Stuck in 1955, Engineering Education Needs a Revolution

The “pipeline” concept has long kept people out of the field of engineering. It’s time to address the needs of today’s digital, diverse, global, and rapidly changing society.

In May 1952, the president of the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE), S. C. Hollister, appointed a committee to look at the state of engineering education in the United States. The 1955 report, now commonly referred to as the Grinter Report, brought about a sea change in the training of engineers and became a foundational document for engineering education that still has a significant influence on engineering curricula at the undergraduate and graduate levels. After Grinter, theory replaced practical hands-on work. And this approach has changed little in the intervening decades. Over the years, we educators have done some tinkering around the edges, such as adding in a capstone design project, or replacing Fortran with other programming languages—but the basic structure of the curriculum remains unchanged even though our students can now find information on their phones that might have taken us hours to track down in the library.

Engineering education seems stuck in 1955. Our system of engineering education needs to address the needs of today’s digital, diverse, global, and rapidly changing society. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic brought to the surface several problems in the training of engineers that have festered for too long: racial and social disparities, elitism in academia, and the pervasive practice of locking students in or out of engineering pathways as early as elementary school.

It is time that we as educators take a long, critical look at our values and curricula to ensure that we are preparing students for careers that exist today and for future careers. To ensure that we are attracting and retaining a diverse pool of learners to our programs, we need to examine what we are teaching and how we are teaching it. Are we expecting our students to solve types of problems that inspire them to continue to pursue a career in engineering and change the world for the better?

We also need to look at what we include in our courses and be willing to omit topics that are no longer relevant. Or, as it was phrased in the 2004 National Academy of Engineering’s (NAE) consensus study report, The Engineer of 2020, we must avoid the cliché of teaching more and more about less and less until we are teaching everything about nothing.

We also need to recognize that the current generation of students is not content to address social justice and equity issues only in their private lives, separate and distinct from their work. To engage students, we need to demonstrate the relevance of engineering curricula to their concerns. For example, we must find ways to rectify the biases embedded in engineering products such as automated water faucets that do not recognize darker skin or facial recognition systems that have uneven performance because they have been trained on predominantly white and male faces. Engineering needs to become a field that can adapt to and serve the social projects embraced by current and future generations.

We must avoid the cliché of teaching more and more about less and less until we are teaching everything about nothing.

To be clear, we are calling for a sea change along the lines of the one that followed the Grinter Report, but with an eye on the world’s needs in the century to come. This transformation must begin with a deliberate effort to build an inclusive and collaborative engineering community that spans disciplines, gender, ethnicity, race, and sexual orientation. To do that we have to reassess the content and nature of both precollege outreach and undergraduate education to build interest in and preparation for the study of engineering. In step with this assessment of the curriculum and outreach efforts, we must also evaluate our expectations of engineering faculty and reimagine the structure of how we train engineers.

Teach problem-solving rather than specific tools

As former US secretary of education Richard Riley noted: “We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented, in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.” We have many modern tools at our disposal, but instead of assigning messy problems that would require the synthesis of concepts from multiple disciplines, applying logical boundary conditions, and examining outcomes to make sure they are reasonable, we assign problems that could be solved with a slide rule. These are easier to grade and explain, but they are not all that realistic or inspiring. And they are not really representative of the type of problems engineers may encounter in their working careers.

The field needs more programs that provide integrative, hands-on problem-solving. Although programs such as cooperative education and structured summer internships provide industrial experiences for undergraduates and makerspaces provide on-campus hands-on opportunities, we believe more is needed. Most of these programs are optional, meaning that only a self-selected portion of students participates in them. To integrate experiential learning into the curriculum will require more deliberate effort on the part of educators.

Likewise, we need to examine and discard some of the canonical ideas in engineering education. Instead of forcing our students to memorize the intricacies of the chain rule in taking derivatives, would it not be better to teach them to use mathematics to model physical phenomena, to question numbers that magically appear on their calculator readout, or to know when to apply the chain rule and where to look it up when needed? Some professors have advocated breaking calculus’ grip on the engineering curriculum. (In current curricula, it is often faculty in the mathematics department who determine who gets to be an engineer.)

As ASEE’s 2020–2021 president, Sheryl Sorby convened a task force to consider curricula as a tool for the transformation of engineering education. This framework includes identifying structural racism and inequalities and suggesting possible remedies while integrating cognitive, affective, and kinesthetic domains of learning to prepare students to have more expansive perspectives when approaching society’s problems.

End the “pipeline mindset”

The pipeline analogy, which suggests that young learners join a pathway of knowledge acquisition that ultimately results in an engineering degree, has impeded efforts to diversify engineering. A pipeline has only one entry point and one exit point. If a student enrolled in the wrong math class in 7th grade, or if her high school didn’t offer advanced math courses, she will find it difficult to become an engineer. Few 7th graders have engineering on their radar, yet their choices in what classes to take could shut them out of engineering—unless they’re willing to go back and enroll in remedial math courses to make up for their lack of foresight as a 12-year-old. This is not an attractive proposition for most. What if the tenacity of students who arrive in our engineering programs without the benefit of such foresight was recognized and rewarded instead of punished?

