Four Pillars of Engineering Education Reform that Will Attract (and Graduate) More Students

09/24/2012 05:22 pm ET | Updated Nov 24, 2012

Over the last few decades, much time and energy has gone toward reform efforts in engineering education. This work has yielded a great deal of insight into the relative effectiveness of different teaching approaches, and has led to calls for the adoption of experimentally validated pedagogies in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). What the work hasn't addressed as much, though, is one key fundamental question: What are the underlying values in engineering education?

We need to address values because they are critical for enabling real change in engineering education. After all, if you try to make a change in pedagogy or content without addressing the underlying value system, you are likely to fail, as value systems are the social equivalent of immune systems. Additionally, the values we hold greatly affect the experience students have, and, accordingly, who they become.

Following are four core values -- or pillars for reform -- we need to address when discussing engineering education.

Pillar #1: Trust

The noted psychologist Carl Rogers once wrote that one of the implicit assumptions in technical education is that the student cannot be trusted with his or her own education. Unfortunately, that's an accurate depiction of what the current state of affairs is like in most engineering programs: from highly prescribed curricula that assume students can't make choices to our focus on testing and accountability, our approach seems to assume the worst of students and faculty. However, trusting students is actually critical, both to develop their broader competencies and (perhaps counter-intuitively) if we want them to perform better.

Think about life-long learning, for example. Most of what today's graduates will need to learn is currently unknown. If we don't provide them with opportunities to explore and to learn on their own (in other words, if we don't trust them) they won't develop the capacity for self-direction that the rapidly changing world demands.

Trust is also necessary for intrinsic motivation and creativity. Research tells us in order for people to be creative and to be passionately engaged in their work, they need to feel like they have the freedom to make choices and do things on their own.

Finally, trust simply leads to better results. In Finland, where students consistently outperform kids from every other nation in the world, trust is identified as a core value for their education system, so much so that there are no internet filters at Finnish high schools.

It's not easy for professors and teachers to trust students and give them the space to explore. But we need to believe in students even before they believe in themselves.

Pillar #2: Courage

Our educational system teaches us, early on, that failure is something to be avoided at all costs. Certainly no one wants an "F" -- and no one wants to fly in a plane designed by a "D" student. At the same time, as innovators know, failure can be a powerful opportunity for learning and is a necessary part of coming up with new stuff. After all, how do you know whether your idea will work if you're not willing to try some things that don't?  Taking risks intelligently is part of being successful in almost any endeavor.

Helping students develop the capacity to take such risks, and to reframe failure as an opportunity, takes trust on the part of instructors. But it also takes courage on the part of both students and instructors. Unfortunately, courage isn't a value we instill in our educational system. Rather we teach risk avoidance. It's time to replace some of the fear of failure we currently have with the courage to learn from failure and try something new.

Pillar #3: Connection

In most schools, engineering education is an individually-focused endeavor, and it is often divorced from the broader community. For example, a common story in engineering education tells of the first semester calculus class, in which the professor enters the class on the first day and tells students, "Look to your left; look to your right. Two of the three of you won't be here at the end of the year." Success in such a context means doing better than one's peers, and the emphasis is almost always on individual performance. It's survival of the fittest.

Although individual performance definitely matters, the reality is that engineering is a team sport. Furthermore, while engineering typically involves making "things," engineering is really about creating things for people. As such, students need to learn to collaborate and to understand people other than themselves.

Connection also makes sense educationally. The educational psychology literature makes it clear that people are more motivated and more effective when they feel that the things they are working on matter to others: to teammates and to members of the community at large. So let's make engineering education more connected from day one and recognize this in our value system.

Pillar #4: Joy

Engineering education is serious business, and many people view it as four or more years of pain, with students equating "challenging" with "painful." And how could they not? We often hear how they "survive" particularly difficult courses. Even faculty warn that problem sets are "going to hurt." And because the education is demanding, many students set aside the other activities (e.g., music, athletics, drama, art, etc.) that they have pursued since childhood.

Certainly engineering is challenging, but it also can be fun. In his book Creating Innovators, Tony Wagner highlights the extent to which innovators are characterized by passion, play, and purpose. So let's stop talking about engineering education as a painful journey. Rather, let's support and reinforce the idea -- and the reality -- that learning engineering can be a joyful experience, filled with passion, play, and purpose.

Values Matter

For years, engineering education has focused on teaching the right stuff, in the right way. It's a very scientific approach, and both the content and the teaching approach matter. But just as important (although much less visible) are the implicit values that we as educators bring into the classroom. The 21st century demands a new kind of engineer, a new kind of engineering education, and a new set of educational values. It's time for us to acknowledge and assert the importance of trust, joy, connection, and courage.

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