At the crossroads: The future of engineering education

July 22, 2004
U.S. engineering education stands to be marginalized if changes don't come soon. A new initiative called “The Engineer of 2020” aims to shake up the profession

At the Crossroads: The future of engineering education

U.S. engineering education stands to be marginalized if changes don't come soon. A new initiative called “The Engineer of 2020” aims to shake up the profession

G. Wayne Clough, Ph.D., P.E.
Georgia Institute of Technology
Atlanta, Ga

G. Wayne Clough is president of the Georgia Institute of Technology. He chairs the Engineer of 2020 initiative of the National Academy of Engineering's Committee on Engineering Education and is a member of the President's Council on Science and Technology.

It is always dangerous to predict the future. When computers were first created, IBM founder T. J. Watson thought the world might need five or six at most. In 1977, Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corp., felt there was no reason anyone should have a computer in their home. Even Bill Gates was heard to say in 1981 that “640k of memory ought to be enough for anybody.” These men were experts and innovators in the field, and they still got it wrong.

However, despite such uncertainty, it is essential that engineering education become more future oriented and less of an accumulation of reactions to the past.

When I was a student, you could always tell the engineers by the way they looked: crew cut, pocket protector full of pens, and a slide rule hanging from the belt. In those days, engineering graduates sought out jobs at great American companies and worked there for their entire careers.

Today, with the rapid emergence of new interdisciplinary fields like biotechnology and nanotechnology, the lines between engineering disciplines are becoming increasingly interwoven, and the time-honored understanding of engineering as a whole is becoming less distinct. To many people, it is no longer clear where science stops and engineering starts, or even where engineering stops and business begins. It is enough to make one wonder whether the traditional engineer as a species will still exist 50 years from now, or whether engineering will become indistinguishable among the many overlapping disciplines and interdisciplinary combinations.

Today, even an ocean on each flank no longer stops competition from invading U.S. shores. In this global economy, careers can shift with short notice. Rapid-fire Internet linkages and growing, international talent pools are loosening engineering jobs from their local moorings and sending them to nations like Russia, China, and India. Even when American firms have pared costs to the bone, nations like these can still offer a cheaper alternative.

It is clear we cannot compete in this economic climate by offering the same old solutions. The advantages of our global competitors lie at the end of the spectrum where processes and products have been standardized and become routine. Our opportunity is at the other end of the spectrum with creative, innovative, high-end products and services that offer higher value. To lead the way at the high end of the economic spectrum, we need to build an economy based on innovation. However, that raises questions about the science and technology workforce we need for the job.

India and China are emerging as economic powers in part because they are steadfastly investing in building worldclass education systems that produce skilled technology workers such as engineers. Business Week recently reported that India's schools pump out 260,000 engineers a year who will work for salaries much lower than in this country. China graduated more engineers than any other country in the world — more than twice as many as the U.S. — and Russia has a large number of high-quality engineers who are welcoming U.S. companies to open shop there.

In stark contrast on the home front, the number of American students earning engineering degrees began to decline in the early 1980s. For a while we offset that decline at the graduate level by attracting outstanding foreign students to fill our classrooms, and many of them stayed to take jobs in our workforce. However, this trend has now turned downward as other nations improve the quality of their education programs and visas became more difficult to obtain. The international students who still come are much more likely to return home because good jobs now await them in their own countries.

The world economy is presently in a state of transformation, and it is uncertain where all the chips will fall. However, one thing is clear: U.S. engineering education stands to be marginalized if we are passive. The education we provide engineers must prepare them to move beyond merely fulfilling a technological function and become leaders in making wise decisions about technology and setting policies that foster innovation.

Engineers have always been “doers,” but the presence of technology in every aspect of life now calls for us to become “deciders” as well. The skills and perceptions of engineers make us well suited to play broader leadership roles in today's technological world, and the expectations of the world for engineers are higher than in the past. Our challenge is to prepare ourselves and our profession for that responsibility.

This task will require engineers who are creative and ingenious, with strong analytical and teamwork skills. It will require engineers who see themselves as global citizens and their technology as a tool to solve intricate social problems. And it will require enhanced communications with the larger public and greater interaction with government officials in shaping public policy. We can no longer invent technology in a vacuum and put it on the shelf without concerning ourselves with the broader problems it might solve or create. The question is not merely how we can improve a piece of technology, but rather how we can change it to better serve our customers and society as a whole.

To get an idea what engineering's future role will be as a profession and suggest how engineering education can help prepare its graduates for that role, the National Academy of Engineering's Committee on Engineering Education launched the Engineer of 2020 initiative. The report on the first phase of envisioning the future of engineering has just been released, and work will begin this summer on the question of how to educate engineers to prepare them for the year 2020 and beyond.

In the traditional paradigm, change came to engineering curriculum as an after-the-fact response to an industrial or societal development. For example, engineering education responded to the Soviet's successful launch of Sputnik by adding more science-based material to the curriculum. The Engineer of 2020 initiative, a program that examines the future role of the engineering profession, wants to turn that process on its head by thinking creatively about the challenges of the future and examining bold and innovative ideas in engineering education in that light.

