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COVER STORY
Steeper Ascent - Should a master’s be the minimum for engineers? PLUS: Britain’s shorter route —could it work here? + BY THOMAS K. GROSE + ILLUSTRATION BY ZOHAR LAZAR


Mary McCormick
joined an environmental engineering firm after obtaining a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in 2006 from the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. But after four months analyzing levees and dams for seepage and slope stability, she left, feeling she lacked sufficient analytical skills and the ability to solve ill-defined real-world problems. “A master’s was critical if I wanted to move forward in engineering. I didn’t feel adequately prepared to jump into the field,” recounts McCormick, 28. A graduate program at Tufts University helped deepen her knowledge of theory and practical implications, giving her the confidence to make assumptions when necessary.

McCormick’s decision was justified, say the several large professional societies and various engineering luminaries waging a quiet campaign to make the master’s the first professional degree for engineers. Opponents argue just as passionately that the current system of minting engineers works just fine, and say there’s no evidence that either industry or the public is dissatisfied with the quality of America’s engineering workforce. Now the debate is gaining a higher profile, with the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) leading an initiative called Raise the Bar, which would require engineers to have a master’s before applying for a Professional Engineer (P.E.) license. At ASEE’s annual conference in June, the society’s civil engineering division will sponsor what it is billing as the first open discussion of the issue at a major venue of engineering educators.

First raised in the 1940s, the notion of requiring a master’s for professional engineers resurfaced in 1965 in a recommendation from a Goals Committee led by Eric Walker, ASEE president in 1960-61. The idea drew opposition from three-quarters of the engineering organizations and more than half of the individuals who responded to the committee’s preliminary report. More recently, the idea has been embraced by the National Academy of Engineering panel that prepared the 2005 report “Educating the Engineer of 2020,” as well as by such éminences grises as former University of Michigan President James Duderstadt and Norman Augustine, former chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin. John A. White, chancellor emeritus at the University of Arkansas and former engineering dean at Georgia Tech, made the case for it at ASEE’s 2012 Public Policy Colloquium. On the opposing side are the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), the American Council of Engineering Companies, and the executive board of ASEE’s Engineering Deans Council, which has twice voted unanimously in recent years to reject the idea. The full council plans to issue its own position. Within ASEE as a whole, opinion appears to be divided.


“Our jobs are getting more complex, and those who say they’re not getting more complex have their heads in the sand.” — Blaine Leonard, past president of the American Society of Civil Engineers


‘The World’s Best’

Proponents argue that to remain a technological leader in today’s fast-changing, digitized world, the United States needs engineers with excellent technical training who are also “broadly educated,” as the NAE “2020” panel put it, with good communications skills and a grounding in humanities, language, and social sciences – a tall order for a bachelor’s program. “Our jobs are getting more complex, and those who say they’re not getting more complex have their heads in the sand,” argues Blaine Leonard, an ASCE past president who is leading the Raise the Bar initiative. Duderstadt agrees. “We need to produce the world’s best engineers,” he adds, “and we can’t do that at the bachelor’s level.” Asia, he notes, can churn out tens of thousands of engineers “who work for 20 cents on the dollar.”

“More time is simply not a convincing argument.”  — Amos Holt, past president of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers


Opponents counter that technology and improvements in teaching enable today’s students to gain the required knowledge and skills in less time. Amos Holt, an ASME past president, says faster, more powerful computers mean that “a physics paper that took me three weeks can now be done in 30 minutes.” He adds, “More time is simply not a convincing argument.” Nicholas J. Altiero, science and engineering dean at Tulane University and chairman of the deans’ council’s executive board, notes that most incoming students have already earned Advance Placement credits, fulfilling some early-year requirements. Moreover, he says, “engineering faculty have worked hard on the development of pedagogy so that a credit hour today is much more effective than a credit hour decades ago.”

Adoption of the master’s route to licensure could delay, if not derail, the Obama administration’s industry-backed push to graduate 100,000 more engineers over the next decade. That doesn’t faze some master’s proponents. “We don’t need more engineers,” White says. “We need better engineering degrees.” Currently, the engineering bachelor’s degrees awarded at U.S. schools outnumber master’s degrees by nearly a 2-to-1 ratio, but enrollment in master’s programs has been growing in recent years amid an influx of students from overseas.

Opponents worry that the additional time and money it would cost students to complete their engineering education could dent undergraduate enrollment, a fear ASCE’s Leonard calls overblown. He notes that many employers give financial assistance to engineers who attend graduate school. When pharmacy and accounting schools extended their curricula, neither suffered a long-term loss of enrollment, he says.

