A Topical Analysis of Mechanical Engineering Curricula

By Jarosz, Jeffrey P.; Busch-Vishniac, Ilene J. | Journal of Engineering Education, July 2006 | Go to article overview
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A Topical Analysis of Mechanical Engineering Curricula

Jarosz, Jeffrey P., Busch-Vishniac, Ilene J., Journal of Engineering Education


This study has dissected the current curriculum in mechanical engineering into a list of required topics. The list indicates what material is currently considered to be the essential body of knowledge for graduating mechanical engineering students. It also provides a measure of the extent to which curricula differ from institution to institution. There is similarity in core material required among the institutions which we considered, but each one adds distinct requirements which give it an individual flavor or emphasis. The list reveals some of the differences among degree programs. While institutions have adjusted curricula to conform to the ABET engineering criteria, how they fulfill the "technical skill" outcomes is clearer than how they fulfill the "professional skill" outcomes. This survey shows that dissecting a degree program into required topics is useful for curriculum reform, as it provides a baseline to study the curriculum at a level more finely grained than a course.

Keywords: curriculum, mechanical, topic


Estimates of unfilled jobs in the United States requiring technology skills range from 500,000 to one million [1]. In the U.S., the number of students earning engineering baccalaureates each year is roughly 73,000 [2]. Thus, unless we increase the proportion of students who choose to study engineering, we will find it impossible to meet the increasingly technical needs of business and other organizations in the public and private sectors.

Despite these workforce shortages, the engineering curricula in academic institutions have hardly changed in decades and course tides vary little from institution to institution. Engineering curricula have traditionally been structured with critical paths that tend to be quite long. For instance, one must take calculus before physics, physics before statics, statics before dynamics, etc. The net result is that the traditional engineering program requires a commitment to the field from freshman year, or an acceptance that a degree will take more than four years to earn. This discourages students with limited exposure to engineering prior to college from ever joining the technically trained workforce.

Further, the current auricular structure tends to divorce academic fundamentals from applications, which are presented only in the advanced courses during junior and senior year. Most freshmen and sophomores have not been exposed to engineering as it is practiced [3].

These factors prompt a high attrition rate from engineering, currently 38 percent of majority students and 64 percent of minority students [4, 5]. The result is a culture of exclusion, in which pride is invested in how arduous a program is, rather than a culture of inclusion that would strive to maximize the success of all students expressing an interest in engineering as a career.

In this context, our goal is to take a fresh look at the engineering course requirements with an aim of making the field more attractive without sacrificing technical rigor. We believe that this is possible through greater integration of engineering, science, and mathematics; integration of nontechnical and technical subject matter; shorter critical paths; greater focus on the impact of engineering on the human experience; and more and better team experiences [6-8].

We have chosen to focus our immediate attention on mechanical engineering. Mechanical is the largest of the engineering disciplines. It ranks first in undergraduate enrollment and first in the number of baccalaureates awarded, accounting for 19.4 percent of all engineering baccalaureates in 2004 [2]. Mechanical engineers comprise 16.3 percent of the total engineering workforce [9].

There is a team of eight academic institutions working on this project. The members are California State University at Los Angeles, Howard University, Johns Hopkins University, Michigan State University, Smith College1, Stevens Institute of Technology, Tuskegee University, and the University of Washington.

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