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Changing Times

- by Eugene Rutz

The subject of ASEE's upcoming Conference for Industry and Education Collaboration is “Preparing Engineering Leaders for 2020.” I have to admit I've struggled with that theme a bit—it's hard enough to prepare for next week or next semester. How can I possibly prepare for 2020?

But a quick trip down memory lane reminds me that we had better be prepared for change. Here at the University of Cincinnati, for instance, some substantial changes have occurred in the college of engineering in the past 15 years. We have dropped two undergraduate majors, added a new department, combined two other departments, and added program staff for women and minorities designed specifically to encourage these groups of students to study engineering. My hunch is that many engineering programs have experienced as much, if not more, change.

What will engineering education be like in the year 2020? Shifting demographics suggest we should be prepared to educate a much more diverse group of students than the ones populating our classrooms today. If we expect to attract significant numbers of minorities, colleges had better add more professors of Hispanic and African-American origins who are familiar with other cultures and values. And we must bring more women into the faculty ranks as well if we want to increase their numbers in the field. If we take seriously the feedback we receive from industry, the curriculum will include courses that develop interpersonal (communication and leadership) skills. Traditional academic departments are likely to be replaced by ones that span several disciplines. I would suggest departments will have titles such as systems engineering, infrastructure and security, and energy. Computer science will not exist as a separate discipline but will be incorporated into all programs of study.

As important as these adjustments in academic programs might be, I believe the more significant development will be declining funding for education in the states. In a report “State Spending for Higher Education in the Next Decade,” The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education finds that even with normal economic growth, most states will face significant deficits. The report suggests that there will be increased scrutiny of higher education in almost every state and a decrease in funding for public higher education in many. And this is a report written in the boom times of 1999. State budgets are in far worse shape today.

The conditions in many states have created an unfamiliar environment for young people in academia who may never have experienced poor economic times. Staff reductions, larger classes, and less money for equipment and training are part of the new fiscal realities that many programs are facing. The situation is akin to comedian George Carlin's description of “vujà de”:“I've never been here before and it does not look at all familiar,” he cracked. The economic challenges are certainly not limited to academia; many corporations have seen their resources diminish as well. They will likewise face significant challenges in providing training and development programs for their employees.

While budgets are shrinking, it is clear that the need for education that provides a highly skilled technical workforce is increasing, and will continue to increase as we approach 2020. This will have a profound effect on engineering education. It is quite possible that only a third of the current educators will be around in 2020, the others having been unable to adapt academic programs and business models rapidly enough to survive. Another possibility is that “routine content” will be provided via the Web, leaving in-person interaction for only a portion of the courses. University systems may end up with “star” professors delivering lectures to hundreds of students via video or the Web, with in-person sessions relegated to low-paid instructors. State boards will be forced to make difficult decisions on which programs to keep at which institutions.

Resources are decreasing while need is increasing. We'd better prepare for change.

Eugene Rutz is director of engineering professional development and distance learning at the University of Cincinnati.

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