ASEE Today
Tomorrow's Engineering Education

By Wallace Fowler

President's Message

Wallace Fowler When examining engineering programs in the United States, we see many faculty members who are 60 years of age and older. Most of them entered engineering—and engineering education—in the post-Sputnik decade (1957-1967), and will retire within the next ten years. As a result, many institutions will lose from one third to one half of their current engineering faculty to retirement before 2010. During this same decade, education as a whole, including engineering education, will undergo a rapid evolution driven by high technology. Thus, we have some problems and some interesting opportunities.

There are at least two major problems when a large number of experienced people leave an organization. The first is finding suitable replacements for those retiring, and the other is loss of the experience base of the retiring personnel. It is a dilemma not only facing engineering education, but other parts of society as well, including the aerospace industry and NASA. In engineering education, the problem of finding suitable replacements for retiring faculty members is complex. The number of engineering doctoral graduates produced by U.S. engineering programs is not large, and the robust economy is providing many opportunities for them. Most doctoral graduates choose not to go into academia.

We need to find ways to attract the best of these graduates to academic careers. One of the most attractive aspects of an academic career has always been the "academic freedom" to research and teach those things that interest you most, and this opportunity still exists for those entering academia today. We must make sure that our best doctoral graduates are fully aware of the opportunities that exist in academia.

The second major problem, the disappearance of the experience base, can be handled in many ways. I suggest an overlap between retiring faculty members and their replacements. The retirees could serve as mentors to those new to academia, giving them advice on courses, teaching, sources of research funding, and other important matters. An ideal situation would be to pair retiring faculty members with their "replacements," letting them work together for a year—writing proposals, team-teaching courses, and advising students, for example. This could be costly, but if money could be found, it would provide a wonderful transition into, and out of, the academic setting for everyone involved.

Higher education has changed significantly over the past four decades, and the environment for new faculty members today is difficult. The demands placed on young engineering faculty members are more daunting every year. We expect young members to generate more funded research, to write more refereed journal articles, to present more papers at technical meetings, and to establish stronger regional, national, and international reputations than ever before. We provide them with "start-up packages" (the institution's initial investment in them) and expect a good return. To help the younger faculty members establish their research programs, we shield them from major committees and administrative tasks. The importance of good teaching is usually stated but is not emphasized.

As a result, the new faculty members who succeed in today's environment are very capable. These new educators, though small in number, provide us with an opportunity to change as higher education changes in the next decade. The new crop is much more comfortable with high-tech tools than their predecessors, and understand better how these tools should and should not be used in teaching tomorrow's engineering students. They are our best hope for successfully making the transition to the academic models that will survive in the 21st century.

However, we need to help these transitions occur. We must add new elements to the academic reward structure that support, encourage, and reward high-tech academic innovation. Development of high-tech course materials—including Web-based, interactive, and CD-ROMs—is a time- and resource- intensive academic design process. We need to create programs that foster innovation without wasting resources.

Multi-institutional teams focused on specific areas, such as courses and topics, should be formed to keep the costs to institutions manageable and faculty participants' time in check. I suggest that the divisions of ASEE select topic areas and form teams to explore the development of such course materials and that young faculty members be given leadership roles on these teams. Engineering education will be different tomorrow. It will either be designed by engineering educators or by others and given to us to implement. We have both older and younger faculty members who can contribute to the design effort. Our future is ours to design. We must rise to the challenge.

Correction

In the November issue of Prism, the contact phone number for the St. Lawrence Section's annual meeting—March 30-31, 2001 at the Rochester Institute of Technology—was listed incorrectly.  The correct number for Robert Ellson is (703) 461-9094.

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