer physics, chemical engineering, and other disciplines. At the research university level, this could lead to the creation of an entirely new engsci or scieng undergraduate curriculum called molecular engineering.

As shown in Figure 2, the molecular engineering curriculum could branch out in the junior year into three separate engsci disciplines: chemical molecular engineering (formerly chemical engineering), macromolecular engineering (formerly polymer engineering and science and polymer processing), and biomacromolecular engineering (formerly biochemical engineering and biotechnology).

A scieng or engsci curriculum would require five years of study, rather than the current four, and would lead directly to an M.S. degree. The philosophy of engsci curricula would be radically different from current engineering curricula. The engsci point of view, perspective, and mind-set would lead from the molecular toward the macroscopic, and not the other way around. The latter begins by examining a macroscopic process, analyzing it, and, if need be, looking all the way down to the molecular scale, whereas the former begins with a process on the molecular scale and examines its macroscopic implications and consequences. This bottom-up perspective would lead not only to a more in-depth understanding of processes, but also to fresh insights and the application and production of a multitude of novel artifacts that serve useful purposes.

A follow-up to the Touchstones Workshop, held in Leeds, United Kingdom, was supported by the Center for Advanced Engineering Fibers and Films at Clemson University and the National Science Foundation (NSF). At this workshop, the first steps were taken toward constructing an engsci curriculum and exploring the possibility of multi-university implementation. The workshop participants formulated a first draft of a curriculum for molecular engineering designed to educate engineers who consider molecular issues before designing a process or product and then use molecular information to increase the accuracy of the design (CAEFF, 2003).

The workshop participants concluded that educating students to view problems from the molecular level first would require restructuring and reordering many existing courses, as well as developing a number of new courses. Thus, additional funding would be required to formulate the discipline in detail and implement it, even as a multi-university effort. To this end, proposals have been and are being submitted to NSF and other agencies to fund course development and program implementation.

It is important to remember that a revolutionary redefinition of engineering disciplines into engsci, scieng, or scigineering disciplines at the research university level will not mean that conventional engineers in chemical, electrical, mechanical, and other fields of engineering are no longer needed. In fact, they continue to be crucial for current industrial needs, and colleges and other institutions of higher education must continue to educate them. Research universities, however, could focus on educating scigineers, who would be equipped with the knowledge and skills to shape and contend with the industries of the twenty-first century.

In the author’s judgment, considering the explosion of knowledge in all relevant fields, it is no longer possible to educate engineers in just four years. The time has come to implement a five-year curriculum at all research universities, and perhaps at other institutions as well (Augustine, 1994; Tadmor et al., 1987). The M.S. degree should be an engineer’s first professional degree, and certainly the first degree of an engsci graduate.

The author thanks Professors Dan Edie, Costas G. Gogos, and Ellad B. Tadmor and the members of the organizing committee of the Touchstones Workshop and the Leeds follow-up workshop for their reviews and comments.


  1. The Encyclopedia Britannica of 1779 defines engineer as “one in the military art, an able expert man who by perfect knowledge in mathematics, delineates upon paper or makes upon the ground all sorts of facts and other works for offense and defense.”
  2. In 1769, James Watt patented a steam engine with a separate condenser, which vastly improved the Thomas Newcomen machine and thus helped launch the industrial revolution.
  3. Eli Whitney, Samuel Morse, Alexander Graham Bell, William Henry Perkins, Guglielmo Marconi, Thomas Edison, George Eastman, Leo Baekeland, Charles Goodyear, John Wesley Hyatt, Orville and Wilbur Wright, and Nicola Tesla are among the inventors who catalyzed the industrial revolution.
  4. Historians of technology consider GE Laboratories, established in 1900, the first laboratory where science was systematically applied for the promotion of technology. During World War II, the interaction was greatly accelerated by the application of science to the war effort, yielding important developments, such as radar, synthetic rubber, and, of course, the atomic bomb. This experience convinced the government that “science is power” and is thus worthy of public support. The recommendations in Vannevar Bush’s famous report to the president, Science: The Endless Frontier (1945), which was submitted shortly after the war, were enthusiastically accepted and implemented. This led to the creation of the National Science Foundation (NSF), which signaled the beginning of massive support for science that continues to the present day.
  5. The current Webster’s Dictionary definition of engineer is “(a) a member of the military group devoted to engineering work; (b) a designer and builder of engines; (c) a person who is trained in or follows a profession in a branch of engineering.” Engineering is defined as “(a) the art of managing engines; (b) a science by which the properties of matter and the sources of energy are made useful to man.”
  6. Prof. Ellad B. Tadmor, who reviewed this paper, suggested that just as Disney coined the term “imagineering,” we could adopt the word “scigineering.”
  7. In 1997, “Interdisciplinary Macromolecular Science and Engineering” (MMES), a workshop cosponsored by NSF and the U.S. Department of Energy, had arrived at similar conclusions—that at the interface between macromolecular science, chemistry, physics, and biology, a new field of MMES is emerging that “requires a new kind of polymer processing.”

Augustine, N. 1994. Engineering the next century. The Bridge 24(2): 3–6.
Bugliarello, G. 1991. The University—and Particularly the Technological University: Pragmatism and Beyond. Pp. 31–37 in The Changing University: How Increased Demand for Scientists and Technology Is Transforming Education Institutions Internationally, edited by D.S. Zinberg. The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishing.
Bush, V. 1945. Science: The Endless Frontier. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.
CAEFF (Center for Advanced Engineering Fibers and Film). 2003. Summary of Molecular Engineering Workshop.
Compton, K.T. 1930. The Inaugural Address. Available online at: compton.html.
Nybom, T. 2003. The Humboldt legacy: reflections on the past, present and future of the European university. Higher Education Policy 16(2): 141–159.
PPI (Polymer Processing Institute). 2002. Touchstones of Modern Polymer Processing: From Classical Polymer Processing to Macromolecular Engineering. Final Workshop Report. Newark, N.J.: Polymer Processing Institute. Available online:
Simon, H.A. 1969. The Science of the Artificial. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Tadmor, Z. 2003. The Golden Age of the Scientific Technological Research University. Haifa, Israel: Neaman Press. Available online at: item.asp?fid=651&parent_fid=489&iid=2781.
Tadmor, Z., Z. Kohavi, A. Libai, P. Singer, and D. Kohn. 1987. Engineering Education 2001. Haifa, Israel: Neaman Press. See also Engineering Education 77: 105–124.

About the Author:Zehev Tadmor is Distinguished Professor, President Emeritus, and chairman, S. Neaman Institute for Advanced Studies in Science and Technology, Technion Israel Institute of Technology, and an NAE foreign member.