Deconstructing Engineering Education

One of the topics that came up at the recent annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science was the high drop-out rate of kids from engineering programs. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, one group there outlined a broad revamping of engineering curriculum to help address the problem.

In a nutshell, they claim one of the problems is the long list of prerequisites needed to get into advanced engineering courses. It's often tough to line up all the prerequisites because some of them aren't offered regularly, and there are no alternative courses that are acceptable. That's one reason 64% of engineers now take six years to complete a BS degree.

That's also one reason you don't find many people transferring into engineering from other disciplines, they say: No matter what their interest level, doing so would entail sitting through an additional year or two of course work. That's not an appetizing idea for the typical cash-strapped student.

To get a flavor of what's going on, consider this description from the C of HE site:

"At nine schools, they (the work group) identified mechanical engineering courses that covered 2,149 topics. But after closely looking at the coursework, they found a number of similar topics with different names, and narrowed the list of unique topics to 833. Ultimately they grouped the courses on those topics into 12 clusters, each of which contained chains of classes focused around closely related topics, and required few courses from another cluster. The clusters covered all 833 topics, and instructional times ranged from 52 to 115 hours, with an average length of 91 hours. That corresponds, roughly, to four hours of course time each week for one semester on the low end or one year on the high end.

That means, Ms. (Patricia) Campbell (who was formerly a professor at Georgia State University) said, that a mechanical-engineering student could cover all the required topics, but do so in four years, by taking three clusters each year.

It would also, she claimed, meet the standards of the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, because it includes everything that accredited engineering programs do. Mr. (Matthew) Ohland (an associate professor of engineering education at Purdue University), who works as an evaluator for the board, said the accreditor is open to new approaches like these, although he acknowledged there were many of what he called 'horror stories' about the accreditor being very traditional and resistant to change."

Even more interesting are the comments on the Chronicle site about this item. At this writing, there are 49 of them, and many of the comment writers don't seem to have actually read the item: Many of them somehow got the idea the whole effort is aimed at dumbing down the engineering curriculum which, at least from the passage I've quoted above, doesn't seem to be the intent at all here.

You'd have to assume that the main audience for an item on the Chronicle of Higher Education site consists of educators. Many of the people commenting on this item seem to have misunderstood it. What does that say about the reading comprehension level of educators??

The original item is here:

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