Rather than proposing a specific engineering curriculum, this initiative will likely generate several models along a spectrum that ranges from updating and energizing the standard curriculum at the conservative end, to a radical new approach to engineering education at the other end. The final result may be to release engineering education from the constraints of a set, standardized curriculum so that individual institutions can be more creative in developing unique programs that fit their own missions and students as well as society's needs.

Engineering educators have not been sitting on their hands, and the Engineer of 2020 group will closely look at several interesting new models that have already emerged. Dartmouth University and Smith College are pioneering a curriculum with a humanities focus, for example. The military academies offer a model that incorporates strong leadership training. Institutions like Drexel, Northeastern, Kettering, and Georgia Tech incorporate a strong cooperative education component. There are also several newly created engineering schools such as Olin, Smith, and the University of California at Merced, and it will be instructive to see what they do with the opportunity to make a fresh start with no historical baggage to overcome.

One of the first questions to arise in any discussion of engineering education reform is how it will be remotely possible to incorporate new developments into a curriculum already stuffed full. The answer:-Only with great difficulty, and probablytoo slowly if we continue thinking only in terms of what goes on within the conventional classroom in the course of a conventional four-year curriculum.

Of course, new developments can replace old ones, or at least be offered as options to adventurous students. Even institutions that do not want to change their curriculum can teach leadership and communication skills outside the classroom or during summer internships. Georgia Tech, for example, offers students the opportunity to participate in a variety of cocurricular leadership development activities, then provides a cocurricular transcript along with the academic transcript.

Engineering educators can become more vigorous and systematic about building a solid foundation in the social sciences and humanities rather than simply offering a haphazard selection of electives. We can approach environmental sustainability as a mindset rather than a problem-set, so that an awareness and understanding of environmental considerations and ramifications permeates the curriculum and students see their discipline through the prism of sustainability.

Engineering students must also become citizens of the world. The international collaboration that increasingly characterizes engineering work requires graduates to be more knowledgeable and sensitive to broader differences in culture, custom, and the way business is conducted around the world. It has always been difficult to fit traditional study abroad experiences into a curriculum so full of required courses, but we must become more creative with international internships, coop assignments, and exchange programs with high-quality international engineering schools.

One way to address the challenges facing engineering educators is to develop multiple tracks, so that students choose a direction that fits their goals and abilities. The standard curriculum might be maintained as a straight, technological track, while alternate tracks are developed to offer a stronger focus in other areas.

Another idea is to follow the trail alcurriculum-ready blazed by professions like architecture, business, and law, of making the master's degree the first professional degree. This would provide more time for the educational process and make room for important new elements and skills.

Finally, we need to think broadly about lifelong learning, and consider placing greater emphasis on a coherent approach to using professional education programs to serve engineers as their careers advance. The most obvious reason to strengthen our professional education programs and make them more systematic is the shrinking shelf life of technological information. Engineers are finding their technological knowledge and skills need continual updating.

However, it is also clear that as engineers move through their careers and assume greater levels of leadership in business and society, their educational needs continue to evolve. Surveys of recent graduates from engineering schools indicate they wish they had taken more technical courses. By the time they are 10 years into their careers, engineers wish they had taken more courses in business and management, and 20 years after graduation they say they wish they had studied more literature, history, art, and philosophy. A well-structured professional education program can address these changing needs that come with career advancement.

Engineering educators also need to consider their responsibility to help address the abysmal lack of technological literacy in the general public. We have become a people with no clue about the workings of the technology we use, and we are not good at anticipating how it might be abused to cause harm. Even as we search for ways to incorporate more social sciences and humanities into the engineering curriculum, we may also want to promote technological overview courses for students in other fields.

These are some of the topics for discussion as the Engineer of 2020 initiative moves into its second phase of promoting engineering education reform. The focal point for this phase will be an engineering education summit this month at the National Academy of Engineering, which will include leaders from higher education and industry, and produce a report on its findings.

We also need to engage the help of the federal government. The past 10 years have witnessed the decline of federal support for engineering research and the disappearance of scholarship and fellowship programs designed to encourage U.S. students to undertake advanced study. This is a critical problem because we cannot generate the innovation on which our economy increasingly relies without new technology from research and the help of an educated corps of students who have had advanced engineering studies.

The President's Council of Advisors for Science and Technology recently urged the federal agencies that fund R&D to address both of these issues. We have seen some movement in the right direction, but it is not yet comprehensive or compelling enough to reverse the course.

The opportunity clearly exists for engineering to play a much broader and more significant role in society, but engineering education is going to have to offer its students the skills they need to take advantage of that opportunity. The challenge is captured in the words of that philosopher from the Okefenokee Swamp, Pogo, who said, “We are surrounded by insurmountable opportunities.” Rather than battening down the hatches and waiting for the mounting wave of the future to crest over us and wash us away, I believe we can chart a daring course that enables us to play a role in shaping the future of engineering. Rather than allowing engineering to disappear in a sea of interdisciplinary fields, we can craft exciting education programs that let it move to the fore and offer the technological leadership and expertise the world needs to prosper.

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