A Makeover for Engineering Education: Today's Engineering Schools Are Not Preparing Their Graduates as Well as They Might for Useful Practice in the 21st Century. (Perspectives)

By Wulf, Wm. A.; Fisher, George M. C. | Issues in Science and Technology, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

A Makeover for Engineering Education: Today's Engineering Schools Are Not Preparing Their Graduates as Well as They Might for Useful Practice in the 21st Century. (Perspectives)


Wulf, Wm. A., Fisher, George M. C., Issues in Science and Technology


Hollywood directors are said to be only as good as their last picture. Maintaining their reputations means keeping up the good work--continuing to do encores that are not only high-quality but that fully reflect the tastes and expectations of the time.

A similar measure applies to engineers. Though we are fresh from a whole century's worth of major contributions to health, wealth, and the quality of life, there is trouble in paradise: The next century will require that we do even more at an even faster rate, and we are not sufficiently prepared to meet those demands, much less turn in another set of virtuoso performances.

The changing nature of international trade and the subsequent restructuring of industry, the shift from defense to civilian applications, the use of new materials and biological processes, and the explosion of information technology--both as part of the process of engineering and as part of its product--have dramatically and irreversibly changed the practice of engineering. If anything, the pace of this change is accelerating. But engineering education--the profession's basic source of training and skill--is not able to keep up with the growing demands.

The enterprise has two fundamental, and related, problems. The first regards personnel: Fewer students find themselves attracted to engineering schools. The second regards the engineering schools, which are increasingly out of touch with the practice of engineering. Not only are they unattractive to many students in the first place, but even among those who do enroll there is considerable disenchantment and a high dropout rate (of over 40 percent). Moreover, many of the students who make it to graduation enter the workforce ill-equipped for the complex interactions, across many disciplines, of real-world engineered systems. Although there are isolated "points of light" in engineering schools, it is only a slight exaggeration to say that students are being prepared to practice engineering for their parents' era, not for the 21st century.

What's needed is a major shift in engineering education's "center of gravity," which has moved virtually not at all since the last shift, some 50 years ago, to the so-called "engineering science" model. This approach--which emphasizes the scientific and mathematical foundations of engineering, as opposed to empirical design methods based on experience and practice--served the nation well during the Cold War, when the national imperative was to build a research infrastructure to support military and space superiority over the Soviet Union. But times have clearly changed, and we must now reexamine that engineering-science institution, identify what needs to be altered, and pursue appropriate reforms.

An agenda for change

Engineering is not science or even just "applied science." Whereas science is analytic in that it strives to understand nature, or what is, engineering is synthetic in that it strives to create. Our own favorite description of what engineers do is "design under constraint." Engineering is creativity constrained by nature, by cost, by concerns of safety, environmental impact, ergonomics, reliability, manufacturability, maintainability -- the whole long list of such "ilities." To be sure, the realities of nature is one of the constraint sets we work under, but it is far from the only one, it is seldom the hardest one, and almost never the limiting one.

Today's student-engineers not only need to acquire the skills of their predecessors but many more, and in broader areas. As the world becomes more complex, engineers must appreciate more than ever the human dimensions of technology, have a grasp of the panoply of global issues, be sensitive to cultural diversity, and know how to communicate effectively. In short, they must be far more versatile than the traditional stereotype of the asocial geek. …

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