Monique Verdin, "Headwaters : Tamaracks + Time : Lake Itasca" (2019), digital assemblage. Photograph taken in 2019; United States War Department map of the route passed over by an expedition into the Indian country in 1832 to the source of the Mississippi River.

Rethinking Engineering Education

We applaud Idalis Villanueva Alarcón’s essay, “How to Build Engineers for Life” (Issues, Fall 2023). As the leaders of an organization that has for 36 years sought to inspire, support, and sustain the next generation of professionals in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM), we support her desire to improve the content and delivery of engineering education. One of us (Fortenberry) has previously commented in Issues (September 13, 2021) on the challenges in this regard.

We agree with her observation that education should place an emphasis on learning how to learn in order to support lifelong learning and an individual’s ability for continual adaptation and reinvention. We believe that in an increasingly technological society there is a need for professionals trained in STEMM to work in a variety of fields. Therefore, there is a need for a significant increase in the number of STEMM professionals graduating from certificate programs, community colleges, baccalaureate programs, and graduate programs. Thus, we agree that basic engineering courses should be pumps and not filters in the production of these future STEMM professionals.

We strongly support the author’s call for “stackable” certificates leading to degrees. The same holds for further increasing the trend toward pushing experiential learning activities (including laboratories, design-build contests, internships, and co-ops) earlier in engineering curricula.

We need to ensure that underserved students have opportunities for rigorous STEMM instruction in pre-college education.

Over the past 40 years, a number of organizations and individuals have worked to greatly improve engineering education. Various industrial leaders, the nongovernmental accrediting group ABET, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, the National Science Foundation, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, among others, have helped engineering move to a focus on competencies, recognize the urgency of interdisciplinary approaches, and emphasize the utility of situating problem-solving in systems thinking. But much work remains to be done.

Most particularly, significant work remains in engaging underserved populations. And these efforts must begin in the earliest years. The author begins her essay with her own story of being inspired to engineering by her father. We need to reach students whose caregivers and relatives have not had that opportunity. We need to provide exposure and reinforcement through early and sustained hands-on opportunities. We need to ensure that underserved students have opportunities for rigorous STEMM instruction in pre-college education. We need to remove financial barriers to attendance of high-quality collegiate STEMM programs. And for the precious 5–7% of high school graduates who enter collegiate STEMM majors, we must hold on to more than the approximately 50% national average that currently are retained in engineering through baccalaureate graduation. We need to ensure that having entered a STEMM profession, there are supports in place for retention and professional advancement. The nation’s current legal environment has caused great concern about our ability to target high-potential individuals from underserved communities for programmatic, financial, professional, and social support activities. We must develop creative solutions that allow us to continue and expand our efforts.

Great Minds in STEM is focused on contributing to the attainment of the needed changes and looks forward to collaborating with others in this effort.

Chair of Board of Directors, Great Minds in STEM

Retired Director of Mission 1 Advanced Technologies and Applications Space Systems, Aerospace Systems Sector, Northrop Grumman Corporation

Chief Executive Officer, Great Minds in STEM

In her essay, Idalis Villanueva Alarcón outlines ways to improve engineering students’ educational experience and outcomes. As leaders of the American Society for Engineering Education, we endorse her suggestions. ASEE is already actively working to strengthen engineering education with many of the strategies the author describes.

A system in which “weeder courses” are used to remove “defective products” from the educational pipeline is both outdated and counterproductive in today’s world. We can do better, and we must.

As Villanueva explains, a system in which “weeder courses” are used to remove “defective products” from the educational pipeline is both outdated and counterproductive in today’s world. We can do better, and we must. To help improve this system, ASEE is conducting the Weaving In, Not Weeding Out project, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, under the leadership of ASEE’s immediate past president, Jenna Carpenter, and in collaboration with the National Academy of Engineering (NAE). This project is focused on identifying and sharing best practices known to support student success, in order to replace outdated approaches.

