Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Friday, January 29, 2010

Future of engineering education is topic of upcoming debate

In this rapidly changing world, the demands of the engineering profession are evolving and engineering education programs must keep pace, say two scholars who will discuss the issue at an upcoming event.

“A Conversation on the Future of Engineering Education,” with U-M President Emeritus James Duderstadt and Stanford University professor Sheri Sheppard, will take place 2:30-4 p.m. Feb. 5 in the Gerald R. Ford Library, 1000 Beal Ave. on North Campus.

Duderstadt also is University Professor of Science and Engineering. Sheppard, a mechanical engineering professor, is a senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Each presenter authored a report on engineering education in 2008.

Sheppard and Duderstadt agree that engineering education programs must do a better job of preparing students for the real world of the 21st century. Today discipline-focused undergraduate programs are built around imparting technical knowledge. But once in the field, engineers need a broader base, the scholars say.

The professors disagree about how to achieve this more expansive education.

Duderstadt advocates a more liberal undergraduate education for budding engineers and a graduate degree requirement to enter the profession.

“My conclusion is that just as with medicine, we can no longer expect that an undergraduate degree can produce world-class engineers,” Duderstadt says. “In a world where people will have to continue to change and adapt, they need a broader undergraduate education and a practice-based post-graduate education.”

Critics of Duderstadt’s plan say this could detract students from entering the field, but Duderstadt believes it will do the opposite at a time when off-shoring of engineering jobs might worry some students enough to pick a different profession.

“We need to give the best and brightest something more satisfying and more secure,” he says.

Sheppard’s report focuses on the undergraduate degree. She acknowledges the challenges educators face as they aim to teach an ever-expending scientific and technical knowledge base. She advocates a new perspective that focuses on professionalism.

“We advocate drawing professionalism as the central thread of designing engineering programs. Students need to think about rules, responsibilities, accountability and codes of ethics,” Sheppard says.

“There’s evidence that some students aren’t quite sure whether engineering actually affects people.”

A program organized around professionalism would help students see how the discipline is integrated into society. And engineering programs would serve the field better, she says, if labs and design projects were more often offered concurrently with classes, rather than late in the degree program.

Other engineering education movements are under way. David Munson, the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering, is a co-author of a 2009 report by the American Society for Engineering Education. That report asserts that hands-on learning, entrepreneurship and a global perspective are vital parts of an engineering curriculum. Michigan Engineering offers these opportunities through its multidisciplinary design program and other avenues.

“For our nation to prosper in this increasingly technical and globalized society, we need to ensure that the next generation of engineers has the skill, wisdom and creativity to face the challenges of tomorrow,” Munson says.

Munson also is leading a delegation of college deans who seek to broaden engineering education in elementary and high school as a way to entice more students — particularly from underserved communities — into the field and help them succeed.

Duderstadt’s report — “Engineers for a Changing World: A Roadmap to the Future of Engineering Practice, Research and Education” — was funded by the National Science Foundation. Sheppard’s report — “Educating Engineers: Designing for the Future of the Field” — was funded by the Carnegie Foundation.

This event is organized by the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching North. Register to attend the event at www.engin.umich.edu/crltnorth. For more information, contact Cynthia Finelli at cfinelli@umich.edu.