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LAST WORD - Opinion by John Robertson

Don’t Go It Alone

Single-course innovations rarely produce lasting change in engineering education.

Opinion by Ruth Graham

Undergraduate engineering education is at a crossroads. Reports by the National Academy of Engineering (2002), Royal Academy of Engineering (2007), and Australian Institution of Engineers (1996) concur that traditional undergraduate programs are not equipping graduates with the skills needed for the complex challenges of the 21st century. With few dissenters, the case for fundamental change has been won. However, despite mounting pressure from government and industry, widespread transformation of undergraduate education has yet to occur. Instead, change is slow and piecemeal, and examples of innovative and successful reform remain the exception rather than the rule.

An inquiry last year, sponsored by the Royal Academy of Engineering and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, turned the spotlight on how to achieve lasting change. Enlisting the support of those involved in major programs of engineering education reform, it interviewed 70 international experts from 15 countries. Case studies of significant educational reform were selected from those identified by this expert group. A further 117 individuals were consulted for these case studies, which provided a spectrum of drivers for reform, change strategies, levels of ambition, geographical locations, and stages in the change process.

The study outcomes cast doubt on the wisdom of continuing down the well-trodden road where individual faculty champions drive educational reform, typically within single, isolated courses and with little or no institutional support. Even though this model is widely used by national and international agencies to promote engineering education reform, the report questions its long-term efficacy.

Indeed, the report suggests that course-level reforms benefiting from significant external funding are difficult to sustain. Once the external income stream stops, so does the protection it afforded against significant internal resistance, and the reform loses momentum. This is not to say that course-level innovations are not essential elements in the design, implementation and championing of the change. They are unlikely, however, to stimulate the process of fundamental, disciplinewide educational reform. The inquiry found numerous ambitious examples that ultimately failed because of their curricular isolation and reliance on one or two faculty members.

Fundamental reform requires faculty and institutional ownership.

An alternative, less-traveled path holds much greater potential. A combination of expert insights and case-study evidence points to a set of features common to successful change that are largely independent of geography or institution type. Experience suggests that the chances of success are maximized when whole departments are motivated to undertake radical and coherent curriculum-wide change. Successful systemic change often springs from a widespread acknowledgement among faculty that educational reform is unavoidable; a shared recognition that forges a sense of common purpose. In the majority of cases, a collective sense of urgency is driven by a threat to the market position of the department or school of sufficient magnitude to be apparent to even the most change-averse faculty.

At University College London (UCL), the driving force behind a significantly redesigned curriculum came from a new chairman of the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering, who won institutional and accreditor backing. As in other examples studied, a common purpose grew out of a shared recognition among faculty that educational reform is unavoidable. At the University of Queensland, the impetus for overhauling the chemical engineering curriculum was faculty inspired but drew on a tradition of innovation within the department, active support from the dean, and a careful curriculum design that won over a majority of faculty. Both reforms have endured, with UCL faculty relishing an influx of talented students and Queensland’s program gaining renewed vigor after a few years of lost momentum.

Once institutions realize the competitive advantages that such fundamental change can bring – through improvements in student recruitment, retention, degree profiles, postgraduation employment, and careers – they are likely to embrace it. Such support could serve to catalyze the international reform effort that will be essential to reshaping engineering education across the world.


Ruth Graham is a consultant in engineering education and author of the report, “Achieving Excellence in Engineering Education: The Ingredients of Successful Change” ( This article does not necessarily reflect the views of the Royal Academy of Engineering or MIT. A previous version appeared in the October, 2012 Journal of Engineering Education.

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