Future of Engineering Education

How engineer’s are educated in an increasingly complex world is of great importance to developing nations. STEM participation rates are also dropping which will have a big impact on their future competitiveness. Education budgets are under pressure as funds are being directed towards supporting an aging population. At MIT’s Sociotechnical Systems Research Center (SSRC) Professor Daniel Hastings, the Cecil and Ida Green Education Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Engineering Systems at MIT, recently presented Beyond The Engineer of 2020 giving his views on the past, present, and future directions of engineering education in the US which is largely applicable to all developed countries.

Specialism vs Systems Holistic Thinking

The biggest challenge for educating future engineers in a world with rapidly expanding knowledge, complexity, and uncertainty is balancing the tendency to focus in narrower specialty engineering disciplines while still maintaining the a practical understanding of the ‘big picture’ system in a real world context – the “T” shaped person. Industry requires “T” shaped engineers to sustain competitive advantage.  In support of this trend Hastings’ described that the attributes of future engineers should include:

  • Strong analytical skills
  • Practical ingenuity and creativity
  • Good communication skills
  • Business management and leadership skills
  • High ethical standards, professionalism
  • Dynamic, agile, resilient, flexible
  • Lifelong learner
  • Able to put problems in their socio-technical and operational context

Engineering programs are constrained in time, cost, and faculty experience so fully developing a “T” shaped engineer has and will continue to be challenging in a four-year degree without fundamental change. Hastings provides several examples of how change is being implemented at several US universities.  Hastings also described recent recommendations to: introduce engineering students to the iterative design-build-test paradigm earlier in the program (think Lean Startup); hire more industry experienced faculty; and professionally develop existing faculty.

Hastings’ diagram of skills-attitudes-knowledge capture very well how modern engineering education has moved away from skills based practical application to knowledge or science based emphasis degrading most new entry engineer’s practical skills. The trend towards more research oriented universities has supported this trend and expanded the gap between engineering university programs and technical college programs who are much better prepared to enter the work force and be productive from day one.

New Learning Tools

The broad use of digital and mobile technologies has made the mankind’s collective knowledge available to everyone with an internet connection levelling the world’s playing field. The importance of on-line learning as an enabler of change is beginning to make impact.

Less structured and decentralized learning methods were recently explored by Joshua Davis in Wired magazine.  Davis observed that traditional school emphasis on reading, writing, and arithmetic was not preparing students for modern work that place high importance on developing teamwork, problem-solving, and interpersonal skills. Davis also observed that new teaching methods are oriented towards knowledge building from curiosity-fuelled exploration.

Hastings looked at the impact of on-line learning tools on engineering education in terms of rethinking the pedagogy of engineering education, opportunity to share knowledge world-wide, and opportunity to change the cost of engineering program delivery. Hastings observed that on-line education enables alternate pathways for student learning, modular learning packages that does not necessarily fit the semester structure, and increased interaction. He also talks about the seamless integration of learning from under grads to alums, blended education, and demand pull learning.

The importance of reading, writing, and arithmetic will never decline because cases of poor writing skills are well-known in most industries. The key challenge is how to efficiently and effectively develop a broader set of skills in the time and budget available and certainly on-line learning is clearly making this possible.

Gender Demographics Remains a Challenge

Finally, the continued  under representation of women in engineering remains a challenge. Hastings presents some interesting historical trend data (slides 48, 49, 55) suggesting the best ways to improve participation rates are: role models; summer programs; research experiences; professional development activities; academic support & social integration; and mentoring.

Budget pressure on education, global competition, and falling STEM participation rates suggests that engineering education is at a tipping point requiring faculty leadership to chart a radical new course for change based on new approaches, greater interdisciplinary collaboration, far greater industry collaboration, and balanced gender participation if new engineering graduates are to be properly prepared for an increasingly complex world.

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