A Makeover for Engineering Education

Today’s engineering schools are not preparing their graduates as well as they might for useful practice in the 21st century.

Hollywood directors are said to be only as good as their last picture. Maintaining their reputations means keeping up the good work–continuing to do encores that are not only high-quality but that fully reflect the tastes and expectations of the time.

A similar measure applies to engineers. Though we are fresh from a whole century’s worth of major contributions to health, wealth, and the quality of life, there is trouble in paradise: Tthe next century will require that we do even more at an even faster rate, and we are not sufficiently prepared to meet those demands, much less turn in another set of virtuoso performances.

The changing nature of international trade and the subsequent restructuring of industry, the shift from defense to civilian applications, the use of new materials and biological processes, and the explosion of information technology–both as part of the process of engineering and as part of its product–have dramatically and irreversibly changed the practice of engineering. If anything, the pace of this change is accelerating. But engineering education–the profession’s basic source of training and skill–is not able to keep up with the growing demands.

The enterprise has two fundamental, and related, problems. The first regards personnel: Fewer students find themselves attracted to engineering schools. The second regards the engineering schools, which are increasingly out of touch with the practice of engineering. Not only are they unattractive to many students in the first place, but even among those who do enroll there is considerable disenchantment and a high dropout rate (of over 40 percent). Moreover, many of the students who make it to graduation enter the workforce ill-equipped for the complex interactions, across many disciplines, of real-world engineered systems. Although there are isolated “points of light” in engineering schools, it is only a slight exaggeration to say that students are being prepared to practice engineering for their parents’ era, not for the 21st century.

What’s needed is a major shift in engineering education’s “center of gravity,” which has moved virtually not at all since the last shift, some 50 years ago, to the so-called “engineering science” model. This approach–which emphasizes the scientific and mathematical foundations of engineering, as opposed to empirical design methods based on experience and practice–served the nation well during the Cold War, when the national imperative was to build a research infrastructure to support military and space superiority over the Soviet Union. But times have clearly changed, and we must now reexamine that engineering-science institution, identify what needs to be altered, and pursue appropriate reforms.

An agenda for change

Engineering is not science or even just “applied science.” Whereas science is analytic in that it strives to understand nature, or what is, engineering is synthetic in that it strives to create. Our own favorite description of what engineers do is “design under constraint.” Engineering is creativity constrained by nature, by cost, by concerns of safety, environmental impact, ergonomics, reliability, manufacturability, maintainability–the whole long list of such “ilities.” To be sure, the realities of nature is one of the constraint sets we work under, but it is far from the only one, it is seldom the hardest one, and almost never the limiting one.

Today’s student-engineers not only need to acquire the skills of their predecessors but many more, and in broader areas. As the world becomes more complex, engineers must appreciate more than ever the human dimensions of technology, have a grasp of the panoply of global issues, be sensitive to cultural diversity, and know how to communicate effectively. In short, they must be far more versatile than the traditional stereotype of the asocial geek.

These imperatives strongly influence how a modern engineer should be educated, which means that he or she requires a different kind of education than is currently available in most engineering schools. In particular, we see six basic areas in great need of reform:

Faculty rewards. Engineering professors are judged largely by science-faculty criteria–and the practice of engineering is not one of them. Present engineering faculty tend to be very capable researchers, but too many are unfamiliar with the worldly issues of “design under constraint” simply because they’ve never actually practiced engineering. Can you imagine a medical school whose faculty members were prohibited from practicing medicine? Similarly, engineering professors tend to discount scholarship on the teaching and learning of their disciplines. Can we long tolerate such stagnation at the very source of future engineers? (These perceptions of engineering faculty are not merely our own. When the National Academy of Engineering convened 28 leaders from industry, government, and academia in January 2002 to discuss research on teaching and learning in engineering, the retreat participants agreed that although an increased focus on scholarly activities in engineering teaching and learning is much needed, the current faculty-reward system does not value these activities.)

Curriculum. Faculty’s weakness in engineering practice causes a sizeable gap between what is taught in school and what is expected from young engineers by their employers and customers. The nitty-gritty of particular industries cannot, and should not, be included in the curriculum–particularly for undergraduates. But although everyone pretty much agrees that students will continue to need instruction in “the fundamentals,” the definition of this term has been rapidly changing. Whereas physics and continuous mathematics largely filled the bill for most of the 20th century, there are now additional fundamentals. For example, discrete mathematics (essential to digital information technology), the chemical and biological sciences, and knowledge of the global cultural and business contexts for design are now important parts of an engineer’s repertoire.

