PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo Summer 2006 - VOLUME 15, NUMBER 9
FERTILE NEW GROUND - The skills engineering students learn today may quickly become outdated. Research uncovering how we learn is important so that tomorrow’s engineers can keep pace with fast-changing demands. - Thomas K. Grose -  Illustration by Ken Orvidas

Purdue University’s Kamyar Haghighi is good at asking questions that, so far, have no answers. “Problem solving and design are the heart and core of engineering, but how do we learn those skills?” he asks. Moreover, do engineers learn their skill sets differently than other professionals learn theirs? “And what is critical thinking? What is innovation? How do you learn them?” There’s a note of slight exasperation in Haghighi’s voice when he adds, “We don’t even know the fundamental skills required to be an engineer.” The need to answer these and other basic questions, he says, is why there’s also a need for a community of scholars that can take a systematic, research-based approach to engineering education in order to more effectively teach America’s future engineers.

Purdue University’s Kamyar Haghighi is good at asking questions that, so far, have no answers. “Problem solving and design are the heart and core of engineering, but how do we learn those skills?” he asks. Moreover, do engineers learn their skill sets differently than other professionals learn theirs? “And what is critical thinking? What is innovation? How do you learn them?” There’s a note of slight exasperation in Haghighi’s voice when he adds, “We don’t even know the fundamental skills required to be an engineer.” The need to answer these and other basic questions, he says, is why there’s also a need for a community of scholars that can take a systematic, research-based approach to engineering education in order to more effectively teach America’s future engineers.


Purdue University
“Freshman engineering was primarily a gateway, a service unit,” says Kamyar Haghighi, head of Purdue University’s two-year-old department of engineering education. All first-year engineering students went through the same program before heading for their chosen schools as sophomores. The department still handles that task, but it is now also a degree-granting unit that has a graduate school and a focus on engineering education research. Purdue says the decision to create the department was “a proactive effort to take the lead in engineering education reform.”

The department currently offers two undergraduate degrees—the Interdisciplinary Engineering Program and the Multidisciplinary Engineering Program—and anticipates creating undergraduate degrees in engineering education. The hope for the department is to start educating and certifying high school engineering teachers by next year. Last fall, it began its graduate program with 10 students, and it’s expected to have more than 40 enrolled within five years. It’s offering a master’s and a Ph.D. in engineering education. The graduate program, the department says, is “geared for students interested in careers involving the art and science of learning engineering.”

The department recently hired three more faculty members, and its roster now stands at 13, along with six visiting or courtesy faculty members. Says Haghighi: “It’s a fantastic start for us.”

Virginia Tech
Like Purdue University, the Virginia Polytechnic Institute requires all freshman engineering students to complete essentially the same first-year program in engineering fundamentals. But in 2004, the department of engineering fundamentals became the department of engineering education. Its faculty now devotes more time to education research. The department currently has several million dollars in research projects underway.

It’s also adding a graduate program that will offer a non-thesis Master of Engineering Education aimed at K-12 teachers who want to teach engineering; a thesis-based Master of Science in Engineering Education that’s mainly a lead-in to the doctoral program or could be used for those who want to teach at the community college level; and a Ph.D. in engineering education for those with a keen interest in educational research or those planning careers in engineering policy or teaching at nonresearch colleges and universities.

Some of the research is aimed at improving course and curriculum development at Virginia Tech, according to O. Hayden Griffin Jr., department head. For example, one area of research looks at “active learning” techniques. “There have been a lot of papers on hands-on and active learning, but not many were done with rigorous research,” Griffin says. “That is what we are trying to do. Show how it works and why it works.”

And as head of Purdue’s recently created department of engineering education, Haghighi is one of the leaders of the growing group of scholars pioneering what Jack R. Lohmann calls “the emerging discipline of engineering education.” Lohmann, the Georgia Tech professor who edits ASEE’s Journal of Engineering Education, says this emerging discipline is “dedicated to the advancement of engineering education through research.” And while much of that research is geared toward how best to teach university students, the field also encompasses efforts to expand the teaching of engineering to the K-12 level.

Purdue was the first university to establish a degree-granting engineering education department that includes a graduate program. But it’s being closely followed by one at Virginia Tech. The relatively new department of engineering and technology education at Utah State University, which trains students to become high school technology teachers, also has a graduate program that focuses on how students learn engineering. These new departments, says Norman L. Fortenberry, director of the National Academy of Engineering’s Center for the Advancement of Scholarship on Engineering Education (CASEE), “give a scholarly focus to faculty” who want to do research in the area. Moreover, several schools, including the universities of Washington and Wisconsin, are home to engineering education research centers dedicated to understanding and improving the way the subject is taught.

The growth of this new discipline is why last year the Journal of Engineering Education, whose antecedents go back to 1894, refocused itself, establishing more rigorous submission guidelines. “No other journal focuses exclusively on education research in engineering,” Lohmann says. The decision to upgrade the publication was in part motivated by the growing number of scholars doing research in the field and also to encourage others to join them. “And they need a place to publish,” Lohmann notes.

A confluence of events and trends is behind the reforms, not least of all the changing nature of engineering—a metamorphosis that’s likely only to intensify. The U.S. economy was once manufacturing-based, and that provided a lot of engineering jobs. Now, in a service-oriented economy, with many engineering jobs going offshore to developing countries like China and India, “there is a lot of anxiety in a profession that used to provide fantastic career paths,” Haghighi says. To compensate, engineers have to be adaptable.

Professors Richard M. Felder of North Carolina State University, Sherri D. Sheppard of Stanford University and Karl A. Smith of the University of Minnesota served as guest editors in the January 2005 debut of the revamped Journal. In an article, they pointed out that most of today’s engineers, regardless of their disciplines, are working in a variety of emerging fields, including biotechnology and nanotechnology. And the skills they’re asked to have keep changing.

