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FEATURE
FORWARD THINKERS

If ASEE’s founders sought to keep engineering education abreast of dynamic technological change, their 2013 successors face the same challenge – on steroids. Advances in how we communicate, design, manufacture, build, and fight disease are matched by a surge of online instruction, global exchange, and scholarship on the complexity of learning. In the coming decades, the Society will need to help students, faculty, and institutions both compete in a global marketplace and acquire the tools to confront global problems, from climate change to shortages of food and potable water. Can ASEE cope?

It’s a tall order, but past and current leaders draw confidence from several traditional strengths and promising trends. For one, no other professional society spans all fields of engineering, “which is huge,” notes Richard Benson, Virginia Tech’s dean of engineering. That makes ASEE uniquely positioned to break down departmental silos and address the pedagogical challenges of biomechanics, nanotechnology, and other multidisciplinary engineering specialties. Eleanor Baum, an ASEE past president and dean of engineering emerita at Cooper Union, likewise sees ASEE’s disciplinary span as one of its great strengths, helping educators to “talk not only to engineers and people in [their] own discipline but to other people as well.” Discussion about new pedagogy, laboratory equipment, and technology in the classroom “really helps and is so important,” says Baum. “I think ASEE facilitates this enormously.”

The Society could do even more to foster faculty exchange and learning, argues Sarah Rajala, dean of engineering at Iowa State University and past president of ASEE. Current students often want to “learn anytime, anywhere” and “use technology like mad,” Rajala notes, but many instructors haven’t kept up with the shifts. How can ASEE encourage effective curricular change for engineering educators that helps at both the practical and research levels? One solution she suggests is to expand to the regional level the kind of workshops offered by NETI (National Effective Teaching Institute) at ASEE’s annual conference.

Take teaching seriously

The emergence of stand-alone departments of engineering education, by providing a direct route between research and its impact on classroom instruction, has enabled pedagogy to adjust to new demands of the marketplace. Already, a growing awareness of effective teaching techniques is spreading among engineering departments, as witnessed by hands-on design projects that have energized first-year programs and student engagement and retention.

A key issue now, says Benson, is harnessing the power of technology to boost engineers’ education. Massive open online courses help schools “deliver quality education to great numbers of students,” but MOOCs won’t replace the residential college experience any time soon. Benson believes the best approach couples online lectures with hands-on projects such as Tech students experience, whether in teams building soccer-playing robots or designing underwater autonomous vehicles. ASEE provides considerable leadership in these areas, says Benson, because “there’s so much that we need to know and that we need to study.” The Society supports engineering educators not only in terms of covering the breadth of all of engineering, he says, “but also by having a focus on education, which is also really key.” Benson notes “a very nice evolution over several decades” at ASEE, “where people take pedagogy as an important area of research. In other words, it isn’t just something we do on the side.”

If ASEE continues to struggle with diversity, it’s not for lack of recognition that women and minorities are woefully underrepresented in most engineering fields. That awareness is due in part to a series of female presidents, starting with Baum in 1995. Attraction and retention in engineering remain a concern for her. Yes, the number of women in academic engineering has gone up – particularly at the Ph.D. and dean level – says Baum. Yet she is appalled to see, even today, “this business of putting barriers up and making it feel like boot camp… instead of nurturing and helping and creating an environment where you help students study.” She’d like to see “more C students in high school thinking in terms of a possibility of a career in engineering.” Women and minority students, in particular, shy away unless they are the “top, top students – which doesn’t hold true for [Caucasian] males,” says Baum. Encourage more average students, she urges: “Not everyone in engineering is at the leading edge of hotshot research.”

 

A view from the trenches

An emerging generation of engineering educators may point the way to a more inclusive approach and alternate pathways into the field. Katie Nelson is one of this new breed. With a B.A. and M.A. in environmental engineering, she is now earning a Ph.D. at Arizona State University’s Teacher College. Nelson speaks with passion of her interest in pedagogy, noting that most students in the relatively new discipline of engineering education consider themselves “in the trenches,” as they pursue research they believe will produce improved teaching – and engineering practice.

As incoming chair of ASEE’s Student Division, Nelson hopes to tweak the annual conference program to better serve students – adding one-on-one meetings with seasoned experts, for example, rather than large meet-and-greet gatherings. Most significantly, she hopes to encourage greater recognition for student achievements: “We don’t want to just be seen as practitioners,” she says. “We also want to be seen as researchers.” One of Nelson’s studies examines the types of women who remain in engineering rather than those who leave, because “no one has really looked at the staying piece.”