Instead of forcing our students to memorize the intricacies of the chain rule in taking derivatives, would it not be better to teach them to use mathematics to model physical phenomena?

It is widely acknowledged that engineering educators have designed curricula meant to keep people out. The curricular structure is rigid, with long prerequisite chains and few free electives. For example, all of our students are forced to take three semesters of calculus—even though the vast majority don’t really need that. In a sense, students are subjected to one to two years of academic hazing before they are allowed into “the club” of professional engineers.

Worse, engineering education promotes competition at all levels, even though social science demonstrates that this doesn’t motivate everyone. Projects and exams are designed to be so hard that many students fail, which is described as “character-building.” This approach is a symptom of a pervasive belief that every engineer should experience failure of some sort as a university student, which is justified by claiming “rigor”—and this rigor allows us to continue to use our curricula as a cudgel to keep people out. We might say that we don’t have a weed-out mentality, but we certainly perpetuate a weed-out system.

Not only are engineering curricula often unattractive to women and students of color, but they also fail to prepare all students for their future careers. How many creative problem-solvers, who would have become excellent engineers, have been driven from our programs over the years? How many potential inventors and entrepreneurs have not been inspired to join our ranks? How many out-of-the-box thinkers have been lost from engineering due to the rigidity of the engineering curricula? The true loss of human talent from engineering disciplines is impossible to calculate.

Recognize the humanity of engineering faculty

Engineering faculty are under ever-increasing pressure to excel at all aspects of research, teaching, and service. Yet the situation has dramatically changed from 50 years ago when the prototypical faculty member was a man with a wife at home to manage responsibilities such as the house, errands, childcare, and eldercare. Now all faculty members must juggle these responsibilities, sometimes alone, along with their day jobs.

The true loss of human talent from engineering disciplines is impossible to calculate.

Universities have a responsibility to make the myriad tasks more manageable. Rather than expecting each faculty member to be superlative at all tasks, we should more explicitly view departmental faculty as team members with different focuses among teaching, research, and service so that the team as a whole functions at the desired level. We must recognize that a strict timeline for gaining tenure may be contributing to an exodus from universities, particularly for women. In other words, universities need to revamp their policies for faculty promotion and tenure.

Emphasize instruction

We must build on the broad agreement that teaching is crucial to preparing and retaining future generations of engineers. We can do this by developing measurements of effective teaching as well as rewards. Currently, it’s commonly perceived that promotion depends on research, rather than on one’s effectiveness as a teacher. As the 2009 NAE report Developing Metrics for Assessing Engineering Instruction: What Gets Measured Is What Gets Improved notes, this perception may be especially true at research universities, which confer the preponderance of engineering degrees annually. But one reason this perception persists is that despite well-established methods for measuring research productivity, the metrics for teaching, learning, and instructional effectiveness are much less well-defined and broadly implemented.

While “best teacher” awards exist on many campuses and within many professional societies, they typically serve to recognize a very few exemplars. What they fail to do is provide specific guidance and assistance in enhancing the effectiveness of teaching across all faculty. There is a need to develop a schema for instructional skills development that can be implemented both within individual campuses and across campuses within engineering disciplines. Moreover, this system must be incorporated into the training of future faculty—similar to how they are now taught the skills for research. ASEE has formed a second task force aimed at recognizing and rewarding faculty for their instructional prowess.

Make graduate education more fair, accessible, and pragmatic

Crucially, we need to rethink the labor relationship between graduate students and faculty advisors. We must eliminate the attitude critiqued by National Academy of Sciences president Marcia McNutt at the 2020 Endless Frontier Symposium, whereby graduate students are regarded as “indentured servants” subject to the petty whims of their supervisors.

In this vein, graduate programs in the United States need to be more accessible and attractive to domestic students, including populations currently underrepresented in engineering. To welcome these students, we need to acknowledge the harm done by artificial barriers to admission that have little correlation to graduate student success. The need to be more creative in preparing and accepting domestic students is reinforced by the reality that international students are increasingly choosing to either stay in their home countries or to study at schools outside the United States because these other engineering programs are perceived as more welcoming politically, socially, and economically.

We must eliminate the attitude critiqued by National Academy of Sciences president Marcia McNutt, whereby graduate students are regarded as “indentured servants” subject to the petty whims of their supervisors.

The structure of graduate education should shift to better reflect the increasingly collaborative nature of modern research. Most radically, this could include joint dissertations, whereby two or more individuals collaboratively write one dissertation that serves as the culminating document for all involved.

The training of engineers has been influenced by the Grinter Report for 65 years even though the report’s stated purpose was to provide direction for the “next quarter century” only. The report moved the pendulum from hands-on, practical training to the side of theoretical and science-based engineering. We believe it is time to move the pendulum in an entirely new direction—toward a more humanistic approach to engineering. By focusing on the students themselves, we can graduate more balanced engineers who are prepared for the world as it is today and for the future.