By S. Keith Hargrove
A national campaign for engineering education reform has existed for
the past decade or more. And within those last 10 years, the formation
of interdisciplinary programs, revision of accreditation standards,
curricula integration of business and environmental issues, and increasing
the number of engineering graduates have been major initiatives. In
1985, the nation awarded almost 78,000 bachelor’s degrees in engineering,
compared with around 70,000 today. The decline comes at a time when
the United States needs about 200,000 new workers each year in the scientific
and technical arena.
The nation’s requirements and changing demographics have motivated
academia and corporate America to pursue untapped and underrepresented
human capital to expand the pool of engineers. And with some success,
minorities (African- American, Hispanics, and Native Americans) now
represent 12 percent of the undergraduate degrees awarded, and 6.4 percent
of the engineering workforce.
Much of the increase of African-American engineers can be attributed
to the nine accredited Historically Black Colleges and Universities
(HBCUs) with engineering programs. These institutions produce more than
a third of the African- American engineering graduates, yet enroll only
about 20 percent of all African-American students. HBCUs have played
a major role in creating a larger pool of engineers.
The National Academy of Engineering continues to call for reform in
the curricula, pedagogy, faculty rewards, and diversity at the 300-plus
engineering programs. I contend that though these reforms are needed,
an expanded set of reforms are required for HBCUs. Their engineering
programs serve a unique mission. They perform a complex transformation,
taking some students with strong raw potential but deficient skills
and knowledge, and turning them into qualified engineers—and they do
it with limited resources.
Recent data indicate that, on average, engineering students at HBCUs
take longer than the formalized four years to complete their engineering
degree. If as many as 80 percent of the students take at least five
years to complete their degree, then perhaps the “informal” five-year
program should become the “formal” five-year program.
I propose that HBCU engineering programs differentiate themselves from
other traditional programs by having three curriculum tracks for the
unique students they serve—admittedly, a controversial move. The first
track would be for those able to complete the program in four years
and would give them the option of graduating or completing an additional
one-year advanced professional degree. The second track would offer
a dual five-year B.S./master of engineering degree program, currently
available at many institutions, to promote engineering professionalism.
A re-formed five-year “contemporary” B.S. program would provide more
flexibility to include non-technical and leadership skills and business
and environmental knowledge that industry demands of all graduates.
A redesigned and re-sequenced five-year program would also allow for
a third track with more design projects integrated throughout the curriculum.
This would promote inquiry and problem-based learning, information technology,
and systems thinking. This would also increase the number of credit
hours needed to graduate, contrary to the current curriculum trends.
A task force of the National Society of Professional Engineers expressed
concern over this disturbing trend of reducing the credit hours required
to obtain a “professional” degree.
The challenge, then, is to convince students, parents, industry, legislators,
and other constituents of the benefits of such a move. Graduating with
strong skills, knowledge, and abilities will make HBCU graduates unique
and more in demand. HBCU programs have an opportunity to “lead” the
reform effort, by taking action to serve their unique group of constituents,
and to become an engineering education model for the nation.