Teaching From A Clean Slate

Ingenious new engineering programs stress teamwork, creativity, business, society

5 min read
Teaching From A Clean Slate

downs and ups in us bachelor degrees in engineering 1991-2000

By almost any measure, the numbers look grim: in the United States, engineering enrollments are flat, despite a surge in the overall college student population and despite a burgeoning demand for technically trained professionals. Since a peak in 1986, the number of engineering bachelor's degrees has declined by 19 percent, according to data from the Engineering Workforce Commission of the American Association of Engineering Societies, in Washington, D.C. During the 1990s, degrees in electrical and electronic engineering suffered the most serious drop, from nearly 20 000 to less than 13 000 [see table]. Though some subfields like computer science and biomedical engineering have seen strong growth, others, like aerospace and nuclear engineering, now graduate fewer than half as many students as they did 10 years ago.

Things are just as bad in other industrialized countries, including Japan, Germany, and the UK. "The need to attract and retain students in engineering is prevalent in almost all countries today," observed Michael S. Wald, editor of the International Journal of Engineering Education, based at Ireland's Dublin Institute of Technology. Wald's own country "is desperately in need of many thousands of engineers and IT [information technology] specialists," he said.

Perhaps most frustrating, concerned educators, administrators, and engineers the world over have long discussed the enrollment problem and why the discipline turns off would-be engineers. The reasons range from the perception that engineering is not a stable profession (remember the layoffs of the 1980s and 1990s), to poor high school preparation in math and science, to ignorance of what engineers do and why anyone would want to be one.

Then, too, there is the way in which engineering is taught: professors delivering dense monologues to packed lecture halls; grueling introductory courses seemingly designed to weed students out; endless problem sets unrelated to real-world applications.

William Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), in Washington, D.C., laments this kind of "boot camp" pedagogic model. "Engineering is very creative," he said. "It's such an enjoyable activity. But the traditional methods of teaching it aren't."

"It's not just that the traditional curriculum is dry--which it is," agreed Jill Tietjen, assistant to the dean of engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder. What is also missing is why engineering matters. As freshmen and sophomores, she said, "students are bombarded with 'gateway' courses, such as calculus, physics, or chemistry. They don't get exposed to any of the fun stuff! They study without any understanding of what they're doing or where it's going. Without that full picture, it doesn't make sense."

The fun stuff includes collaborating with other students and working engineers on research projects, designing and building new products, and debating the social consequences of technical decisions. Such activities convey immediately that engineering is about solving real problems and helping people.

The slow road to reform

For all the hand-wringing over dreary curricula and unstimulating classrooms, reform has been slow in arriving. Legislative and administrative constraints work against it, said Wald. In the European Union (EU), for example, countries have been reluctant to recognize that others also turn out good engineers. Even so, he added, the EU, through a program called the European credit transfer system, is working hard "to harmonize engineering education, make sure that degree programs are compatible, and ease the transfer of students between countries and institutions."

Change is on the way in the United States, too. Last year, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), in Baltimore, Md., at long last unveiled its new criteria for evaluating U.S. engineering schools [see IEEE Spectrum, September 2000, pp. 63­67]. Rather than simply tallying the courses students take, the criteria now focus on a student's mastery of specific concepts and processes. The hope is that this approach will free up departments to design courses that are more current and more effective.

It's still too early to judge the criteria's long-term effects. So far, said Don Hodge, ABET's director of accreditation, he has seen "small but perceptible" curricular changes at perhaps 20 schools, and significant changes at a few. That, however, is out of hundreds of programs the board has evaluated.

"Everyone agrees in a heartbeat that the only time available in engineering schools is for the fundamentals," Wulf said. "But there's no consensus on what those are." Not long ago, to prove that the teaching of engineering need not be uninspired, the NAE established a new prize for education. Named for donor Bernard Gordon, chairman of Peabody, Mass.­based Analogic Corp., it carries a cash award of US $500 000--the same as the academy's major awards for research, the Draper and Russ prizes. Half of the money will go to an educator or a team of up to four educators who have devised an innovative educational program; the rest goes to the winner's institution.

"Peer recognition is crucial to academia," said Wulf. "I am very hopeful that this prize will have a big impact."

New answers to old problems

Still, the road ahead is long. Those teaching traditional engineering were themselves taught in much the same way. They may sense that their courses discourage students, but not know how to fix them.

Recently, several programs have started up in hopes of changing the face of engineering education. Smith College has created the first-ever engineering department at a U.S. women's college; its goal is to produce well-rounded engineers whose technical competence is complemented by an understanding of societal issues. The Franklin W. Olin College, in Needham, Mass., is the first independent engineering college to be founded in the United States in more than four decades; students there are now helping professors design the curriculum, one that, it is hoped, retains the creativity and fun of engineering.

Meanwhile, engineering students at the University of Colorado at Boulder get to see how the theoretical underpinnings are transformed into real-world products; through the school's Integrated Teaching and Learning Laboratory, they work in small teams to design and build their own products. Industry-sponsored projects, along with project management skills, are also the focus for engineering students at Switzerland's University of Applied Sciences Solothurn.

To be sure, these new programs are but a sampling of recent attempts to revitalize engineering education. Though each school takes a different tack, a unifying factor is a willingness to rethink their pedagogical role from the bottom up. In the final analysis, the success of these efforts will be judged not by how good their programs look on paper, or how many grants or awards they garner, but by how well their graduates do once they go out into the real world.

­Jean Kumagai, Editor

About the Author

CAITLIN KELLY is a free-lance writer based in Tarrytown, N.Y.

To Probe Further

Uninspired curricula and teaching are of course not the only reasons students stay away from engineering and science. Talking About Leaving: Why Undergraduates Leave the Sciences, by Elaine Seymour and Nancy M. Hewitt (Westview Press, Boulder, Colo., 1997) explores the matter in greater depth.

Information about the four engineering programs profiled in the article is available on the Web: Olin College, https://www. olin.edu; Smith College's Picker Engineering Program, https:// www.science.smith.edu/departments/Engin/; the Integrated Teaching and Learning Laboratory at the University of Colorado, at Boulder, https://itll.colorado.edu; and the University of Applied Sciences Solothurn, https://www.fhso.ch.


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