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.
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.
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 Congresswithout the
data to prove our effectiveness.
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.
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.
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 Sigmaat 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.
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.
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
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 worldwhatever our particular
educational vision and goalsand apply the engineering approach
to make it happen, prove it, and help others repeat the success. Let's
show we really do care.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.