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LAST WORD - Opinion by John Robertson

Just-in-Time Education

We need structures that support, not discourage, lifelong learning.

By Charles M. Vest

Yesterday’s structures for postdegree engineering education aren’t working for today’s world, and they certainly won’t work for tomorrow’s. That’s the lesson I took away from reading “Lifelong Learning Imperative in Engineering,” the recent monograph by University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana Associate Provost Debasish Dutta and his colleagues on lifelong learning for engineers. (Full disclosure: I wrote the monograph’s Foreword.) The publication, available on the National Academy of Engineering’s website, is the product of two conferences organized by the University of Illinois in partnership with the NAE, plus some strategic research. It clearly explains why today’s engineering profession needs more than just the standard graduate-degree approach and makes a compelling case for radically overhauling the system. Nothing less than a new infrastructure will do.

We all know that much of an engineer’s learning will occur outside academia — no matter how much we cram into our degree programs. I don’t mean learning so-called practical skills like navigating corporate politics or dealing with contractors and government officials. I mean real engineering knowledge: what works, what’s being studied, and how to combine knowledge from different fields.

To acquire that knowledge, engineers need to be lifelong learners. That is hardly a controversial statement. Nor is it controversial to say that our country’s short-term and long-term competitiveness depends on broadening the base of engineering graduates and improving the depth of learning at every stage of an engineer’s career. While much has been done and written about broadening the engineering base, very little attention has been paid to helping engineers become lifelong learners.

To get a sense of what’s needed, imagine you’re an engineer who wants to learn more about a new technology that could help your company develop a new product. How do you do that? Besides trolling through complicated literature, the only option is to take some graduate-level class near you or online. You may have to enroll in a degree program to take the course, and the course will more than likely contain far more information than you need to know. Then there’s the lack of professional incentive. If the course isn’t part of pursuing a degree, your employer probably won’t support it or even recognize your accomplishment when you complete it. How odd! At a time when it’s easy for an expert in academia or industry to teach a short class to engineers around the globe via the Internet, it’s hard for an engineer to find such a class, and even harder to be recognized, as a matter of professional development, for taking the class.

We need a cultural shift in the engineering world, which means every stakeholder must play a part. Specifically, national engineering associations such as IEEE, ASCE, AIChE, ASME, and others should lead the way, developing new expectations, standards, and paradigms for lifelong learning. To do this as quickly as possible, partnership with ABET is essential. Universities and colleges must stress the importance of lifelong learning to their engineering students, include a hands-on training component in every undergraduate and graduate course, and develop new courses, seminars, webinars, and other programs to support lifelong learning for practicing engineers.

Engineers, associations, universities, and companies must join a cultural shift.

Businesses should foster a learning-friendly culture for their engineers that includes expectations for ongoing study, material support for lifelong learning, and recognition of all educational achievements. Industry also should work closely with engineering societies and universities to develop courses that meet the needs of their engineers.

Policymakers should enact tax credits and other policies that encourage businesses, especially small- and medium-sized firms, to support lifelong learning for engineers. Policy makers should encourage agencies like NSF and the U.S. Department of Energy to work with universities, professional societies, and businesses to develop a robust lifelong learning infrastructure. Finally, engineers must embrace lifelong learning as the norm and urge employers and universities to offer courses, webinars, and other programs that meet their needs.

Dutta and his colleagues make it clear that engineers definitely are interested in lifelong learning and that the tools for a new infrastructure exist. Where they don’t, let’s think like engineers and invent those tools. So read the monograph, then do your part to radically improve postdegree learning for current and future engineers.

Charles M. Vest is president of the National Academy of Engineering and president emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Dutta report can be found at

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