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The Past as Prologue

In presenting this document for review and use by the community, we recognize that this is not the first time for serious discussions about the character of engineering education in the United States. Some 50 years ago, such debate led to the introduction of the engineering science model of engineering education. It produced engineers who “practiced” differently, and that led to many new products and technologies that were developed more rapidly and were of higher quality than those developed by the semi-empirical methods that were then the norm for engineering practice. Today, the practice of engineering needs to change further because of demands for technologies and products that exceed existing knowledge bases and because of the changing professional environment in which engineers need to operate. That change must be encouraged and facilitated by changes in engineering education, but in contemplating such changes, we are sobered by two realities: first, that scattered interventions across engineering education over the past decade or so have not resulted in systemic change, but rather only in isolated instances of success in individual programs, on individual campuses; and second, that the disconnect between the system of engineering education and the practice of engineering appears to be accelerating. This is due to the explosion of knowledge, the growing complexity and interdependence of societal problems, the worldwide reach of those problems, and the need to operate in a global economy. However, we are optimistic that the community of advocates recognizing the need for



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Educating the Engineer of 2020: Adapting Engineering Education to the New Century 2 The Past as Prologue In presenting this document for review and use by the community, we recognize that this is not the first time for serious discussions about the character of engineering education in the United States. Some 50 years ago, such debate led to the introduction of the engineering science model of engineering education. It produced engineers who “practiced” differently, and that led to many new products and technologies that were developed more rapidly and were of higher quality than those developed by the semi-empirical methods that were then the norm for engineering practice. Today, the practice of engineering needs to change further because of demands for technologies and products that exceed existing knowledge bases and because of the changing professional environment in which engineers need to operate. That change must be encouraged and facilitated by changes in engineering education, but in contemplating such changes, we are sobered by two realities: first, that scattered interventions across engineering education over the past decade or so have not resulted in systemic change, but rather only in isolated instances of success in individual programs, on individual campuses; and second, that the disconnect between the system of engineering education and the practice of engineering appears to be accelerating. This is due to the explosion of knowledge, the growing complexity and interdependence of societal problems, the worldwide reach of those problems, and the need to operate in a global economy. However, we are optimistic that the community of advocates recognizing the need for

OCR for page 13
Educating the Engineer of 2020: Adapting Engineering Education to the New Century change is reaching a critical mass and that coordinated action on a broad scale may be possible and effective. Efforts to realign engineering education, of varying scopes, have taken place in almost every decade of the twentieth century, beginning in the early 1900s. (See the brief history provided by Bruce Seely in Appendix A.) As a student of this history, Seely suggests points of continuity between this initiative and efforts in past eras, including: an explicit desire to increase the public recognition of the role of engineering professionals, to enhance the social status and prestige of the community by depicting a compelling vision of engineering; a clear recognition of the need to attract and sustain the interest of students from the groups continually and currently underrepresented in the study and practice of engineering; the complex relationship between academic engineering, the corporations and large industrial concerns that employ the great majority of engineering graduates, and the nation’s economy; a continuous and sometimes contentious debate about the role of liberal studies (humanistic and social science courses) in preparing the professional engineer; a persistent struggle to arrive at balance in the several curricular elements in the undergraduate engineering program—the scientific base, the technical core, professional and general education; and lurking concerns about institutional inertia, whether in the form of faculty resistance to change or the challenges of moving the “battleship” of the modern research university. He also suggests that present efforts are characterized by some positive points of departure with past efforts, particularly: a motivation to think ahead as a community, to step beyond the immediacy of the moment and the challenges of the present to imagine the future; the active engagement of experts from the field of management in the first phase of the Engineer of 2020 Project, informing the process of gathering facts, of forecasting future conditions,

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Educating the Engineer of 2020: Adapting Engineering Education to the New Century and of developing scenarios of the possible contexts in which the engineer of 2020 will pursue his or her profession; a vision that an engineering degree has the potential to become a liberal arts degree for the twenty-first century; a realization that the present advocates are perhaps the first generation of reformers to take seriously the opportunity for fashioning a wider portal for engineering, viewing engineering education as concerned with more than the graduation of practicing engineers; an undercurrent of awareness that current complexities are so daunting that tinkering at the edges—reforming one course, one program, one department at a time, developing isolated instances of success here and there—is no longer a viable response if we are to build the kind of robust programs in research and education now needed to strengthen the U.S. engineering community by 2020; and a recognition that today’s concerns extend beyond undergraduate engineering per se, to the interplay of the engineering profession, the practice of engineering, and engineering education as a system. It is our belief that many, if not all, of these factors are presently in play, which yields a sense of optimism that meaningful reengineering of engineering education can occur in the near future to allow effective preparation of engineering graduates who will be in the most productive phase of their careers in 2020.

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