Under ABET's Engineering Criteria 2000, each engineering college is asked to take a fresh look at its programs, identify a vision and goals, and assess how well the programs meet those goals. One hope is that this outcomes-based accreditation process will support and even encourage innovative approaches to undergraduate engineering education.
An approach worthy of serious consideration is a project-based engineering curriculum. Technology and asynchronous learning offer today's students the opportunity to learn most mathematics, science, and engineering science as they need them and largely on their own. An innovative program could motivate students to learn those basic skills "just-in-time" via problems posed in carefully crafted projects. There would still be some lectures, of course, but lecture materials would also be available on video, CD-ROM, via the Internet, or from other sources.
In a project-based curriculum, the role of engineering educator would change dramatically—but the changing needs of engineering graduates and their employers will lead to substantial changes in the role of engineering faculty even in more traditional curricula. In project-based education, faculty interaction with students would predominantly involve advising and mentoring activities.
Early projects would be instructor-defined and require students to master essential mathematical and scientific knowledge and skills. Later ones would allow greater flexibility and develop from discussions between students and faculty members. Projects in the final year and a half of the program would encompass real problems, preferably drawn from corporations with actual needs.
By addressing actual engineering issues, students would learn to solve problems through research, consultation, and trial and error. Their education would thus encompass cross-disciplinary experiences in areas such as intellectual property, ethics, the environment, and economics. Education would mirror activities that graduates will take part in throughout their careers. Perhaps most importantly, students would be learning how to learn. Successfully tackling projects that require acquiring new knowledge will enhance students' confidence, and provide them with an appreciation and enthusiasm for lifelong learning.
To appreciate the potential benefits of a project-based curriculum, consider this month's cover story, "Cleaning Up On Cleaning Up." The article examines industry's profitable new approach to protecting the environment through sustainable development—one example of the new fields and knowledge areas that our graduates need to comprehend. Such broad, multidisciplinary topics may be difficult to cover in a meaningful way in a lecture course, but are well-suited to independent, in-depth exploration in a project environment.
There are many logistical and philosophical issues to address before adopting a project-based system. But in my view, a school taking such an approach to engineering education would discover both a high level of interest from high-quality prospective engineering students, and great employability for those students when they graduate.
As always, I welcome your comments and suggestions.
Frank L. Huband
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