Villanueva emphasizes that “barriers are integrated into engineering culture and coursework and grounded in assumptions about how engineering education is supposed to work, who is supposed to take part, and how engineers should behave.” This sentiment is well aligned with ASEE’s Mindset Project, developed in collaboration with NAE and sponsored by the National Science Foundation. Two leaders of this initiative, Sheryl Sorby and Gary Bertoline, reviewed its goals in the Fall 2021 Issues article “Stuck in 1955, Engineering Education Needs a Revolution.”

The project has five primary objectives:

  • Teach problem solving rather than specific tools
  • End the “pipeline mindset”
  • Recognize the humanity of engineering faculty
  • Emphasize instruction
  • Make graduate education more fair, accessible, and pragmatic

In addition, the ASEE Faculty Teaching Excellence Task Force, under the leadership of University of Akron’s Donald Visco, has developed a framework to guide professional development in engineering and engineering technology instruction. Conceptualized by educators for educators and also funded by NSF, the framework will enable ASEE recognition for levels of teaching excellence.

We believe these projects are helping transform engineering education for the future, making the field more inclusive, flexible, supportive, and multidisciplinary. Such changes will help bring about Villanueva’s vision, and they will benefit not only engineering students and the profession but also the nation and world.

Executive Director,

American Society for Engineering Education

2023–2024 President,

American Society for Engineering Education

The compelling insights in Idalis Villanueva Alarcón’s essay deeply resonate with my own convictions about the essence of engineering education and workforce development. She masterfully articulates a vision where engineering transcends its traditional academic confines to embrace an enduring voyage of learning and personal growth. This vision aligns with my philosophy that engineering is a lifelong journey, one that is continually enriched by a diversity of experiences and cultural insights.

I propose a call to action for all involved in the engineering education ecosystem to embrace and champion the cultural and experiential wealth that defines our society.

The narrative the author shares emphasizes the importance of informal learning, which often takes place outside the classroom and is equally crucial in shaping the engineering mindset. It is a call to action for educational systems to integrate a broader spectrum of knowledge sources, thus embracing the wealth of experiences that individuals bring to the table. This inclusive approach to education is essential for cultivating a dynamic workforce that is innovative, versatile, and responsive to the complex challenges of our time. I propose a call to action for all involved in the engineering education ecosystem to embrace and champion the cultural and experiential wealth that defines our society.

Fostering lifelong learning in engineering must be a collective endeavor that spans the entire arc of an engineer’s career, necessitating a unified effort from every learning partner who influences their journey—from educators instilling the foundations of science and mathematics to mentors guiding seasoned professionals. This collaborative call to action is to actively dismantle the barriers to inclusivity, ensuring that our educational and work cultures not only value but celebrate the diverse “funds of knowledge” each individual brings. By creating platforms where every voice is heard and every experience is valued, we can nurture an engineering profession marked by continual exploration, mutual respect, and a commitment to societal betterment—a profession that is as culturally adept and empathetic as it is technically proficient.

Also central to this partnership is the role of the student as an active participant in their learning journey. Students must be encouraged to take ownership of their continuous development, understanding that the field of engineering is one of perpetual evolution. This empowerment is fostered by learning partners at all life stages instilling in students and professionals the belief that their growth extends beyond formal education and work to include the myriad learning opportunities that life offers.

Inclusive leadership practices and models are the scaffolding that supports this philosophy. Leaders across the spectrum of an engineer’s life—from educators in primary schools to mentors in professional settings—are tasked with creating environments that foster inclusivity and encourage the exchange of ideas. Such leadership is not confined to policymaking; it is embodied in the day-to-day interactions that inspire students and professionals to push the boundaries of their understanding and capabilities.

Finally, we must advocate for frameworks and models that drive systemic change through collaborative leadership. The engineering journey is a tapestry woven from the threads of diverse experiences, continuous learning, and inclusive leadership. Let us, as educators and leaders, learning partners at all levels and stages, commit to empowering engineers to embark on this journey with the confidence and support they need to succeed.

What steps are we willing to take today to ensure that inclusivity and lifelong learning become the enduring legacy we leave for future engineers? Let us pledge to create a future where every engineer is a constant learner, fully equipped to contribute to a world that is richly diverse, constantly evolving, and increasingly interconnected.

