Engineering schools change with the times

July 25, 2002
Colleges still stress engineering fundamentals, but they’ve also added some new twists.

Engineering schools sure aren't what they used to be just 10 or 20 years ago. They've shed classes in machine shop and how to manipulate the slide rule, but they're still responsible for turning out the well-trained engineers who keep economies humming and civilizations safe. One of the challenges facing colleges today is how to introduce students to all the technologies, computer tools, and design techniques that have been and are being developed, and all in the four-year time frame introduced over 100 years ago.

To learn how colleges are coping with the technology explosion, we interviewed several engineering deans and department heads.

A common goal
The objective for engineering schools is universal: Turn out graduates with strong backgrounds in basic engineering and science, and good work ethics, who can learn new tasks and information on their own. The idea of lifelong learning is vital. "We impress on students that their GPA, major, and what they learn are only tickets to the race," says Professor Ward Winer, head of Mechanical Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology. "If they don't continue learning at whatever career they go into, they won't be very successful."

At Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, the objectives have been somewhat formalized. Students must show proficiency in five areas: Mastery of fundamentals, creativity, leadership, professionalism, and societal awareness. "Granted, most time is spent on the fundamentals, but the faculty is doing an outstanding job of integrating the others into classes, starting in freshmen year," says Robert Savinell, Engineering Dean at CWRU.

"Creativity, for example, is taught by giving students the opportunity to ‘think out of the box,' letting them use the fundamentals they've learned innovatively rather than by rote," says Savinell. He is convinced this method is working. "Many of our grad students come from countries with tightly regimented curricula. Case students, on the other hand, have much broader exposure to the humanities and are encouraged to think independently and innovatively when examining open-ended problems. So our students can handle problems that aren't typical textbook problems. They look at them from different angles and approaches, and wind up with creative solutions. Grad students from more regimented and technical programs often don't see a clear technical solution and get stuck."

Leadership, professionalism, and societal awareness are a little more difficult to impart. Many colleges have ethics courses, for example, but they're not mandatory. "Like creativity, we try to inject these objectives into courses throughout a student's four year career," says Savinell. "And they usually do arise, especially in design courses where they work in teams. Leadership, for example, involves learning how to work in groups and, in some cases, heading up the group."

Research labs and engineering companies, the ultimate consumers of engineering graduates, also have some say in how engineering curricula are established. At the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois, Urbana, for example, like at many other colleges, the faculty meets with industry advisory boards and has joint programs with industry that help lay out new courses and areas of study.

At Georgia Tech, a 25-person advisory board includes about 20 successful alumni now with large and small companies, and a few academics from other institutions. They meet annually to review the school's various programs. "We also survey graduating seniors and alumni that graduated five and 10 years ago," says Winer. "And we talk to recruiters who come on campus to hire graduates. Of course, recruiters always want to hire someone who can be productive from the very first day, but we explain we are purposefully giving students a broad education. We are not a vocational school and cannot teach narrowly to one or two specific jobs."

Naturally students get exposed to industry practices and tools in some courses, especially design-related courses. So they do get some hands-on training on up-to-date hardware and software, as well as advanced engineering tools such as rapid prototyping, FEA, and CAD/CAM. And since there are more design-related courses now then there were a decade ago, students are getting a better look at what day-to-day engineering might be like.

"The history of engineering education shows that the pendulum swings periodically between practical engineering experience and engineering science," points out Prof. Dick K. P. Yue, Assoc. Dean of Engineering at MIT. "Over the past decade, the pendulum has swung toward the practical with many degree programs adding more design experiences into their curricula. I don't expect that trend to shift back to engineering science any time soon."

Another way students get exposed to reallife engineering is through co-op programs. They let students alternate between attending college full-time one semester and working full-time as an engineering intern the next. The programs also put cash in students' pockets, often providing enough for tuition and living expenses for the college semesters. Participation varies, with some schools having less than 10% of the students enrolled, while others have up to 60% of the students involved.

"Students benefit from co-op programs in many ways," notes Winer. "It helps pay for school, it gives them a better feel for what engineering is really like, and they seem to be more responsive, more interested in classroom material because they know how it will be applied."

At Case, the administration has moved coop programs from the placement office to the engineering school and integrated it into academics, tying it closer to the teaching end of the university. "We ask the students to talk about their co-op experience with other students and faculty," says Savinell. "They even write up a report. And we assess each outside job to ensure they are right for the students."

Changing courses
Most engineering schools have a core of classes all students take in their freshmen and sophomore years. It consists of the basics: math, physics, chemistry, and at some schools, statics, circuits, materials, and transport phenomenon. Savinell would like to add cellular biology to that core to keep students in touch with genomics and other advances in medicine. Having an engineering core gives students flexibility, letting them switch majors and schools in midcollege without losing time. "The flexibility is good for high-school students because most aren't really sure what they want to do with their lives," says Winer.

With the engineering core, many students never see a course closely related to their major until junior year. To keep students interested, engineering schools have pushed discipline-specific courses down to the freshman and sophomore levels. "This does makes it harder to switch majors," says Winer, "But it keeps the students connected to their majors."

At MIT, each engineering program has developed its own basic courses that are generally completed the first year. "The faculty has discussed creating a common engineering core for all first and second year students, and we may develop this idea over the next few years," says Yue.