The first professional degree. We can’t just add these “new fundamentals” to a curriculum that’s already too full, especially if we still claim that the baccalaureate is a professional degree. And therein lies the rub: Whereas most professions–business, law, medicine–do not consider the bachelor’s degree to be a professional degree, engineering does. Maintaining such a policy in this day and age is a disservice to students, as it necessarily deprives them of many of the fundamentals they need in order to function; and it is a misrepresentation to employers.

Formalized lifelong learning. It has been said that the “half-life” of engineering knowledge–the time in which half of what an engineer knows becomes obsolete–is in the range of two to eight years. This means that lifelong learning is essential to staying current throughout an engineering career, which may span some 40 years. Yet the notion, at least as a formalized institution, has not been part of the engineering culture. This has to change, as merely taking training in the latest technology is not good enough. The fundamentals you learned in college are still fundamental, but they aren’t the only ones in this rapidly changing profession.

Diversity. An essential aspect of service to society is inclusiveness–the need to “leave no child behind.” But although diversity in our engineering schools has improved in recent years, we’ve leveled off. Fewer than 20 percent of entering freshmen are women, and underrepresented minorities account for just over 16 percent. Among the nation’s engineering faculty, the numbers are worse: Fewer than 10 percent are women, and fewer than 5 percent are underrepresented minorities. Another way to look at the situation is this: Although minority men and all women represent 65 percent of the general population, they comprise only 26 percent of the B.S. graduates in engineering. Such figures are unacceptable, and not just as an equity issue. It’s a workforce issue and, even more important, it’s a quality issue. Our creative field is deprived of a broad spectrum of life experiences that bear directly on good engineering design. Put more bluntly, we’re not getting the bang for the buck that we should.

Technological literacy in the general population. Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia in the conviction that we could not have a democracy without an educated citizenry. Given that technology is now one of the strongest forces shaping our nation, we think he would consider our present democracy imperiled. Though our representatives in Congress are regularly called upon to vote on technology-based issues that will profoundly affect the nation, they and the people who elect them are, for the most part, technologically illiterate. Engineering schools have not traditionally provided courses for non-engineering majors, but in our view it’s time they did. These courses will not be of the kind we are accustomed to teaching, as they’ll relate technology and the process of creating it–that is, engineering–to larger societal issues. But noblesse must oblige: Technological literacy is now essential to citizens’ pursuit of a better and richer life.

Steps in the right direction

Clearly, a great deal needs to be changed, and the scale of the challenge can be daunting. But enlightened, come-from-behind reinvention is nothing new to our society.

Consider recent turnarounds in the business sector, aided by methods that may similarly benefit education. Twenty years ago, U.S. industry was seriously lagging its counterparts in other countries, but U.S. companies found answers in modern quality-improvement techniques. A technique called “Six Sigma,” for example–used with great success by Motorola, General Electric, and Allied Signal, among others–basically forces you to identify the product, the customer, the current processes for making and delivering it, and the sources of waste. Then you redesign the system and evaluate it once again. This procedure continues indefinitely, resulting in a practice of constant reevaluation and reform.

By applying such standards of industrial quality control to engineering education, we could well create more excitement, add more value, and get more done for students in less time. Many of the seemingly insuperable problems of the largely arrested academic enterprise could yield imaginative answers.

One area of much-needed answers is the “supply side” issue: How can engineering schools attract more bright young people out of high school? Part of the solution, we believe, is a massive engineering-mentor program. Think of it as every engineer in the country identifying, say, four students with an interest in engineering and essentially adopting them for the duration of their school years–not just to give occasional encouragement but to stick with them and really guide them.

Many people in the profession stayed with engineering because at critical points in their careers they experienced the helping hand and timely advice of a mentor. Similarly, we could be there for these kids when the going gets tough and they are tempted to abandon engineering for an easier alternative. Eventually, like us, they will get hooked on engineering when they experience the thrill of invention–of bringing their skills to bear on a problem and achieving a useful and elegant solution, on time, on budget, and within all the other practical constraints. But until then, there needs to be the continuous support and interest of a mentor.