But if added time and cost don’t scare off undergraduates, universities would still need more space and faculty for expanded master’s programs, Altiero argues. “Where’s the capacity going to come from? That’s another issue.” David Munson, the University of Michigan’s engineering dean, has made a back-of-the-envelope calculation that it could cost schools nationwide $6 billion to add the faculty and facilities they would need to meet Obama’s demand for 10,000 more engineers a year -- all at a time when most public schools are facing reductions in state funding. Seeking accreditation of master’s programs – something most engineering schools currently forgo, would impose an additional burden.

Whither the bachelor’s degree if an M.S. were required to become an engineer? Mostly likely it would devolve into a pre-engineering degree that would allow holders to work as technologists or para-engineers. “There is a role for para-engineers,” Augustine says. ASME’s Holt says that would render the B.S. a second-class degree. “And that’s screwy. It’s not logical.”

Who Takes the P.E. Exam?

Raise the Bar is, for now, the most concerted effort promoting the master’s degree. It urges states to adopt the new model law approved several years ago by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES), the organization that administers the exams engineers in each state must take to become a licensed Professional Engineer. Currently, any engineer who wants to apply for a P.E. license must have a B.S. from an accredited engineering program, pass the Fundamentals of Engineering and Principles and Practices in Engineering exams, and have four years’ work experience. The new model law would add to these criteria either a master’s degree or 30 additional credit hours of upper-level undergraduate or graduate courses in engineering, math, or science.

The majority of P.E. exam-takers, perhaps around 60 percent, are civil engineers. Mechanical engineers account for about 10 percent, electrical engineers perhaps 4 percent. Civil engineers are more likely to work as consultants on public works projects or directly for government agencies, jobs that require a license. Many engineers from other disciplines tend to get hired by companies that don’t demand a license. Under an industrial exemption in most states – one that the National Society of Professional Engineers wants changed – product manufacturers and electrical and telecommunications utilities are not required to employ licensed engineers.

ASCE says that raising the requirement for a P.E. will encourage more students to seek a master’s. Duderstadt and White, while they share ASCE’s goal, question its approach. “Bringing licensure into this discussion just confuses the issue,” White says. “It’s a whole different agenda.” Duderstadt thinks a better route would be to use the accrediting agency ABET, which does not have an official position on the issue, as a lever for change: “The quickest way to achieve this is to push ABET out of accrediting undergraduate programs. ABET should focus on graduate-level programs only, where the true professional education begins.” But White doesn’t buy into Duderstadt’s plan, either. “It would be undercut by industry,” he says, because companies would continue to hire students with bachelor’s degrees. He himself doesn’t have a strategy: “We need to do it. But I am not sure how we can get there. I am not sure how we put the genie back into the bottle.”

Keen as Ever

Ultimately, White and Augustine say, market forces will bring change. Students will find that the kinds of jobs available to bachelor’s degree-level engineers are vulnerable to offshoring, and realize “that’s a dangerous place to be,” says Augustine. But Charles Hickman, ABET’s managing director for communications, says industry is as keen as ever to hire newly graduated engineers, and costs are pushing schools to find ways to graduate engineers in even less time.

So far, no state has adopted NCEES’s model law, and Joe Sussman, ABET’s managing director for accreditation, predicts that industry will lobby successfully in each state to block it. “That dog won’t hunt,” he says of the model law. But ASME’s Holt notes that state licensing boards are heavily laden with civil engineers, “and they’re pushing this hard.”

The status quo suits Mary McCormick, who is now pursuing a doctorate at Tufts, just fine. Even though four months on the job persuaded her that she needed more than a bachelor’s offered, she still favors the current system of letting students figure out for themselves how much schooling they need. “I don’t think it should be required to go beyond four years. It’s nice to have that break point, to have time to stop and reflect.”

 

Thomas K. Grose is Prism’s chief correspondent, based in London.

 


A Quicker Route

Could the less-costly British model work here? Educators are skeptical.

Last year, around 16,000 students graduated from British universities with a bachelor’s degree-level engineering diploma, or B.Eng., after completing a three-year curriculum devoid of liberal arts courses. Meanwhile, some 72,300 bachelor’s degrees in engineering were awarded to American students, each of whom studied a variety of general education courses and, on average, took 4.5 years to finish.

