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In the summer of 1893, a group of engineering academics took time out from reviewing the showcase of technological prowess at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago to form the Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education, ASEE’s forerunner. As they pondered the growth of degree programs across the country, a civil engineering professor from New York’s Columbia College opened a debate that would persist, with varying degrees of vehemence, for the next 120 years. A foundation in math and science was necessary, argued William H. Burr, but engineering graduates should also have “a broad, liberal education in philosophy and the arts” and be well acquainted with applied skills.

How much liberal arts study engineers need is one of a series of questions that educators have argued over for decades. Others include: What is the right balance between practical, hands-on design and science, math, and analytics? Should faculty focus on research or teaching? Which teaching methods and technologies work best in the classroom? “When you look back over the years, there’s been an amazing consistency of issues,” says Bruce Seely, dean of the College of Sciences and Arts at Michigan Technological University, who has authored several papers on the history of engineering education.

Some unresolved issues are of more recent vintage. How can engineering schools attract and graduate more women and underrepresented minorities? What structures must change to accommodate such emerging multidisciplinary fields as biomedical, food safety, environmental, materials, or nano- and neuro-engineering? Most of all, how do colleges of engineering get faculty to implement pedagogical innovations that research has shown can improve student learning?


Educators most likely will continue to wrestle with these questions for some time to come. As Seely wrote of the curriculum tussle between practice and engineering science, “Perhaps the most constant feature of American engineering education has been the demand for change.” Another recurring challenge: acting on those demands. “It’s hard to get the momentum to overcome long-standing traditions,” notes Cynthia Finelli, director of the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching in Engineering at the University of Michigan. “Change, in general, is hard to negotiate in the academy.”

Pendulum Swings

To see why, just consider the fluctuation between hands-on learning and theory. Practical curricula dominated the first half of the 20th century. Despite calls for more classes in physics and applied math, schools mainly stressed the “how” over the “why.” Only with the advent of World War II did research get pushed to the fore in engineering schools, compelled by military needs and a deluge of federal research money. The trend accelerated in the 1950s with the Cold War and dawn of the space race. Schools began hiring faculty who could snag big research grants and reshaped their programs to focus more on science, math, and engineering science. By the 1960s, engineering theory was paramount. In the early 70s, even the reformers anguished about the overemphasis on science for its own sake at the expense of practical applications. Yet it wasn’t until the 90s that efforts began in earnest to bring more design back into the curriculum. That trend continues today, particularly through co-op programs that provide hands-on training and industry experience. Yet, as Seely observes, “the pendulum is never going to be static.”

That’s partly because efforts to emphasize professional skills and design are typically at odds with the structure of American engineering schools. Roughly two thirds of U.S. engineering students are educated at doctorate-granting schools where research rules. As a result, says Brent Jesiek, an assistant professor of engineering education at Purdue University, “critics still say faculty are training students to be engineering researchers, not practitioners.” But research drives rankings and reputations. Even at Purdue’s School of Engineering Education, which explores innovative ways to teach, faculty members are primarily evaluated on their research, Jesiek says. “It’s ironic, but we are still subject to those standards.” Despite a growing number of teaching and learning centers on campuses, “many professors are not aware of best practices and pedagogy,” comments Michael Loui, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and the editor of ASEE’s Journal of Engineering Education. “The dirty little secret of the academy is the ignorance of the professors.”

For many, that’s where ASEE comes in. The society “can play a leadership role in disseminating best practices and giving people who are innovators a forum to discuss their approaches to teaching and learning,” says Gary May, dean of engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

One partly settled debate is the need to ensure that undergraduates receive a healthy dose of liberal arts education. Lacking a humanities background, the engineer is ranked “as a relatively uncultivated man,” then ASEE President Ira O. Baker lamented in 1900. The notion that students should take eight humanities courses over four years began at the turn of that century and is still largely the norm today. What changes are notions of which courses are most crucial. In the 1930s, for example, political science and economics were considered key. ASEE’s 1968 Olmstead report stressed the need to combine technical competence with “a sense of human values and knowledge of social processes.” Today, schools strive to ensure that graduates develop strong communications skills, ability to work on multidisciplinary teams, and awareness of engineering’s societal impact. Yet requiring more general undergraduate courses can push tech courses into a yearlong master’s program.