Courses also have to change to reflect the onslaught of new technologies and engineering tools. Faculties constantly adapt courses and juggle requirements. "But there will always be professors who use the same textbooks and notes for 30 or 40 years," says Winer. "However most professors are generally dissatisfied with what they did the last time and want to improve. There are always issues under review and evolving."

One approach, the one favored at MIT, is to develop curriculum that focuses on abilities students need as engineers, rather than trying to pack in more content. FEA, for example, might be taught to Mechanical Engineering students, but only mentioned to other students as it pertains to their engineering discipline. Schools are also developing five-year BS-MS degree programs that combine technical knowledge, practical research, and design experience.

Another obvious solution is to drop subjects and topics. "In the 1950s and 60s, for example, everyone spent some time learning to use the slide rule, now you can't find one," notes Winer. "Similarly, students once used pencil and paper graphic solutions for kinematic problems. They don't do that anymore either."

Another approach is to include fundamentals in courses where they are used and tailor courses for different majors. "Right now we teach a course on differential equations to all engineering students," says Savinell. "Perhaps if we examined the goals of that class, we'd discover we want students to be able to solve first-order equations, work a bit with secondorder equations, and know how to handle certain classes of problems. Maybe we could teach all that in the required course on transfer phenomenon, which uses all those skills. Then we could do away with the basic course in differential equations."

Another set of courses that have gone the way of the slide rule are those concerning mechanical drawing, model building, and how to prepare blueprints. In most cases, they've been replaced with courses like Visual Communication, a freshmen-level course at Georgia Tech. It teaches freehand sketching and then moves quickly to computer drawing and modeling, solid modeling, tolerancing, and rapid prototyping. "It gives students skills in drawing and visualization they can use in analysis and design throughout their college career," says Winer.

Engineering colleges are also integrating the "softer" side of the disciplines vertically through the college experience. They include communications, teamwork, and a more global, business attitude toward engineering. And more classes use teams to solve problems.

"About 10 years ago in our Mechanical Engineering Dept., we instituted what we call the Little Red Schoolhouse program to boost students' communication skills," recalls Winer. "We hired a communication specialist, Jeffrey Donnel, a Ph.D. in English, to teach writing and speaking skills so students could more effectively explain and present their technical work. He critiques reports and presentations, and helps them build skills during their entire college career."

As Dean Savinell at Case points out: "There used to be emphasis on communications only in the senior year when students gave project presentations. "Now, with projects scattered through all four years, we emphasize communication skills in all courses, integrating them vertically throughout the curriculum."

Another aspect getting attention is the process of starting technology-based businesses. "There's much more interest in the entrepreneurial end of engineering," says Savinell. "Twenty years ago or so, it was pretty much accepted that you would graduate and go to work with a large company. Now, more and more students are thinking of starting their own companies by taking some technology and transitioning it to the market. We are examining what we should do to the curriculum to give them this business background."

The most important lesson
We asked faculty members at several engineering colleges what they thought the most important thing a student should learn in engineering school.

"The most important things are the fundamentals of engineering science, basic thinking, and the problem-solving skills that will help an engineer learn, grow, and be effective over their full career." — David E. Daniel, Dean of the College of Engineering, University of Illinois, Urbana.

"How to think." — Dick K. P. Yue, Assoc. Dean of Engineering and Professor of Hydrodynamics and Ocean Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"Learn how to learn for yourself and work hard. And learn the engineering fundamentals and how to apply them to the physical world." — Ward Winer, Chairperson of the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering, Georgia Institute of Technology.

"How to think in terms of a quantitative, rational way of applying fundamental principles together to solve a problem." — Robert Savinell, Dean of Engineering, Case Western Reserve University.

Computers on campus
Although computers (PCs, not the mainframes of the 70s) and wired dorms and classrooms are the norm on today's campuses, faculty agree that hardware and software will not dominate courses. Instead, computers will supplement and compliment engineering education. For example, professors use computers, along with basic engineering software, to show principles in action, letting students skip time-consuming number crunching and graphing. Professors also introduce students to industry-standard software packages, usually by sophomore year, and let them continue mastering the software and principles behind them throughout their college careers.

Computers are also changing the way colleges teach engineering. On campus, students use computers and the Internet to submit homework and reports, and to "talk" with faculty advisors. "In many cases, e-mail replaces office hours for professors," says one engineering grad. Computers also extend the campus borders. At Georgia Tech, for instance, about 120 students are working toward their masters in mechanical engineering via a distance-learning program, one that relies heavily on computers and the Internet. "Over the past three years, with help from the Sloan Foundation, we've put 23 masters-level courses on the Internet for distance-learning programs, including lecture notes, homework, and supplementary information," says Ward Winer, head of the school's Mechanical Engineering Dept.

Engineering colleges are also changing the way they teach basic computer technology, though it is still common for students brought up on hardware and software to teach faculty members a thing or two as well. "Introductory courses on computing will likely be split into two or three mainstreams of beginning computer courses at Georgia Tech, for example" says Winer. "Computer, systems and controls, and industrial engineering, as well as business majors focusing on operations research, will concentrate on chasing bits and bytes, and writing code. Other students, such as those in mechanical, electrical, and aerospace engineering, on the other hand, will focus on using and understanding computer tools, with only a cursory look at following the bits and bytes, and almost no code writing."

Then there are those classes taught by older professors who have yet to incorporate computers in any way in courses they teach.


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