Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Is It Time to Shut Down Engineering Colleges?

I've said before that something is wrong with engineering education in America, so I agree with Dominic Grasso that our engineering training in the U.S. needs to change:
Do we gain anything by educating engineers in the United States?

I would argue that, with a few exceptions, we really don’t. As they are currently trained, American engineers are at relative parity with their foreign-born counterparts, are more expensive, and offer no competitive advantage. But there is a way out of this predicament, one that would provide a raison d’etre for American engineering programs, and make for the kind of design the planet now so urgently needs.

Faced with the increasingly complex design challenges of the 21st century — an era where resources of every kind are reaching their limit, human populations are exploding, and global-warming related environmental catastrophe beckons — engineers need to grow beyond their traditional roles as problem-solvers to become problem-definers.

To catalyze this shift, our engineering curriculum, now packed with technical courses, needs a fresh start. Today’s engineers must be educated to think broadly in fundamental and integrative ways about the basic tenets of engineering. If we define engineering as the application of math and science in service to humanity, these tenets must include study of the human condition, the human experience, the human record.

How do we make room in the crowded undergraduate engineering curriculum for students to explore disciplines outside math and science – literature and economics, history and music, philosophy and languages – that are vital if we are to create a competitive new generation of engineering leaders? By scaling back the number of increasingly narrow, and quickly outmoded technical courses students are now required to take — leaving only those that teach them to think like engineers and to gain knowledge to solve problems. Students need to have room to in their schedules for wide ranging elective study.

There is a need for advanced engineering training, to be sure, but the place for that is at the graduate level — in one of the growing number of nine-month masters programs, perhaps.

Teaching engineers to think, in the broadest, cross-disciplinary sense, is critical. Consider two examples of the failures of the old way.
But those two examples, the only given, seem to betray a deeper motivation.
The breach of the levees in New Orleans, which has unleashed a torrent of human suffering, came about not solely because engineers designed for a category 3, rather than a category 4, hurricane. It was caused by decades of engineering and technical hubris, which resulted in loss of wetlands and overbuilding on a grand scale. Would engineers who had studied economics, ecology, anthropology, or history have acted the same?

Or consider Love Canal (or any of a thousand other environmental debacles of the last 50 years). Would designers who had read Thoreau’s Walden, studied Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, or admired Monet’s poppies have allowed toxic chemicals to be dumped into the environment so remorselessly?
From this I infer an environmentalist agenda that may be clouding Grasso's analysis. I think blaming Love Canal on the lack of well-rounded engineering education is simply off the mark. As to the more contemporary example of the New Orleans levy, it seems that their failure had less to do with engineering "hubris" and more to do with good old-fashioned corruption and mismanagement (IE: "low-bidder").


Lonnie said...

I am in agreement. I staff for some of the largest tech companies and 98% of engineers placed are not U.S born. Corporate mentality thrives in the realm of "Cheaper, faster, and cost effective". The world is getting smaller by the minute and communication speeds are increasing at an alarming rate. Perhaps we are in a new lexicon, even a new era where boundaries are truly non-existant. Engineering collages are increasingly important in the hiring process because the majority of employers have a preference and requirement of candidates to have a secondary education in the U.S.

I think our U.S born engineers are beaten by a lack of drive and focus to stay competitive. Another factor is that U.S born engineers have a tendency to change jobs frequently in contrast to their counterparts. This looks bad in front of a hiring manager. These comments are expressed from my direct experience and discussions at the hiring level.


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