The Competence Dilemma in Engineering Education: Moving beyond Simple Graduate Attribute Mapping

Article excerpt

1 INTRODUCTION

Since the early 1990s, engineering education has seen a significant paradigm shift from what was previously an input, content and process orientation towards a system based on educational outcomes. Prominent examples for this development in the context of the drastic social, economic and technological changes are both the 1994 ASEE report "Engineering Education for a Changing World" (ASEE, 1994) and Engineers Australia's 1996 review "Changing the Culture: Engineering Education into the Future" (Engineers Australia, 1996). These reports led to the development of ABET's Program Outcomes (ABET, 1995; 2004) in the US and the Australian Graduate Attributes (Engineers Australia, 2005), respectively. Both systems of educational outcomes brought two fundamental changes in engineering education. Firstly, this development changed the underlying instructional principle of engineering education. More specifically, the aspirational attributes postulated in the respective reports were turned into binding outcomes of the educational process. In the paradigm of outcomes-based education, the teacher selects and delivers specific learning activities which can be mapped to the achievement of defined attributes or competencies--we call this targeted instruction (Walther et al, 2006b). Secondly, the scope of education was extended to encompass the broader aspects of engineering practice, such as cultural and social awareness (eg. Graduate Attribute vii in Engineers Australia, 2005), and an explicit commitment to the preparation of students for current professional practice (Engineers Australia, 1996). This trend of reclaiming the preparation of students for professional practice was recently confirmed in an editorial for the

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European Journal of Engineering Education. In this article, Denis Lemaitre (2006) expresses the view that the preparation "of students for professional competence has always been the ultimate goal of engineering curricula" (pp. 45).

However, several authors indicate that engineering education still falls short of the goal of preparing students adequately for professional practice. A recent report of the Business Council of Australia (BCA, 2006), an organisation representing the leading 100 corporations in Australia, claims that engineering graduates have deficiencies with respect to crucial job skills such as "problem-solving, communication or entrepreneurship" (pp. 14). With respect to the situation in the US, Wulff (2002) observes that "many of the students who make it to graduation enter the workforce ill-equipped for the complex interactions ... of real world engineering systems" (pp. 35). These are indications that industry requires a more adequate preparation of graduates for the job tasks of real-world engineering. Conversely, "much of the energy in teaching and learning in universities is still focused on developing the observable skills and knowledge dimension" (Radcliffe, 2005), rather than the less easily observable attributes required by industry. This disconnectedness shows that the concept of outcomes-based education in today's application to engineering education has not been able to fully prepare students for the changing demands of professional practice and also that broader aspects of competence have not found their way into the wider practice of education.

This problem is not simply an issue of the quality of instructional design and teaching delivery. This paper shows that the roots of the problem lie at a more fundamental level, which we call the competency dilemma in engineering education. On the basis of a theoretical analysis, results of research into alternative forms of competency acquisition suggest a more holistic view of competence. As a result of the empirical study, a multi-scale systems model of engineering competence is proposed. Finally the usefulness of this systems model of learning and competence in overcoming the described dilemma is discussed. …