ASEE Prism Magazine - October 2002
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Last Word

An Engineering Approach to an Engineering Problem

- BY Roger Nozaki

When it comes to engineering education, it's not so much what you do, it's how you do it. Engineering education serves many a purpose, from preparing students for lifelong learning and success in a world of rapid change to attracting and retaining the best talent to engineering, including those who've been underrepresented in the field. But no matter what your goal, the importance is that you are achieving it effectively.

We all know the big picture data: A 20 percent drop in the number of bachelor's degrees awarded in engineering between 1986 and 1998; a demand for technical personnel that led to Congress increasing H1-B visas three-fold over five years; significant and increasing underrepresentation of minorities and women in engineering; and nearly two-thirds of minority freshman in engineering leaving the field before graduation.

But at the discipline, school, program, course, and student levels, we have trouble quantifying our successes and failures. We speculate that students actually retain and apply what we're teaching, that they are able to flourish in their careers because of what they've gained in our schools, and that we support and retain the best talent from diverse backgrounds. We wonder if policymakers and the general public understand that engineering and technology surround us and affect our daily lives. We claim to use data to help us target our resources and improve our initiatives. But if we can't cite the data on our own specific efforts, can we really claim to care about the goals we profess?

On a purely pragmatic level, particularly in the current “post-boom” economy, it seems that none of us can argue for our “share” of limited resources— whether from campus or from Congress—without the data to prove our effectiveness.

We're all familiar with the common excuses. Evaluation of human behavior-based processes like education is infinitely harder than measuring manufacturing processes. The need is so great that we can't divert resources from programs and activities to costly, academic evaluation efforts.

And among those who are collecting and using data, the definitions and measures of success often leave great room for improvement. In the GE Fund's work in the college preparation and access arena, we've learned that factors like selection bias (choosing students already most likely to succeed) and choice of denominators (college-going rate just for those who complete a program, regardless of how many dropped out before that point) provide misleading answers. There are similar examples for all types of programs.

So it's not easy. What can we do? Of all the schools and specialties within higher education, engineering is uniquely positioned to take a leadership role on these issues. Engineering is all about imagining a new world and designing the processes, systems, and technology to get us there. Engineering is all about disciplines like Six Sigma—at its heart, simply a methodology for defining a problem, identifying and analyzing root causes, and driving and sustaining change through key measurements that define success. Engineering is all about repeatable processes based on what has been proven to work.

Why set that all aside when it comes to education? Schools of engineering and engineering educators have the tools and mindset to take the lead for all of education. In an effort to “walk the talk,” we at the GE Fund are striving to ground our Math Excellence initiative in real data. The effort is framed by research we commissioned to identify what types of interventions have the greatest potential for increasing the number of under-represented students entering quantitative fields like engineering, IT, and business. And as we have begun making grants, we're also investing in a thorough, independent, cross-project evaluation to inform individual funded projects, the Fund's ongoing work, and the field in general.

We're experiencing all the challenges people talk about. And we don't have all the answers. But the focus on data and impact derives directly from the culture of the General Electric Company and its engineering heritage.

What a contribution all of us could make by working to design, measure, and improve programs and schools with the same rigor required of engineering processes. Let's imagine a new world—whatever our particular educational vision and goals—and apply the engineering approach to make it happen, prove it, and help others repeat the success. Let's show we really do care.


Roger Nozaki is senior program manager at the GE Fund,
the philanthropic foundation of the General Electric Company.
He can be reached by e-mail at