The future of engineering education: More questions than answers
What skill sets will US engineers need to cope with the rapidly changing world, how many engineers will there be, and where will they be located? These are just some of the many questions engineering educators in North America are asking as they form the curriculum for future generations of engineers, according to Leah Jamieson, IEEE 2007 President and CEO, in her DesignCon 2007 keynote.
In the address, Jamieson, who is also the John A. Edwardson Dean of Engineering at the College of Engineering at Purdue University, presented a laundry list of questions engineering educators are now pondering so they can best prepare young engineers for the challenges they will face.
"What is the university's role in thinking about what engineering careers are going to look like in the future, and what are our responsibilities in providing our students with the opportunities to have careers that are going to not only prepare them for the day they graduate but probably more importantly for the 40 years after that?" Jamieson asked. "We have to ask ourselves, will graduates have the attributes and skills that they need for careers over the next 40 years?"
One factor driving curriculum changes is the rise of new technologies that require multidisciplinary skill sets. "There is an increasing need to communicate across disciplines in order to have effective system-level designs," she said, noting that the rate of change, globalization, and other workforce issues are also driving changes.
In the United States, educators also struggle with is a general lack of interest in engineering, Jamieson said, citing a survey of high-school students that showed interest in engineering dropping 18% since 1991. Other studies indicate that while pre-baccalaureate degrees (such as associate's degrees) and baccalaureate degrees are booming in China and showing moderate growth India , they are flat to decreasing in the United States .
In addition, many academics estimate that the half-life of engineering knowledge is between two to seven years, Jamieson said. "I can tell you for us at the universities, if it's less than five or certainly less than four [years] we're going to get scared because it means students come in as freshmen and by the time they are done, half of what we've done for those first couple of years may or may not be relevant?" she said. "It's a frightening thought, and so it means we have to keep asking ourselves, what are the parts that stay relevant, so that in fact the education is current after the students graduate or at least current on the day they do graduate."
Jamieson discussed several education recommendations from organizations like the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), the American Competitiveness Initiative and Innovate America. Many of these reports call for broader curriculum beyond extra classes in math and device physics for engineers. Some also call for a broader curriculum for liberal-arts students, suggesting they take at least take introductory engineering courses to perhaps inspire them to pursue engineering careers.
Jamieson noted that others in the academic community are calling for more extreme measures that would set higher bars for engineering accreditation—making it so that students would not become "accredited engineers" until they obtain what we now call a master's degree. The idea would not go over well with engineering students and would fare even worse with their parents, she admitted.
Jamieson's keynote will be available in its entirety on the DesignCon site.