Reprintedwith permission from Engineering Times
Educating theEngineer of the Future
By Donna Shirley
Today's world ofengineering is changing and engineers are encountering new challenges. Forinstance, businesses operate at a faster pace, the explosion of high-techenterprises has produced a need for constant and rapid creativity, and evenadvanced engineering research is being conducted within the pressures of aheated business climate.
Businesses aredemanding engineers with not only a high level of skill in their engineeringdiscipline, but with a number of other strengths, such as the ability tocommunicate clearly, the ability to work in multidisciplinary teams, and theability to function in a global culture.
Today'sengineering students are confronted with the possibilities and perils of newtechnology, especially computers and the Internet. The possibilities are thereto allow much more effective engineering learning and work; the perils includethe rapid obsolescence of skills and the concomitant need for lifelong learning.
Surveys ofindustries employing engineers have resulted in comments that while newengineering graduates are well trained in their disciplines, they are oftenunprepared for aspects of real-world work, such as the need for effectivewritten and oral communications, the ability to work effectively in teams, anunderstanding of business practices, and an appreciation of global culture.Heavy discipline requirements in engineering curricula leave little scope fortraining in these other aspects of the world of work. A common problem forengineering colleges is the high attrition rate-about 40% of freshmen do notcontinue in engineering. Anecdotal information indicates that the lack of a linkbetween early education and real engineering is a partial cause of thisattrition.
To meet theneeds of today's engineers, universities must move aggressively to create a newparadigm for their education. At the University of Oklahoma's College ofEngineering, for example, we are taking specific actions to put in place theinfrastructure, processes, materials, equipment, and personnel educate in thisnew way.
Our vision,which we feel should be well on the way to full implementation within fiveyears, defines an open curriculum whereby students enter a design or researchproject as a freshman. The projects will be multidisciplinary in nature, andwill include students across all four years. The students will contribute to theproject within their disciplinary area, but will see their contribution as apart of the multidisciplinary task. Upward progression will occur by proficiencyas demonstrated through various mechanisms.
Seniorengineering students will mentor entry-level students, thereby furthering theirunderstanding of the information and developing management and mentoring skills.Students will learn material as it is necessary for their component of theproject, which will improve their comprehension of the material and teach themlife-long-learning skills. This learning may take place through peer mentoring,Web-based modules, courses, or combinations thereof. Where feasible, courseswill be divided into modules, which would promote "just-in-time"learning in the project-driven curriculum. For instance, if the student'sproject assignment requires the use of differential equations, the student couldfocus on a differential equations module to get the skills necessary to solvethe problem.
We have alreadystarted on this path. For example, a program was instituted in 1998 to haveevery freshman purchase a laptop computer. An infrastructure was put in place sothat the laptops could communicate wirelessly, allowing students and faculty tointeract in new ways inside and outside the classroom. OU professors areactively developing new software tools and processes to take advantage of thisportability and connectivity. There are some growing pains, such as the need formore "wired" classrooms and educational software modules, but theprogram is showing promise of demonstrating a new way to teach engineering.
The changingworld of engineering demands that we alter the way we educate future engineers.We are now well on the way to achieving that goal.
Donna Shirleyis Assistant Dean of Oklahoma University's College of Engineering. She was thefirst woman manager of a NASA program-the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's MarsExploration Program-and the original leader of the team that built the SojournerRover. This article is based on the work of the students, faculty and staff ofthe College of Engineering of the University of Oklahoma.