“In this environment, lifelong learning skills will not simply be desirable attributes of engineers but will be necessary for their professional survival,” the professors wrote. That’s a big reason why research that uncovers how we learn can help tomorrow’s engineers keep pace with fast-changing demands. Countries like China and India are graduating smart and talented engineers at a clip the United States can’t match, especially given the ongoing slack in engineering enrollments. So to compete in the 21st century, Haghighi says, the United States has to carve out unique niches of expertise. “We must create skills that can’t be imported.” And that too requires research into how we learn to innovate and be creative.

Engineering teachers are also increasingly dealing with students who are ill-prepared for college engineering courses. More Americans than ever, from a wider variety of backgrounds, are now attending college. As Felder, Sheppard and Smith note, it won’t be easy to give such students a fair shot at graduating without lowering standards. “Traditional instructional methods have repeatedly proved inadequate to meet this challenge.” The trio also notes that engineering instruction was not designed to incorporate the vast amount of classroom technology now available, including individualized multimedia tutorials, hands-on simulated lab experiments and access to more information than anyone could ever possibly process. So again, research-based reforms are needed to help instructors cope in an IT world.

Where’s the Proof?

Another important factor: the new ABET EC2000 outcomes-based accreditation requirements that ask engineering programs to prove how well students have learned what they’ve been taught. Moreover, several important studies have urged more engineering education research. A 1986 National Science Board report titled, “Undergraduate Science, Mathematics and Engineering Education,” Lohmann writes, “encouraged academia to apply its best scholarship to the manifold activities of U.S. scientific and technological education.” In 1999 came the National Science Foundation’s influential report, “How People Learn.” Its many findings resonated with engineers, including that students cannot always transfer skills learned in a classroom to practical applications and that different disciplines require different teaching approaches.

As Fortenberry notes, “Engineers like quantitative results and rigorous metrics.” And education research, which is often qualitative and can rely on such “soft skills” as pedagogy and psychology, is a bit too touchy-feely for some engineers. “It is a very different kind of research to do,” admits O. Hayden Griffin, head of Virginia Tech’s department of engineering education. Certainly there are still some engineering professors who question the validity of that kind of research. “Engineers tend to be very conservative people,” Griffin says. Still, he argues, the doubters are a shrinking minority. “Most are now convinced it’s valid; it’s a significant community.” At Virginia Tech, about 20 engineering faculty members are now involved in some sort of education research.

Physicists have been researching physics education for more than 20 years and have made advances in ways to measure how much students learn. And their methods give engineers more of a comfort factor, Fortenberry explains. One technique now readily used by engineers is concept inventory. That’s a specially devised multiple choice test that accurately determines if students have grasped concepts they’ve been taught. The first one widely used was the force concept inventory, which measures how well a student comprehends the Newtonian concept of force.

Some engineering professors are turning their attention to K-12 students. That’s partly because they realize the profession has a poor public perception, and one long-term way to fix it is to get children excited about engineering at an early age. “People think it’s a bunch of physics and calculus, that it’s for nerds,” Haghighi says. People know, and often respect, what doctors, lawyers and other professionals do, but the message that engineers help improve life and save lives has gotten lost. “One way of changing that,” he adds, “is by having a greater presence in K-12.” Already, states like Massachusetts—thanks to the pioneering efforts of Ioannis Miaoulis, former dean of the School of Engineering at Tufts University—have begun introducing engineering courses into the K-12 curriculum. The Infinity Project, created at the University of Texas to help teach electrical engineering in high schools, has now expanded into 26 states and three other countries. And Utah State’s department of engineering and technology education, which trains undergraduates to become high school technology teachers, stresses engineering design concepts that require students to do statistical modeling before building anything.

Haghighi says there’s evidence that children as young as third and fourth graders begin making decisions that lead them to their future career paths. And since preschool through sixth grade curricula are dominated by linguistics and math, it’s possible that engineering should be taught at a much earlier grade. Haghighi’s department recently received a $5 million, five-year grant from construction magnate Stephen D. Bechtel Jr., a Purdue alumnus, to study how youngsters learn math, technology and engineering and to help place more engineering teachers in K-12 classrooms.

Some research centers focus on college-level engineering education. These include the Engineering Learning Center at Wisconsin, the Center for Engineering Learning and Teaching at Washington and the NSF’s Center for the Advancement of Engineering Education, which is a collaboration of scholars from five schools: the universities of Washington and Minnesota, Howard and Stanford universities and the Colorado School of Mines (CSM). “Broadly, what they are looking at is improving our understanding of what is the best way to teach engineering and apply that understanding to improved practices,” explains Fortenberry, whose NAE office functions as a catalyst for engineering education reform. Other centers focus on K-12 education, including Arizona State University’s Center for Research on Education in Science, Mathematics, Engineering and Technology and Utah State’s National Center for Engineering and Technology Education. Utah State’s center is funded by a $10 million, five-year NSF grant and involves nine other schools, including the universities of Georgia, Minnesota and Illinois. The CSM Center for Engineering Education does research that’s applicable to college and K-12 classrooms.

What type of students are attracted to engineering education? “They are a group of students who have a passion for education,” Griffin says. “And they are interested in the social relevancy of their career.” Haghighi agrees: “They feel a very strong social connectedness.” Many suffered from bad social environments, bad teachers and bad curricula, and they want to improve things for future generations of students. They also tend to be a very ethnically diverse group of students with many women among them. Virginia Tech’s engineering education program attracts twice the number of women as its other engineering offerings. But one trait all these students share is a willingness to tackle tough questions about engineering education that are still begging for answers.

Thomas K. Grose is a freelance writer based in Great Britain.


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