Associate Dean for Workforce Development

Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering

University of Florida

Idalis Villanueva Alarcón calls deserved attention to new initiatives to enhance engineering education, while also reminding us of a failure of the profession to keep up with the changes it keeps causing. Engineering is the dynamic core of the technological changes and innovations that are mass producing a paradoxical societal fallout: glamorous prosperity and psychopolitical disorder. It’s driving us into an engineered world that is, in aggregate, wealthy and powerful beyond the ability to measure or imagine, yet in which a gap between those who call it home and those who struggle to do so ever widens.

It’s also unclear how much curriculum reform might contribute to the deeper political challenges deriving from the gap between the rich and powerful and those who have been uprooted from destroyed communities.

Villanueva’s call for the construction of a broader engineering curriculum and lifelong learning is certainly desirable; it is also something we’ve heard many times, with only marginal results. It’s also unclear how much curriculum reform might contribute to the deeper political challenges deriving from the gap between the rich and powerful and those who have been uprooted from destroyed communities. For many people, creative destruction is much more destruction than creation.

Should we nevertheless ask why such a salutary ideal has gotten so little traction? It’s complex and all the causes are not clear, but it’s hard not to suspect that just as there is a hidden curriculum in the universities that undermines the ideal, there is another in the capitalist economy to which engineering is so largely in thrall. And what are the hidden curricular consequences of not requiring a bachelor’s degree before enrollment in an engineering school, unlike as is required by schools of law and medicine? If engineering were made a truly professional degree, some of Villanueva’s proposals might not even be necessary.

Professor Emeritus of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

Colorado School of Mines

Idalis Villanueva Alarcón aptly describes the dichotomy within the US engineering education system between the driving need for innovation and an antiquated and disconnected educational process for “producing” engineers. Engineers walk into their fields knowing that what they will learn will be obsolete in a matter of years, yet the curricula remain the same. This dissonance, the author notes, stifles passion and perhaps, critically, the very thing that industry and academia are purportedly seeking—innovation and creative problem-solving. This “hidden curriculum” is one of the insidious tools that dehumanize engineering as not an option for those who want to innovate, to help others, and to be connected to a sustainable environment. Enrollments continue to decline nationally—are any of us surprised? Engineering is out of step with the values of US students and the needs of industry.

Engineering is out of step with the values of US students and the needs of industry.

Parallel to this discussion are data from the latest Business Enterprise Research and Development Survey showing that US businesses spent over $602 billion on research and development in 2021. This was a key driver for many engineering colleges and universities to expand “new” partnerships that were more responsive to developmental and applied research. While many were small and medium-size businesses, the majority were large corporations with more than 1,000 employees. Underlying Villanueva’s discussion are classic questions in engineering education: Are we developing innovative thinkers who can problem solve in engineering? Conversely, are we producing widgets who are paying their tuition, getting their paper, interviewing, getting hired, and logging into a terminal? Assembly lines are not typically for innovative development; they are the hallmarks of product development. No one believes that working with students is a form of assembly line production, yet why does it feel like it is? As access to information increases outside academia, new skills, sources of expertise, and experience arise for students, faculty, and industry to tap. If the fossilization of curricula and behaviors within the academy persists, then other avenues of accessing engineering education will evolve. These may be divergent pathways driven by factors surrounding industry and workforce development.

Villanueva suggests considering a more holistic and integrated approach that seeks to actively engage students’ families and social circles. No one is a stand-alone operation. Engineering needs to account for all of the variables impacting students. I wholeheartedly agree, and would add that by leveraging social capital and clarifying the schema for pathways for students (especially first-generation students), working engineers, educators, and other near peers can help connect the budding engineers to a network of potential support when the courses become challenging or the resources are not obvious. Not only would we begin to build capacity within underrepresented populations, but we also would enable the next-generation workforce to realize their dreams and help provide a community with some basic tools to mentor and support the ones they cherish and want to see succeed.

Research Program Manager

Oregon State University

Cite this Article

“Rethinking Engineering Education.” Issues in Science and Technology 40, no. 2 (Winter 2024).

Vol. XL, No. 2, Winter 2024