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Vicki May Headshot

In Search of the 'Piece of Resistance' to Increase Interest in Engineering

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I must confess: I did not play with Legos as a kid. My brother played with Legos; he became a lawyer. I preferred arts and crafts and playing outside; I became an engineer -- a professor of engineering at that. (Yikes. An engineer who didn't play with Legos?! That's almost like saying you're a chef but don't like food, isn't it? I'm hoping they don't take my degrees away.)

Unlike me, my children, Spencer and Elsa, love playing with Legos, so I took them to see The Lego Movie, not expecting to enjoy it myself. But I loved it! Maybe I can keep my degrees after all. My children loved the movie too, by the way, both of them.

In The Lego Movie Emmet, an ordinary LEGO minifigure, finds the "Piece of Resistance," thus fulfilling a prophecy that the Piece of Resistance will be found and that whoever finds it is Special and will save the universe. It turns out that the prophecy was made up, bringing into question whether Emmet is Special or not. Alas, if Emmet is not Special, who will save the universe?

We engineers have been searching for years for the Piece of Resistance, something to save the engineering universe or at least increase interest in engineering. Despite a growing need for engineers in the world, we struggle as a nation to attract students to engineering. Talented students in the U.S. are instead going into business, law and medicine, among other professions. It is not that we haven't been trying to attract students to engineering, but increasing the number of students interested in engineering has proven elusive. And don't even get me started on women in engineering. The number of women and underrepresented minorities graduating with degrees in engineering remains low despite years of trying to attract these students.

Historically, engineering was a broad, interdisciplinary profession. In the 1900s students selected one of five basic branches of engineering: chemical, civil, electrical, industrial, or mechanical. Engineering has become increasingly specialized, with hundreds of areas of specialization, such as aerospace, biomedical, architectural, agricultural, and computer engineering. Specialization is not just occurring at the graduate level; undergraduates at most institutions are required to declare their major and specialization within engineering before arriving on campus. Once on campus, the number of electives tends to be limited, with most students taking a prescriptive set of courses to fulfill the major. In the Architectural Engineering Department at Cal Poly, where I taught for several years, students typically take eight elective courses during their four years on campus; they get to choose just eight of the 60-plus courses required for the major. For students who know they want to become architectural engineers, this is a great path (and a great school), but for those who aren't sure, that doesn't leave a lot of room for experimentation or additional courses. Cal Poly is not alone; most schools' curricula have similar limitations on electives.

Yes, the world we live in is getting more complex, and we need people with specialized knowledge, but what is the right level of specialization? And do we need specialization at the undergraduate level? The National Academy of Engineering found that overspecialization "can result in both a lack of perspective and of self-confidence." Their report is actually focused on overspecialization among Ph.D. students, where I would argue a higher level of specialization is expected. Specialization seems to be creeping toward younger and younger students, with students in high school already being forced to choose different tracks. Shouldn't we be giving our undergraduate (and high school) students the opportunity to learn broadly and gain confidence and perspective?

Does a narrow focus of study result in better engineers? Or is a broader education better? We've been debating depth versus breadth for years; this is nothing new. Most would argue that depth is better, which seems counter to my argument, but I think we are really saying the same thing. Curricula that are packed with prerequisites tend to be focused on content. But are the details and facts really that important? The concepts and learning how to think, learning how to apply concepts in the broader context, are the most important aspects of learning, especially at the undergraduate level. That doesn't come from memorizing details.

So what is the Piece of Resistance? And does Emmet have to be Special to save the universe? In The Lego Movie the Piece of Resistance is the cap from a tube of KrazyGlue, a simple object but the key to stopping Lord Business from squelching innovation. Lord Business wants to glue all the Lego creations together so people will stop trying to create their own designs. The irony here is that Legos are largely sold in kits these days, with kids expected to simply follow the directions rather than use their own imaginations. Sound familiar? Engineering, as a discipline, is forcing students to buy specific engineering kits by requiring them to take a prescribed set of courses to meet the requirements of a certain specialization. What happened to choice? And to the interdisciplinary nature of engineering? It must be that, like Emmet, our students aren't Special and therefore can't make their own decisions about what is right for them. Note: Special or not, Emmet does end up helping save the Lego universe.

Breaking down the barriers to achieving a more interdisciplinary approach to engineering will not be easy, but it is possible. At Dartmouth students are admitted and given almost two years to declare a major. Those who choose engineering take courses in all the core disciplines of engineering, thus obtaining a broad background in engineering. Students have the option to specialize in their fifth year, but flexibility is built into the program, and interdisciplinary classes and projects are encouraged. Is this liberal engineer model working? The number of students graduating from Dartmouth with a degree in engineering has been steadily increasing, as have applications to the engineering school. And the number of females graduating with degrees in engineering from Dartmouth is consistently above 30 percent, whereas the national average is less than 20 percent; Wyldstyle, the female protagonist in The Lego Movie, who seems to be able to build anything, would be proud.

So what is the Piece of Resistance that will save the engineering universe? I'm not sure the cap from a tube of KrazyGlue will quite do it, but I'm hoping we can find a way to allow more students to make choices (the missing Piece of Resistance?). Students all have the potential to be Special and create their own interdisciplinary paths to engineering if we give them the opportunity.