Professor wants to change engineering education

-October 28, 2014

Prof. Mark Somerville of Olin College of Engineering

You probably recall the pain and suffering you experienced getting through university. Do you remember studying with books and perhaps a few labs for three years, then having to do a senior design project? Did you see many students drop out? If you did, then you've experienced a culture that professors Mark Somerville and David E. Goldberg say must change so that bright young people will choose a career in engineering and thrive at school rather than just trying to get though.

Somerville and Goldberg have written The Whole New Engineer: The Coming Revolution in Engineering Education where they argue that the traditional way of teaching engineering no longer works. To learn about the book and engineering education culture, I met with Prof. Somerville in his office at Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass. I did receive a copy of the book and plan to read it.

What inspired you to write the book?
For me, the story started with the founding of Olin College in 1997. NSF and others were emphasizing a need for a change in the way engineering was taught. There was a need for more emphasis on design, teamwork, and communications. These same changes were called for in the 1960s and again in the 1990s. Since then, technical instruction certainly changed, but not the way engineering was taught. The weakness in the engineering educational system was that people were not being taught to design and solve problems. Olin was founded as a reaction to that call.

It seems as though we ask the wrong questions about what should change. The focus has been on questioning what we teach as opposed to questioning on the culture of engineering education. You can get an idea of that by talking to engineering students. Their experience is that of suffering for four years so that they can become an engineer and get a good job at the end. The actual experiences are not that of empowering students but that of some people survive and some people don't. We see that in the language used in engineering education, such as the term "weed-out courses." That's not talked about. Instead, we talk about increasing the number of students in the engineering pipeline, about studying math and science in high schools, and in how students need to stick with it. As a community, we haven't addressed the culture of engineering education. Because of that, the existing culture tends to perpetuate itself.

Does that "weed out" culture scare people away from studying engineering?
Yes, a fair number of people in middle school and high school look at the reputation of engineering is, both in terms of what engineers do and what it takes to get an engineering degree, and the decide to study something else. There have been surveys done on what people think of engineering. For example, people think of scientists as saving lives, but not engineers. The reputation of engineering school and the language we use tends to scare people away rather than invite them in.

Olin College of Engineering, located in Needham, Mass.

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