March 26th, 2009

Unsettling Discoveries from Analysis of Engineering Education


I’ve been reading a book on engineering education. Actually it’s a call to redesign engineering education, and it’s based on an impressive study that involved visits to 11 mechanical and electrical engineering program at six very diverse institutions, a review of about 100 self-study reports from 40 different school (prepared for the accreditation process), as well as interviews with student and faculty and classroom observations. The call for reform is based on a mountain of data.

What they found is not entirely unique to engineering education as the following quotes illustrate.

“Developing specialized knowledge should be central to engineering education. However, as we observed in sophomore engineering science courses through upper-division technical courses, the focus of the effort is largely on transmitting a body of knowledge, training students to apply this knowledge in solving well-posed problems. Yet, in professional practice, problems are rarely well posed. They require approximation and judgment—thinking at the highest level of reflection.” (p. 30)

“We observed that the faculty and students feel enormous pressure to cover everything … a faculty member described the content of these courses as ‘something you need to learn … before you get to the next series of courses.’ Thus, opportunities for the kind of deep learning and understanding that allows students to become, over time, sophisticated, independent learners are lost in the effort to teach everything. Although faculty told us that it is important for students to ‘know how’—and know when, where and why those principles are applied to analyze engineering problems and situations—we found that students have few opportunities to develop this dimension of knowledge.” (p. 31)

“Based on our observations and interviews with faculty members, it seems that Mann’s description of the teaching practices at MIT when it opened in 1865 holds to this very day: ‘[I]nstruction was given mainly by lectures, in which the professor presented to the class a logically well organized explanation of the general principles and theories of the subject in hand. Lectures were illustrated by experiments and accompanied by blackboard demonstrations. The students took notes, recited on them at regular quiz hours, and worked problems that illustrate the principles and theories presented.’” (pp. 39-40)

All disciplines could benefit from this kind of systematic and in-depth analysis of current practice in light of professional needs. I suspect that most disciplines would make discoveries as disconcerting as these.

Reference: Sheppard, S. D., Macatangy, K., Colby, A., and Sullivan, W. M. Educating Engineers: Designing for the Future of the Field. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009.

—Maryellen Weimer