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 LAST WORD

BY JAMES H. AYLOR

TEACH SMARTER, CHEAPER

Engineering education must prepare students to solve an array of problems — and do so with less.


At this moment in history, the issues that engineers are being asked to solve are unprecedented in their complexity and urgency. Consider healthcare: We are about to be overwhelmed by the cohort of baby boomers - myself included - who will need increasing medical care as they age. Engineers will play a critical role in keeping us healthier and independent longer, finding better and more economical ways of preventing illness and injury, and helping develop more effective methods of diagnosing and treating disease.

In coming decades, engineers will also be asked to help tackle an array of equally vexing issues: the environment, national security, the financial system - you can easily draw up your own list. It is clear to me that the engineers who contribute to the solutions to these problems will need a firm grasp, not just of the fundamentals of engineering but also of economics, policy, business, and law, and in areas of engineering that go far beyond their chosen field. Educating future engineers with a wider frame of reference and diverse skills will require new ways of thinking about engineering education. We must produce engineers who are broadly educated, and we must figure out how to do this in the midst of the economic realities we all face.

Like most public institutions of higher learning, the University of Virginia is feeling the economic pinch through decreasing endowment and state support. We are not alone: A recent survey conducted by the State Higher Education Executive Officers found "65 percent of colleges took midyear budget cuts, and 44 percent are in states with governors who have proposed cuts or flat funding in the 2010 fiscal year."

So the task that I and my fellow engineering deans face is as straightforward as it is daunting. How do we give our students the kind of education that will truly prepare them to address the problems of the 21st century - and do so with the resources we have on hand?

I can't tell you what solutions other deans may adopt, but can tell how we at UVa. are thinking about these issues.

Our first principle is to return to the fundamentals of engineering education and enrich them. I believe we must teach engineering through design in such a way that students naturally encounter the issues of business and policy, ethics and social justice, communication, and law.

The second principle is to seek opportunities for students to learn on the boundaries between disciplines. At UVa., we offer minors in applied math, history of science and technology, technology and the environment, science and technology policy, and engineering business. In 2007, we established an international programs office within the school to accommodate students' increasing demands to work and study abroad during their undergraduate years.

The third principle is to broaden our conception of the engineering student. We must abandon the idea that a student is someone who always resides on campus or commutes to our school. We must increasingly reach out to community college graduates, nontraditional older students, or engineers seeking advanced degrees - and we must connect to them where they live through distance learning programs.

The last principle is to act collaboratively. This is both a financial and a strategic imperative. We must continue to build institutional relationships with other departments on our campuses, with other universities, and with industry.

We must increasingly reach out to community college graduates, nontraditional older students, or engineers seeking advanced degrees.

For deans of engineering, successfully making this transition will require a willingness to question familiar assumptions about engineering education and reshape it to address both the short- and long-term challenges facing our society. Reinventing engineering education is, in its own way, the kind of engineering problem we are all used to dealing with. We'll do our best because that's what we do - and because we know the well-being of society and the prospects of future generations will depend on it.

James H. Aylor is dean of the University of Virginia School of Engineering.

 

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