Numerous other innovations, both for increasing the supply of engineering students and improving the quality of their education, are possible. Now they will be more probable with the recent adoption, by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), of new and flexible criteria for putting authoritative stamps of approval on engineering schools’ curricula. Unlike previous criteria, which were rigidly defined, the Engineering Criteria 2000 encourage each school to be outcome-oriented, to define its own niche and structure its curriculum accordingly. This is a huge step in the right direction, liberating faculty to propose virtually any modification they deem appropriate, which may then be evaluated by ABET against the school’s goals. Essentially, the new criteria say: You can do that; just do it well!

Accreditation, though necessary, is not sufficient. When an innovation is in place and showing itself to be effective, it also needs to be publicly recognized so that it may be replicated or serve as an inspiration for similar efforts elsewhere. One mechanism for this process is the recently established Bernard M. Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering and Technology Education. Awarded by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), it is a prominent way to highlight novel teaching methods that motivate and inform the next generation of engineering educators.

The Gordon Prize, which carries a cash award of $500,000 divided equally between the recipient and his or her institution, was presented for the first time this past February to Eli Fromm, professor of electrical and computer engineering and director of the Center for Educational Research at Drexel University’s College of Engineering. He was cited for implementing “revolutionary ideas that are showing dramatic results in areas such as student retention and minority involvement in engineering studies.” In particular, Fromm established the Enhanced Education Experience for Engineers (E4) program, in which faculty members from diverse disciplines teach side-by-side with engineering colleagues in a hands-on, laboratory atmosphere. The aim is to build students’ communication skills, expand their knowledge of business, and give them a deeper understanding of the design process itself.

This E4 program has now expanded to seven other academic institutions–under the new name of Gateway Engineering Education Coalition–and participating schools report an 86 percent increase in the retention of freshmen. They also note that the number of engineering degrees they now award to women has shot up by 46 percent, to Hispanics by 65 percent, and to African-Americans by 118 percent.

Organizations send a message

A basic condition for the reform of engineering education is to change the attitudes of engineering faculty, and one good way to win hearts and minds is by their professional organizations–especially those positioned to reward individuals’ achievements–conspicuously taking up the cause.

The NAE, whose membership consists of the nation’s premier engineers recognized by their peers for seminal contributions, is one such organization, perhaps the country’s most prestigious. And it is strongly committed to moving engineering education’s center of gravity to a position relevant to the needs of 21st-century society. We refer to the Academy’s programs in this area as our “four-legged stool”:

First, we’ve reaffirmed that high-quality contributions to engineering education are a valid reason for election to the NAE. This criterion makes it clear that people’s creativity and excellence in engineering education can be rewarded in the same ways as outstanding technological contributions.

Second, we’ve established a standing committee of the Academy’s Office of the President–called, naturally enough, the Committee on Engineering Education –that identifies significant issues, organizes studies, develops long-term strategies, recommends specific policies to appropriate government agencies and academic administrations, coordinates with other leading groups in engineering and related fields, and encourages public education and outreach.

Third, we have created the Gordon Prize, essentially the “Nobel Prize” for engineering educators.

And fourth, the NAE is in the process of forming its very own center for focused research projects on teaching and learning in engineering. Usually we at the National Academies study things and then recommend that somebody else do something. Here we wish to also be implementers, developing innovative methods and disseminating the best results–our own as well as those of others.

Each of these initiatives serves a double purpose: developing or recognizing particular innovations and making the NAE’s imprimatur quite visible. The hope is that our activities send a message, particularly to engineering faculty throughout the country, that the Academy attaches great value to creative work in engineering education and wishes to acknowledge and spread the best ideas.

Other influential bodies must similarly get involved in this revitalization process, so that their efforts are mutually reinforcing. For example, we believe that most of what NAE is now trying to do in teaching and learning would not have been possible without ABET’s Engineering Criteria 2000.

Basically, to revitalize engineering education we must first and foremost change educators’ attitudes. Only then can engineering schools produce the open-minded and versatile modern engineers capable of making improvements to our quality of life–and to that of people around the world.

The average person today enjoys a great many advantages, most of them the result of engineering. But because we live in a time of rapid change, engineers in current practice face issues that little constrained their predecessors; and engineers we educate today will be practicing in future environments likely to be very different from our own. Thus if engineering education does not change significantly, and soon, things will only get worse over time.

The problem has now been studied to death, and the essential solution is clear. So let’s get on with it! It’s urgent that we do so.

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Cite this Article

Wulf, Wm. A., and George M. C. Fisher. “A Makeover for Engineering Education.” Issues in Science and Technology 18, no. 3 (Spring 2002).

Vol. XVIII, No. 3, Spring 2002