Corridors of power

An important forum for improving education is ASEE’s Engineering Deans Council, a meeting ground where several hundred leaders from a wide range of institutions can share ideas and experiences. “Unless you have the dean of the institution encouraging faculty to learn, to grow, to network, [and] to participate in ASEE, no changes will occur,” Baum observes. In her experience as past chair of the group, it can exert a progressive influence. Through it, even “the most hard-nosed, resistant” deans learn that “education matters; student success matters; curricular trends matter – and they become very different people from when they started their jobs.”

The deans’ council also serves to engage engineers in public policy, with an annual colloquium in Washington, D.C., featuring senior officials from the administration and Congress. Gary May, dean of the College of Engineering at Georgia Tech, would like to see ASEE become “more of a visible advocate for the profession.” One way to assist that effort, he suggests, is to support better data specific to engineering students that measure attraction and retention. “We do a pretty good job now of just the counting-noses kind of data,” says May, but further analysis could help determine “why trends are the way they are and how to change them in the direction we want them to change.”

An unmistakable and significant trend is the growth in the population of engineering students from overseas, particularly at the graduate level. This has been accompanied by increasing research collaboration between engineers here and abroad. During his tenure as executive director from 1991 to 2010, Frank Huband began a push for international involvement and continues to stress the importance of global exchange. “Having an awareness of what goes on around the world in engineering education helps everyone,” he says. U.S. educators can learn from European schools where active learning is a hallmark, but American educators can demonstrate the continuing value of U.S. graduate studies and retain a strong share of foreign students. “U.S. schools need the income generated by these students to be able to maintain the size and therefore the diversity of [their engineering] programs,” he points out, noting that almost three-quarters of Ph.D. engineering students come from abroad. Beyond the issue of finances, “it helps [American] engineering students to have that diversity in their educational process.”

The process of global engagement works in both directions, notes past president J.P. Mohsen, who finds a “tremendous amount of interest” overseas in how U.S. schools address technology advances and “the way young people are learning, and how they are exposed to the internet and the digital age at a very, very young age.”

Even as they enrich the ASEE mosaic, international students and faculty add another constituency to a complex organization that must accommodate multiple disciplinary, interest, and geographic groups. Even non-engineers are an important part of the mix. Marilyn Dyrud, a communications professor at the Oregon Institute of Technology, serves on two ASEE divisions and was on the Board of Directors from 2009 to 2011. An ethics specialist, she played a key role in developing the Society’s plagiarism policy. Being a non-engineer in an engineering organization is “a running joke in the Engineering Technology Division,” she laughs. But involvement has “truly broadened my own perspective, which in turn allows me to broaden my students’ perspective, which is why I teach.”

To get these myriad groups to pull together poses an ongoing challenge, but it’s one that Mohsen, chair of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Louisville, thinks must be met. The efforts of ASEE and various other organizations working on issues of K-12 students or underrepresented populations are worthwhile, Mohsen asserts, but “the true benefit of all of these works will not be realized unless we work together.” Closer ties with members of the Corporate Member Council, for example, can help ASEE mine information about the needs of industry in hiring engineers and help translate that into classroom practice.

Balancing competing needs of member groups is not something ASEE has always managed well. At various times, the Society has been swayed by research over practice or favored the interests of deans over teaching faculty. The Society’s various councils, each of which has a seat on the Board of Directors, represent a wide array of topical, institutional, and geographic interest. Emerging constituencies in each of these areas, with new and sometimes competing needs, must be considered, says Norman Fortenberry, ASEE’s executive director since 2011. “We have a very large and broad community associated with or concerned about academic engineering – the people within it, its products, how it operates, the tools it uses to operate – and ASEE has to be concerned about each of those stakeholders and view them as constituents.”

That’s why he says that now, more than ever, the Society must stick to its mandate of serving the membership. So long as it does so, Fortenberry sees reason to be optimistic about ASEE’s future. Like the U.S. Constitution, which celebrated its 225th anniversary last year, ASEE “has broad principles that it adheres to, that adapt to the times and the circumstances.” And as long as ASEE continues to meet the evolving needs of its members, “I think we have another good 120 years, if not more, in front of us.”

Robin Tatu is Prism’s senior editorial consultant.


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