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

Reforming Engineering Education (editorial)

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Author: G. Wayne Clough

Editor’s Note

Nothing is more fundamental to the future of our nation’s engineering enterprise than attracting talented young men and women to the pursuit of an engineering degree and providing them with an education adapted for the 21st century. Sounds simple, but neither of these can be assumed as a given. The United States is granting engineering degrees at a lower rate than in the mid-1980s, and nationally, less than 55 percent of students who undertake engineering studies complete them. Moreover, it is far from clear that engineering education is preparing our graduates to succeed in a global economy.

The stagnant number of engineers graduated each year in the United States has become more visible as competition increases for the high-tech sector of the global economy from both developed and developing nations. Although it seems obvious that graduating more engineers in a world increasingly dependent on technology should be a national priority, this turns out to be a subject of debate. Some argue that we have enough engineers based on projections of traditional engineering job opportunities for the future. Others insist that the market must be the arbiter, and until such time as the demand for engineers is clear, we should hold to our present course. Still others are calling for an increase in the number of engineers; the recent National Academies report, Rising above the Gathering Storm, for example, recommends doubling the number of engineering graduates.

All sides of the debate were taken up at a recent National Science Board workshop at MIT. The conclusion was that we are putting the cart before the horse by focusing only on the number of engineering graduates. Given the challenges future engineers will face, we simply cannot continue with “business as usual.” It is unlikely that we can attract or retain students without making substantial improvements. By making engineering education more relevant to future needs and more interesting to a wider, more diverse group of students, we will automatically increase our numbers. For starters, if we simply raise the retention rate, we would quickly increase the number of graduates. As members of the younger generation would say, this is a “no brainer.”

We must also educate engineers more broadly; this will expand their employment horizons and, in turn, justify the need for more engineering graduates. Many also believe, I among them, that engineering graduates must also take on jobs outside of engineering, including jobs in nonprofit and government policy areas where we desperately need people who can think clearly and logically and who understand technology.

The devil in the details is how we renew engineering education. The engineering curriculum is already crowded, and adding anything is difficult. We all agree that the fundamentals of engineering must be taught, but, given the imperative for change, we must begin to rethink what we casually call a university education—both out-of-class experiences and in-class learning. Out-of-class time could provide opportunities for study abroad, leadership development through real-world projects, intellectual growth through participation in music, and volunteer and club activities. Inside the classroom, we need to find places where adjustments, even small adjustments, can be made to existing courses to improve them. Perhaps more important, we need to rethink which courses are really necessary and which ones can be reduced in scope or jettisoned to free up time for new material.

The good news is that the majority of U.S. engineering colleges have been working for some time to improve engineering education through NSF Education Coalitions and in collaboration with ABET. However, even though these efforts have been impressive, they have rarely focused on the long view. NAE is encouraging more long-range thinking with the Engineer of 2020 initiative, an attempt to determine the kind of engineering education we must provide to prepare our graduates for careers two decades from now. Because large-scale changes in engineering education will take time, we must start now to change our approach to engineering education in time to produce graduates ready for 2020.

The Engineer of 2020 initiative had two phases. The first was a community-wide conversation to identify the dynamic forces at play and the aspirations and expectations that should characterize engineering in 2020. The second phase involved an educational summit to discuss how engineering education could rise to the challenge through changes in the curriculum, extracurricular options, new approaches to educational delivery, and innovative options for educational structure. Participants in the summit offered ideas for (1) the teaching of introductory courses in ways that would engage students and arouse their curiosity, (2) encouragement of a systems approach rather than the traditional piecemeal approach, (3) interdisciplinary courses, and (4) internships and cooperative experiences to supplement classroom exercises. Both phases of the 2020 initiative are described in reports that have been widely distributed and have prompted much discussion.

I have visited a number of campuses in the past two years and have been encouraged to see that many engineering educators have taken the message of the Engineer of 2020 initiative to heart and are seriously reexamining their educational offerings to adapt them to meeting future needs. At the same time, I have heard that engineering educators in other countries are also using the Engineer of 2020 reports and similar publications to adapt their courses of study for the future. The bottom line is that time is not our friend. The longer we wait to respond, the harder it will be to make relevant changes and the more ground the competition will gain.

The papers in this edition of The Bridge provide a range of viewpoints and insights relevant to the tasks that lie ahead. Lisa Lattuca, Patrick Terenzini, and Fredericks Volkwein of Pennsylvania State University and George Peterson of ABET review ABET’s efforts since the 1980s to provide accreditation standards to engender changes in engineering education to meet the needs of industry. Results over the past decade show that progress is being made. Ted Kennedy provides the perspective of an engineering consultant. He predicts that in the global economy of the future, routine aspects of engineering will be performed overseas and that U.S. engineers will need skills that distinguish them from engineers in other countries to justify their higher wages. Jackie Sullivan of the University of Colorado focuses on the educational pipeline that provides the talent. She argues passionately that the foundation for engineering education should begin with elementary school, especially if we want to attract minority and female students. She contends that engineering education should be the capstone of an integrated K–16 system.

The subject of the paper by Susan Ambrose and Marie Norman of Carnegie Mellon University is the faculty of the future. They argue that faculty will need new knowledge and skills to create and teach effective, innovative courses. According to Ambrose and Norman, faculty must focus more on how students learn and how they process information. Zehev Tadmor of the Technion Israel Institute of Technology describes the fusion of science and technology in emerging engineering specialties. He puts forward the idea of creating entirely new disciplines that merge science and engineering for particular fields. Finally, Chuck Vest, President Emeritus of MIT, advises that, although we cannot know precisely what students 15 years from now should be taught, we must focus on creating an “exciting, creative, adventurous, rigorous, demanding, and empowering” educational milieu.

Taken together these papers provide a context and offer recommendations for shaping engineering education for the future. I hope engineering educators accept the challenge and that everyone who serves on advisory boards to engineering colleges will help stimulate discussion on their campuses. We must prepare our graduates to compete in the new world economy.

About the Author:G. Wayne Clough is president, Georgia Institute of Technology, and an NAE member.