That kind of five-year plan lies at the heart of another perennial concern: What should be the first professional degree? The American Society of Civil Engineers currently leads an effort to require a master’s, a movement strongly opposed by other engineering societies as well as ASEE’s Engineering Deans Council. Proponents note that engineering is nearly unique among the professions in accepting an undergraduate education as a professional qualification. Loui says he would prefer the master’s route because the current process crowds too many technical courses into a four-year schedule. But that’s a hard sell to industry, he admits, and to cash-strapped students.

Nonetheless, more flexible undergraduate programs could help graduate more women and underrepresented minorities – a major goal of engineering educators for several decades. Although SPEE’s first president, DeVolson Wood, lauded the Society’s decision not to bar females from joining its ranks, the numbers of women and minorities receiving degrees have remained consistently low. The 2012 ASEE-sponsored report, Innovation with Impact, found that engineering schools are still not perceived as welcoming, especially for women and minorities. Loui notes that the military roots of engineering still pervade the culture of many schools, and that’s often a turnoff for women. “We actually know how to solve this problem,” he says – with curricula that aren’t so packed with tech classes and that allow time for dual majors and international study. Yet like others, Loui admits that it’s difficult to change the system.

There’s widespread agreement that ridding schools of the old sink-or-swim mentality would help improve retention of underrepresented populations. Michigan’s Finelli says that while much progress has been made in that area, “I know that attitude is still there. When instructors are in very honest mode, they will admit it.” Some, she says, remain unconvinced of the value of diversity, despite findings that it translates into innovative, productive work environments.

New Dilemmas

Several emerging issues are likely to become perennials. While much real-world industrial work is interdisciplinary, for example, most engineering schools remain segregated by departments – mechanical, electrical, chemical–and offer few multidisciplinary degrees. Even rarer are courses that combine engineering with nonengineering disciplines, though there are a few mold-breakers. Olin College’s program is highly interdisciplinary, and includes a focus on the arts and entrepreneurship. Penn State’s Behrend College offers a major in interdisciplinary business and engineering studies, while Drexel University has a long-standing master’s program in engineering management. Industrial pressure could force more movement in this area. As nanotechnology gains increasing importance in engineering, it too could motivate change. Indeed, the National Academy of Engineering has stated it does not want to see departments of nanotechnology, but rather creation of interdisciplinary nanotech programs.


Another question destined to last for years is whether the United States needs more engineers—or fewer, better-trained ones. Despite the Obama administration’s stated goal to graduate 10,000 additional engineers a year, some experts, including Norman Augustine, the retired chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin, have concluded this may be misguided. Augustine argues that bachelor’s degree holders with basic skills eventually will lose out in a market glutted with equally proficient, less expensive engineers from developing nations. That confrontation could happen more quickly with the acceleration of an industry push to make the ABET model of accreditation a global one.

As recurring engineering education debates have churned through the decades, ASEE has often led the discussions and championed change. It also has been caught in the vortex. In the 1950s and early 60s, defense and other federal research contracts changed the culture at many leading schools. Educators seemed to value the pursuit of knowledge over teaching practical engineering. Seely argues that this shift toward research turned the Society into an organization for deans and department heads, causing it to lose purchase with rank-and-file faculty in the late 1960s, just as anti-establishment protests roiled campuses and space-program funding dried up. The pendulum swung back toward teaching, making membership a hard sell for young, research-driven faculty. Seely says recent efforts to incorporate design and balance research and engineering practice have allowed ASEE to “regain some traction, but it’s no longer the center of the universe it was 50 years ago.” But Ronald Barr, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Texas, Austin and former ASEE president, counters that the Society remains an important agent for helping educators recognize and respond to the issues. “ASEE has been one of the bright spots,” says Barr. “Things are slowly changing for the better, and ASEE has had a lot to do with that.” And if past is indeed prologue, the Society’s future will be marked by more swings of the pendulum.


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


photo collage by Nicola Nittoli

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