PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo - SEPTEMBER 2004 - VOLUME 14, NUMBER 1
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Crisis or Opportunity?

By Duane Abata

CHALLENGING ECONOMIC TIMES AREN'T ALL BAD FOR ENGINEERING PROGRAMS. THEY CAN BE A CHANCE TO TRY SOMETHING NEW.

Most universities are not flush with money. Almost every engineering school across the country has experienced some sort of financial difficulty in the past few years. These financial readjustments are stressful. And while it appears that university budgets are as tight as possible, there inevitably is more tightening. Crisis or opportunity? Henry Kissinger had a simple answer, "There cannot be a crisis next week; my schedule is already full."

Despite the economic recovery, the effects of the recession still linger in the academic community. State appropriations for public universities have been slashed, and state budgets are still recovering from the red ink of only a few years ago. Tuition has increased again, and in some cases, those increases have affected enrollment. In the private sector of engineering education, the view is not much better. Private universities, too, are recovering from a stale period of poor investment performance and low return. What are we to do?

We need to reflect on two important points. First, things are not that bad. Depressing at times, but really not that bad. Consider the 1940s when the world was engulfed in war. Consider universities in other lands. The average income of engineering professors in Russia averages $300 per month. There is more money at the federal level for program development than ever before. Engineering is, and always will be, a highly respected profession. Also, ABET 2000 has allowed us incredible flexibility with curricula and structure. We are "outcome-assessment" based, free (or almost free) from the bean-counting mentality of the past. We can innovate, develop, and design our programs with our creative talents flowing at full throttle. No longer are we bound to the constraints of the traditional curriculum. We can be flexible.

Look at what's wrong. Our curriculum is stacked, compartmentalized into neat little columns and boxes. But is life this way? Why can't we integrate our classes, with subject material within a single discipline and across disciplines? Why can't we find design projects that are interdisciplinary in nature, outside the traditionally defined boundaries of engineering? Why can't we mix business, liberal arts, the performing arts, the pure sciences, with what we have called "traditional" engineering? The real world is this way. Our colleges should reflect what our students will see as they step across that graduation stage and into their careers.

Along with the realization of the need to revitalize our curricula, we also have to admit to ourselves that, as engineering educators, our inadequate background in educational psychology (thinking, problem solving, cognition) has limited our creative ability to develop a more effective engineering curricula. Our primary funding agency, the National Science Foundation, has recognized this opportunity for growth and has initiated several reasonably funded programs to address this needed change.

Crisis, step aside. There is plenty of opportunity. Engineers are problem solvers. Let's identify and solve the problems holding us hostage. Economically, of course, we are recovering, though we probably will not see in the immediate future a return to the stellar economy of the '90s. What we are now witnessing is a painfully slow but steady growth in both the economy and in engineering education funding.

Through all of this, we must become more politically active and enlighten local, state, and federal officials with the knowledge that engineering is not only important but paramount to recovery and sustainable growth. This is why ASEE is so important. It is a strong organization at a time when other professional societies are struggling.

Crisis or opportunity? It's a choice each one of us has to make.

Duane Abata is the immediate past president of ASEE.

 

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