Should American schools take a page from the British syllabus and offer a three-year, general-education-free engineering degree? It’s a relevant question, given the pressure from the White House and industry for more engineers, the financial straits of public universities, and rising tuition and student debt. While advocates of a broader engineering education would doubtless oppose the idea, ABET, the accrediting agency, doesn’t rule it out. “It is not our position that a three-year degree is a bad plan,” says Joe Sussman, ABET’s managing director for accreditation. ABET requires students to receive a full year of mathematics and basic science and a year and a half of engineering topics, and for a baccalaureate program to meet requirements set by regional accrediting agencies and the school itself. If a school tried to craft a three-year program that met all those requirements, “we would try to help it,” Sussman says.

Even if U.S. schools were willing – a big if – it would be tough to follow the British model exactly. British students arguably enter university with better, though narrower, preparation. David Radcliffe, an Australian who obtained his bioengineering doctorate at Scotland’s Strathclyde University and now heads the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University, says of the British: “They start at a higher level of learning than their U.S. peers.”

Tops in Math and Physics

At age 16, students in the United Kingdom who hope to attend a university begin two years of Advanced Level preparation. Typically, most start out with four A-Level courses and drop the one they’re weakest in after the first year. The final grades are the cumulative results of exams taken at the end of the first and second years. Students who want to study engineering in college must have top results in calculus and physics. Many also earn an A-Level in chemistry. Accordingly, engineering students arrive at their universities having already received rigorous math and science instruction. “Our students come in with a wider knowledge of science and technology. The assumption is, we do not have to spend too much time teaching maths,” says Richard Shearman, deputy CEO of the Engineering Council, the agency that regulates the U.K. engineering profession.

In the United States, freshman and sophomore engineering students must spend considerable time on physics, calculus, and chemistry. And because many students enter college ill-prepared for advanced math, they first have to take precalculus — and that’s one big reason it takes American students more than four years, on average, to graduate.

Where would a three-year degree leave the “soft skills,” the ability to communicate well, work in teams, and be prepared to work in a diverse global environment? That’s where American engineering schools tend to rely on humanities and social science departments and semesters abroad. “Engineers need to understand more of the societal, economic, and global contexts of what they design,” says Joseph Herkert, an associate professor of ethics and technology at Arizona State University. “They don’t get that in tech courses.”

In Britain, says Shearman, “we think that [soft skills] can be taught within the context of the engineering curriculum.” Leaving it to liberal arts instructors, he says, could alienate engineering students “because it seems like a kind of artificial input. In the context of a project, doing teamwork, those [professional] skills make more sense.” Adds Jane Horner, associate dean for teaching in the faculty of engineering at Loughborough University: “We teach sustainability, and we teach business from the engineering perspective.” Lessons in professional skills are incorporated into project-based courses right from the start: “There is a teamwork approach from the first year onward.” While U.S. engineering instructors have in recent years attached more importance to written and oral communication and teamwork, “there would be great faculty reluctance to ‘watering down’ the technical content of their courses with more soft skills than we currently provide,” says John Prados, a professor emeritus of chemical engineering at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

A three-year B.Eng. degree qualifies Britons to become Incorporated Engineers. But to secure the more elite Chartered Engineer qualification — a status somewhat akin to Professional Engineer (P.E.) in the United States — British engineers must earn an M.Eng. or demonstrate equivalent knowledge and competence through other means. In the United States, engineering is one of the few licensed professions still open to bachelor’s degree holders. However, civil engineering groups have been lobbying to change that policy.

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Appeal to Industry

While a three-year degree would lessen a U.S. student’s debt load, few are likely to see it as equivalent to a four-year B.S., argues Donna Riley, an associate professor of engineering at Smith College. “It wouldn’t really be a bachelor’s degree,” she says. “It would be something in between, something else. And I am not sure that it would be an incentive to bring more students into engineering.” Nor would faculty welcome it, says Eduardo Glandt, engineering dean at the University of Pennsylvania. “A three-year degree would be understandably suspect . . . it would get no faculty respect. I don’t see it happening” at four-year residence schools. Still, Glandt recognizes its appeal to industry. He regularly hears from business leaders that “vocational education has largely disappeared from the United States,” and that there should be more diversity in degrees. If so, a shorter degree could be offered by online distance-learning establishments, he suggests. Indeed, ABET’s managing director for communications, Charles Hickman, says any radical changes to the engineering degree are indeed likely to come from “unconventional providers,” because established schools have no need to market something new.

Nevertheless, Glandt is convinced that the American four-year degree will stand the test of time, in part because it is so widely understood, tested, and respected. During those four years, “there is a lot going on outside the syllabus. Half of what kids learn is outside the classroom,” Glandt says. “You might say that the four-year degree is a luxury of the well-off, but it is a very worthwhile luxury.” –TG

 



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