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
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.