THE BLOG
11/19/2012 12:49 pm ET Updated Jan 19, 2013

From Consumption to Creation: A New Way to Think About Ownership in Engineering Education

For generations, engineering education -- and education in all disciplines for that matter -- has been a consumption process. The role of the student is to sit, observe, and absorb while the instructor "pours" knowledge into eager minds. Such an approach may have served us well in the past, but in today's global and technological world, we need to change the emphasis of education to that of a creation process -- one in which students take charge of and play an active role in their education.

In his book Creating Innovators, Tony Wagner argues that education for innovation works best if students are actually creating new "things" -- designing real systems in a real context. Education as creation -- as opposed to education as consumption -- allows students to more effectively acquire the skills and knowledge innovation requires, because that knowledge is acquired for a real reason that matters to the student. This approach makes a lot of sense, both in that it develops the students' capacity to identify and acquire new knowledge as needed, and in that it allows students to work on things that matter.

The shift from students passively consuming the knowledge that is put in front of them to actively seeking out the knowledge and skills as part of a creation process is a powerful one. But if we're going to re-frame engineering education as creation rather than consumption, we need to address a deep framing issue: how the student and the instructor think about education itself.

Given the magnitude of today's tuition bills, it is not surprising that education is usually framed as a product or an investment. But there's a danger to that framing, because it can make us think of education as purely transactional: "I pay tuition; you give me knowledge." Rather, educators need to guide students to the belief that "I am in control of my own learning. I am going to make decisions that help me to improve. I am paying tuition to be in an environment and with people that support me in this quest." In other words, we need to help students move from being consumers to creators of their educations.

This is a radical shift for students and educators alike. It's about rethinking the concept of ownership in education and implementing a support system that enables and allows students to claim control of the learning process.

We saw this shift happen at Olin College in Needham, Mass. in 2001, when we invited 30 new high school graduates to become "Olin Partners," joining faculty and staff in designing the college. This fresh group of students had a say in everything, from the curriculum and dorms to the school's honor code and extracurricular clubs. They worked with faculty members to build Olin from the ground up.

While we made this decision in part out of necessity, it turned out to be a critical moment in the institution's history and in the way they shaped education. Students became co-designers of the college and set the culture that students are partners in their education. It created an atmosphere of "we're in this together." When something went wrong, everyone stepped up to collaborate and fix it. To this day, students at Olin are more reflective about their education and have a real sense of ownership in their learning.

Can similar cultures be instilled elsewhere? Yes. Even though Olin was in a unique situation, it is always possible to be intentional about shifting culture, and we've seen plenty of examples, from Illinois (UIUC) to Brazil (UFMG) to Singapore (Singapore Poly), of schools that are taking positive steps in this direction. Here are some suggestions to help facilitate the shift in more schools:
  • Be explicit about why it matters. In most engineering schools today, both faculty and students approach education as a consumption process. Few professors, if any, talk to students about how they need to take ownership of their learning. Instead, they focus on what students need to learn in order to pass the exam. True success, however, is about more than memorizing facts to regurgitate on a test. To be product creators, tomorrow's engineers need to know how to make those key decisions that will facilitate their learning and creativity. When faculty promotes the concept and attitude that students play a large role in the educational experience, students will take the reins and help lead the way.
  • Be explicit about involving students. The way to promote the new attitude is by being explicit about expectations. For example, on the first day of class the professor can say, "We're in this together. My objective for you is that you find ways to make sense of this material and take ownership of the material so you can figure out what's working for you and what isn't working for you. We can talk about your results and change course as necessary." This straightforward approach is a simple way to bring students into ownership.
  • Take small, but concrete, steps. Talking about ownership alone won't get you there. However, there are many proven pedagogical techniques that, if you probe deeply, you find that they are very much about ownership. For example, a simple and readily accepted approach faculty can implement is called the "muddiest point" card. At the end of class, the instructor takes the last two or three minutes and asks students to write on an index card the one thing they're confused about or the one thing they're unhappy about in the class. The professor collects those cards, and at the beginning of the next class they review the students' concerns. They engage the students to help come up with solutions to the challenges cited. This is a small but widely accepted pedagogical change. And if you think about it from a values perspective, it's about having the students actively engaged in taking ownership in their education.
Rethink the Future of Engineering

In order for us to meet the demand for and expectations of future engineers, making this shift in ownership of education is crucial. Why? Because engineers are creators, not consumers. If we want the future generation of engineers to simply think in terms of "What am I supposed to do to earn my paycheck?" then the old approach to education is fine. However, if we want to unleash a new generation of engineers who enter the workforce and ask "What are we trying to accomplish to change the world?" then we need students who take ownership in their education and who focus on creation. Those are two distinctly different futures for engineers and the engineering profession. Which future do you want to promote?

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.