THE BLOG

Engineering Education in a Not-Too-Distant Day

01/03/2013 05:57 pm ET | Updated Mar 05, 2013

In the year 2023. The year is 2023, and engineering has become the education of choice for an increasing number of college-bound high school seniors. Where once top students aspired to business, law, or medicine, engineering is now seen as both a prestigious and balanced liberal education in a human-centered age dependent upon scientific and technological advance. With an increasing emphasis on engineering as a people profession, larger numbers of women now join their male counterparts to take a growing number of opportunities at engineering schools around the country to the point where gender parity is all but achieved. Furthermore the broader appeal and nature of engineering education has encouraged what used to be called underrepresented minorities to increasingly find their way into engineering colleges.

From the basics to the missing basics. The change is a startling one, and engineering remains an education where science, math and engineering science remain important elements, but widespread reforms adopted in 2018 now teach an engineering canon that respects reflective thinking as applied to technology, human organizations and society, and lifelong learning alike. These missing basics (here and here) helped engineering educators early in the century to stop thinking of the great gifts of Greece and the Western tradition as soft skills, and to start thinking of them as a way to bring conceptual rigor to the mathematical and scientific kind (here and here). Education historians trace the rise and diffusion of these innovations to the Big Beacon movement of collaborative disruption, the diffusion of courses such as Olin College's (here) User-Oriented Collaborative Design (UOCD), Design Nature, and Foundations of Business and Entrepreneurship (FBE), and the adoption of practices such noticing, listening, and questioning (NLQ) by an increasing number of faculty and students alike.

No more dancing with lone wolves. The lone wolf student of the late 20th and early 21st century is also a thing of the past. Teamwork pervades engineering education from the first day a freshman steps foot on campus. Research showed the socialization advantages of such arrangements (here), but it wasn't until some practical experiments earlier in the century showed how to (a) include such teamwork scalably and low cost and (b) in a way that respected student aspirations for helping others, entrepreneurship, and the design of cool technology (here) that schools around the country were able to integrate such pervasive teamwork into the education of young engineers at low cost with modest administration. In 2023, engineering schools and engineering education, more generally, are themselves, more innovative, creative, and entrepreneurial. Engineering education earlier in the century was a stodgy affair, where strictly disciplinary professors talked confidently about "the basics" of engineering as though they were handed down from Mount Sinai by the almighty himself, but now curriculum/programmatic incubators are de rigueur in all the best schools, and continuous and discontinuous innovation is carried on perpetually within a spirit of perpetual novelty, interdisciplinarity, and innovation.

Innovation & entrepreneurship as more than a chrome cognitive hubcap. A primary change is that innovation is no longer an add-on or an option. Where once schools innovated because of the public relations value of jazzy freshmen programs or industrially sponsored senior design courses, or because NSF infused large amounts to create curriculum coalitions, today engineering schools are connected to one another in rich collaborative networks that encourage pervasive and immediate sharing of best practices. Many respectful structure spaces for innovation (RSSIs) connect the departments and colleges of yesteryear, helping them to continue innovating within and between schools. Change artifacts (CAs) are regularly posted on a diverse network of public and privately maintain social and digital media. Moreover, a rich network of bloggers and digerati covers the fast-moving world of engineering education innovation in a way that contrasts with the dearth of coverage that existed as recently as 2012.

Motivated students through autonomy, mastery & purpose. Particularly important to the attraction of innovative students and faculty alike as of late has been the replacement of a carrot and stick approach of traditional extrinsic motivation with a inner-directed sense of intrinsic motivation. Books earlier in the century such as Dan Pink's Drive helped to focus attention on two decades of research by such pioneers as Deci & Ryan (here) and Dweck (here). These led to an understanding of the explosive potential for emotional engagement by students and faculty. Earlier in the century, schools learned the value of respecting student aspirations, thereby helping them develop initiative, confidence, and engineering identity in activities and projects of meaning to them; this opened up the possibility of converting other courses to intrinsically motivated pedagogical style in which students take a significantly large role in mastering traditional course material, relatively autonomously, and for their own purposes. This transformation in student motivation and treatment led to a second transformation in creating a more intrinsically motivated faculty and faculty evaluation.

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