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Last Word

Finding the Good in Budget Cuts

- by John Weese

There was considerable concern about budget cuts at ASEE's annual conference this summer. And many of those fears were well founded. Course offerings have been curtailed, class sections have been reduced, classes for required upper-level courses have gotten larger, funding for open faculty positions isn't always available, and the number of graduate teaching assistantships and support staff has declined.

Compounding the problem, engineering faculty members are expected to go after more externally funded research. As a result, engineering professors have to write stronger—and more competitive—proposals but with less help. At the same time, some institutions are preparing for ABET visits and are occupied with the time-consuming preparation procedures that precede the accrediting team's arrival.

With so much ill wind blowing, it's important to be on the lookout for the good that can come from leaner operations. Representatives serving on industry advisory councils have been getting earfuls about engineering education's financial woes, and their responses aren't always sympathetic. You've only been cut X percent, they've been known to say. Our industry has been hit much harder. Your layoffs are trivial and you don't know what it means to really suffer!

Fortunately, the department's Industry Advisory Council at Texas A&M is sympathetic and helpful. The chair is a very experienced industry executive who made a wise observation while still commiserating with us. If the budget cuts are well managed, he said, the organization that emerges can become stronger and better than before.

While engineering education is sure to weather this storm, you can be sure that whatever new form surfaces it won't be business as usual. There'll be a greater concentration on offering courses emphasizing fundamentals and a more judicious selection of specialized elective courses. More course materials will be posted on the Web to reduce photocopying costs and newsletters may become entirely electronic. Better use of electronics will improve communications with students, save long-distance charges, reduce the need for hard-copy letters, and perhaps even the need for some travel.

What isn't altogether clear is how we, the purveyors of technology, are going to take better advantage of our own creation. Will the availability of increasingly sophisticated software change our perception of what should be taught in basic courses? For example, are we correctly integrating the use of finite element codes into engineering curricula to produce more-effective graduates for industry and ones more inclined to pursue graduate studies? How can we make sure these graduates are keenly aware of the limitations of the codes? Are there ways of incorporating these modifications that help contain the increasing cost per student credit hour? And what about distance education? Is having Dr. Weese on CD better—or worse—than having him in class at a specified time and location? If this CD is regularly updated, might it not be just as effective?

We are faced with many exciting opportunities for making constructive change in our curricula—and the ways to deliver them. Budget squeezes may force quicker implementation of some of these new approaches. There's abundant evidence that the U.S. population needs to be better educated about technology, but most engineering programs only offer courses for their majors. This isolates us from the rest of the university, making it more difficult during poor economic times.

As faculty, we must be mindful that much of the future starts at the grassroots level. The ABET EC 2000 criterion correctly emphasizes that dedicated faculty members are the strength of any engineering program. As a group, we can bring about constructive, cost effective improvements, even during a tough economy.

Recent engineering graduates have had to scramble for good jobs. We must help them by using our connections whenever possible. But we must also put things into perspective by reminding them of the versatility of an engineering degree. We need also to stress the importance of keeping technically current so they can adjust to ever-changing conditions. And for the best students, we need to encourage them to consider joining us as faculty colleagues.

 

John Weese is a professor of mechanical engineering at Texas A&M University and past president of the American Society for Engineering Education.
He can be reached at jweese@asee.org.

 

 
 
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