PRISM Magazine On-Line  - November 1999
ASEE Today
President's Message - Input/Output

by John Weese

Have you heard the term "garbage in/garbage out?" The computer age brought us this term, giving it the acronym GIGO. Given the concern about the qualifications of high-school graduates reflected in recent studies, it's tempting to conclude that the quality of engineering and engineering technology graduates is destined to dive. After teaching sophomore engineering mechanics courses three times in the past two years, I offer some observations that the GIGO complex isn't imminent.

Students aren't as ill-prepared as some articles claim. In engineering and engineering technology, we are lucky because students in those majors exhibit superior pre-college aptitude in mathematics. And occasionally, they also have the best verbal aptitude scores of all those entering the university.

What is different about today's young people is their attention spans, which makes it important to change the pace during class by mixing a lecture with problem-solving exercises, employing team efforts, and involving the use of computers where appropriate. This current generation also likes to have class notes available at a copy center or on the Web.

But even if there hasn't been any slippage in quality, we still can't afford to be aloof when it comes to the preparation of incoming students. The Math Counts program, run by the National Society of Professional Engineers, is a good example of focusing public attention on the importance of mathematics. In 1992, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) formed the Board on Pre-college Education, which has done a good job of getting engineers involved in middle- and high-school programs. ASME has also teamed up with the Society of Automotive Engineers in offering an innovative program, A World in Motion, for primary school students.

Now it is time for ASEE to build on what has already been done to strengthen the preparation of students entering engineering and engineering technology programs. One important opportunity arises in the teaching of physics in high schools and community colleges. A good foundation in physics is highly beneficial for students entering engineering because of the experience it gives them in using mathematical theory to solve problems. It also increases their understanding of the physical sciences.

In July, I met with Dr. Warren Hein, associate director of the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT), at their headquarters in Maryland, and in August, president-elect Wallace Fowler met with AAPT representatives at a meeting in San Antonio. Several areas for collaboration were identified at these meetings. One idea is to provide information to high school counselors and teachers that emphasizes the importance of physics, along with mathematics and chemistry, and that explain how those disciplines fit into engineering programs. ASEE's Freshman Programs division is well positioned to play a role in this effort.

Another possibility is for ASEE to become directly involved with physics teachers. According to AAPT, many teachers would be glad to attend regional and national ASEE meetings, where we could hold planned sessions or workshops to inform them about the needs of students entering engineering programs. In addition, we could develop instructional engineering materials that would help teachers demonstrate how engineers function, including sample problems for use in physics classes.

We could also intervene at an earlier stage by helping in the preparation of physics teachers. Colleges of education know about procedures for outcomes assessment of educational programs, and engineering faculties may be able to offer assistance in the training of future physics teachers in exchange for knowledge about assessment techniques. This sort of exchange could be a win-win proposition for educators in both disciplines.

In yet another, but equally important direction, we must make a concerted effort to reach instructors of physics at community colleges. There is a growing trend for students to take their first year or two at those institutions. Others are taking their physics courses at community colleges, then transferring them to four-year institutions where they expect to earn their B.S. degrees.

To help implement some of these broad-based approaches to high schools and community colleges, we need to tap into the expertise of the education divisions of various technical societies. The Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers, ASME and others have strong boards and councils on engineering education. And ASEE has its own division for two-year colleges, as well as a physics division. With our poly-disciplinary membership, we can bring these groups together.

With our relationship with AAPT, we're off to a good start in establishing closer ties with the physics community. We welcome your suggestions and would like to hear from members who want to get involved. We want to be sure that the input to our engineering education processors is commensurate with the high quality output we've worked so hard to maintain and improve. And with your help, we can.

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