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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.


S. Keith Hargrove is Chair of the Industrial,
Manufacturing & Information Engineering Department
in the Clarence Mitchell, Jr. Schoolof Engineering
at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland.


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