THE BLOG
08/07/2012 02:31 pm ET Updated Oct 07, 2012

Three Habits at Three Levels for Improved Engineering Education

Students in advanced economies today want to become anything but engineers (A.B.E.) and often choose to become lawyers, physicians, or businesspeople instead. Even those who do study engineering sometimes leave because (1) they are unable to align their aspirations with the subject matter as taught, and (2) a hostile, dismissive, or indifferent educational culture discourages the young people it is charged with educating.

Changing these things isn't easy, but to use New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg's phrase, we can use the power of habit at three different levels -- at the personal, organizational, and system levels -- to bring about change that attracts and retains bright young people to become the engineers our planet needs.

Habit #1: Noticing, Listening, & Questioning (NLQ). A keystone habit that could change education profoundly is the triple of noticing, listening, and questioning (NLQ) for both faculty and students. In his book The Power of Habit, Duhigg recalls the story of Alcoa Aluminum and how CEO Paul O'Neill returned the corporation to profitability by instilling the habit of safety.  At the time, company observers thought this was a bad move, as they couldn't see how safety would ever flow to the bottom line. But O'Neill believed that a focus on safety would bring about the needed individual changes that would align personal behavior with organizational needs, and time proved him to be correct.

In education today, the gap between students and faculty can only be sustained through a lack of noticing, listening, and questioning. In schools where successful change has occurred, the moment that faculty members start noticing the degree of dissatisfaction of students, ask open-ended questions to understand what the problem is, and really listen to the students with empathy rather than ego is the moment when effective action starts to take place.

Moreover, when students practice NLQ, they start to realize that they are not passive recipients of knowledge poured into their heads. By practicing NLQ, students learn to be aware and curious, and the reflective nature of the NLQ habit drives them to be increasingly powerful and competent lifelong learners.

Fortunately, NLQ training is well established in training executive coaches (for example, www.coachfederation.com), and similar kinds of training can be used to bring NLQ to our teachers and our students to bring about a cultural shift of substantial proportions.

Habit #2: Dot Connecting. Transforming engineering education requires change at so many different levels -- individuals, departments, schools, systems, and society -- it's difficult to know where to start, and therein lies the problem. The usual assumption in most organizations is that change comes from the top -- through the usual top-down, hierarchical initiative of the boss -- but oftentimes administrators are more experienced at perpetuating the status quo than at changing it.

On the other hand, individual faculty members or students at the bottom of the pyramid often know that there is a problem and have good ideas about how to fix or improve it, but their bottom-up initiatives flounder, not because they don't work -- they do -- but because they don't diffuse or spread throughout the organization.

The real key to effective change in such settings is in the middle -- what Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld at the University of Illinois and others have called lateral alignment. The key to lateral alignment is to reach across the organization to connect the dots across the organization and form a network of willing collaborators, organized not in a hierarchy that works through the fear of authority, but through a network powered by the joy of effective change and cooperative sentiment. In this way, transformation-minded collaborators in disciplines as different as chemical, mechanical, aerospace, electrical, and civil engineering, or even the humanities, social sciences, or the fine and applied arts, work together as a cohesive unit to bring about effective change.

Increasingly, this kind of cross-organizational structure can be found educationally in incubators such as the Illinois Foundry for Innovation in Engineering Education (www.ifoundry.illinois.edu) or in corporate practices as advocated by Holacracy (www.holacracy.org) or WorldBlu (www.worldblu.com).

Habit #3: Collaborative Disruption. One of the difficulties of changing engineering education is that separate institutions believe that small innovations give their organization large competitive advantages against neighboring institutions, and this belief stifles the spread of best practices from institution to institution. The open innovation movement has changed this state of affairs for many business practitioners, and the same kind of collaborative disruption needs to take place in the academy if the scope and degree of changes necessary are to take hold.

In the same way that companies now cooperate in the improvement of Linux or the Android operating system for mobile devices, engineering schools can come together and cooperate and create a new Android Operating System for a New Education. Open course lectures such as those at MIT and EdX are part of the story, but the suggestion here goes beyond content and curriculum and extends to culture and experience.

This third habit requires global collaboration and action, and this is why the Big Beacon (www.bigbeacon.org) is framed as a movement. In the same way that social movements such as the salt movement in India and the civil rights movement in the U.S. brought about needed large-scale change, we urge banding together around the world to bring about the needed change.

Change Now: Promote Three Habits at Three Levels

The future needs more capable engineers, yet the system as it is now scares many off before they start or convinces those who start not to continue. Although the needed changes are difficult and deep, change can take place through the inculcation of habits at three levels.  At a personal level, greater attention to noticing, listening, and questioning or NLQ gets teachers better attuned to students and students more attuned to their own capability. At an organizational level, dot connecting spreads initiative across an organization wherever it originates, and at the level of the whole system the collaborative disruption of open innovation brings the bright spots in different organizations to light, multiplying their effect through reinforcement of shared beliefs and the sharing of effective experiences and practices with those who are aching to try them.

Join the movement by reading the Big Beacon Manifesto on slideshare or download your own copy and share it with your friends at www.bigbeacon.org. Follow the movement on twitter at www.twitter.com/ bigbeacon or like it on Facebook at www.facebook.com/bigbeacon.