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 ON THE SHELF

REVIEWED BY ROBIN TATU

ON THE SHELFA CALL FOR RADICAL CHANGE

Today's teaching is too narrow for tomorrow's engineers, this study concludes.


EDUCATING ENGINEERS:
Designing for the Future of the Field
by Sheri D. Sheppard, Kelly Macatangay, Anne Colby, William M. Sullivan
Thunder’s Mouth Press 2008, 277 pages


The world in which 21st-century engineers live differs notably from that of their predecessors. Technological change, globally connected work, and an increasingly fragile physical environment all demand nimble adaptation. How well, then, does engineering education address these shifting realities of professional practice? This is the central question of Educating Engineers: Designing for the Future of the Field, the result of a multi-year study sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. As part of the foundation's Preparation for the Professions Program, the study was undertaken by Stanford University's mechanical engineering professor Sheri Sheppard and three Carnegie scholars. It focused on mechanical and electrical engineering programs at six representative U.S. schools, selected from a wider pool of 40 universities and colleges: Cal Poly, Carnegie Mellon, Colorado School of Mines, Georgia Tech, Howard University, and the University of Michigan.

The authors' conclusions about the state of the field are unsurprising but sobering: Despite a "profound, worldwide transformation in the engineering profession," undergraduate education in the United States continues, in large part, "an approach to problem-solving and knowledge acquisition that is consistent with practice that the profession has left behind." Many schools still emphasize the mastery of technical knowledge with little attention to professional practice; theory pre-empts laboratory and design work; and ethical responsibility is addressed only in passing. Educating Engineers challenges educators to contemplate these shortcomings and then embrace radical change. Incremental improvement is not enough, the authors argue; rather, engineering education must be redesigned with greater emphasis on professional responsibility, goals, and identity.

While Sheppard and her colleagues acknowledge the crucial role of technical knowledge in engineering work, they stress that it fails to address the full complement of skills needed by students. In place of the traditional linear approach to learning, they advocate a "networked model" in which all components - technical and contextual learning, lab and design work, and competencies of practice - are "revisited at increasing levels of sophistication and interconnection." The learning trajectory thus shifts from a linear alignment to a spiraling one.

The core section of the report, which investigates the best practices of innovative science courses, labs, and design programs, should be of particular interest to Prism readers. Indeed, while the issue of educational reform is not new, the arguments of this slim volume are presented with refreshing clarity and supported with instructive examples. The authors question, for example, the merits of tightly structured lab experiments with formulaic outcomes, which help students learn a concept but underplay the complexity of real-world engineering. Open-ended experiments, by contrast, require students to apply engineering concepts in imperfect environments and deal with uncertainties. As one professor comments, such labs "obey all of nature's laws, not just the ones you know. It forces [students] to get their heads into the game." Elsewhere in the book, the authors discuss how specifically configured math and science classes can help engineering students understand the connection to their field, and how design projects might be introduced early on, rather than in students' junior or senior years.

The book's final sections emphasize the need to teach the ethical responsibilities and professionalism demanded of engineers. "We are convinced," the authors conclude, "that an approach that integrates knowledge, skill, and purpose through a consistent focus on preparation for professional practice is better aligned with the demands of more complex, interactive, and environmentally and socially responsible forms of practice."

For an online Carnegie Foundation discussion on engineering education between Sheri Shepard and Jim Duderstadt, president emeritus and professor of science and engineering at the University of Michigan, click on www.prism-magazine.org.

Robin Tatu is a senior editor of Prism.

 

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