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Engineering Thesis

This is an extract from Engineering thesis:

The evolution of engineering education is influenced by many factors. While the accreditation process has been the most significant change agent in recent years in the United States, it is by no means the only one. New engineering methods, changing patterns of employment, new kinds of employers, the restructuring of industry, and globalization all have had an impact on how engineering education is structured and delivered. This paper describes some of the ways in which the education process is being modified in response.

Engineering colleges in the United States, as elsewhere in the world, are subject to many forces, both external and internal. Over the course of many years, these forces ebb and flow and there are periods of stability and periods of relatively rapid change. It is the opinion of this author that due to the number of factors, US engineering education is embarking on a period of activity that will result in some significant modifications to the way instruction is delivered as well as in some of the details of the curriculum.

The factors that are influencing engineering education today are primarily external to the engineering collages themselves. While individual institutions may be experiencing internal pressures such as evolution of institutional mission, changes in administration, funding shortages, and institutional curricular requirements, these are generally idiosyncratic.

The external factors that will be discussed fall into three general categories: accreditation, educational technology, and the work environment of the practicing engineer. In the last category are such things as the changing nature of engineering employment, globalization of the engineering process, and new methods of engineering.

While not all engineering colleges will respond to these influences in the same way, it is unlikely that any will be untouched by them. Certainly they are issues that need to be considered in planning for the future of any engineering education program.

A. Accreditation-EC 2000
Engineering accreditation in the United States dates from 1936 when the Engineers Council for Professional Development (ECPD) was established. During the ensuing years, ECPD was transformed into the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) but its basic structure and its overall purpose -to improve the quality of engineering education by establishing minimum standards – have not changed.

Two characteristics differentiate engineering accreditation in the United States from similar processes in most other countries. First, ABET is not a governmental agency, nor is it an association of engineering schools. It is an association of the several professional societies that represent the various branches of the engineering profession in the United States. Thus the members of ABET are the institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineering (IEEE), the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), and other twenty-odd engineering societies in the US. Representatives of these societies, both engineering practitioners and faculty members, represent the profession of engineering as contrasted with the government or the university faculties.

B. A second difference is that accreditation is, as far as ABET is concerned, voluntary. While some states – New York is an example – insist that engineering programs in both public and private universities be accredited, there is no federal requirement. The advantage of accreditation are sufficient, however, to make it a de facto requirement in order to be accepted into the community of engineering colleges.

I accentuate these two differences so that non-US reader may better understand the content of the new ABET criteria, Engineering Criteria 2000, or simply EC 2000. The new criteria have been developed by representatives of the professional societies with very strong input from industrial practitioners. As noted above, the universities really have no choice whether or not they will comply. So what are the important features of the new criteria? In my opinion, there are really only two.

First, the new criteria attempt t encourage institutions to experiment more curriculum. Programs are invited – indeed required – to specify their overall program objectives and it is anticipated that these will not all look alike. This has caused a great deal of discussion within faculties as they prepare for evaluation. It is not yet clear that all this discussion will result in any significant differentiation.

Second – and I believe this to be the most important aspect – EC 2000 requires programs to a) identify the capabilities that their graduates should possess, b) establish a system for assessing how well their graduates have attained those capabilities, and c) demonstrate that the results of that assessment have been used to improve the educational process. To the extent that engineering programs are successful in implementing this assessment and feedback process, there is enormous potential for changing and improving engineering education. Of course, successful programs have always been introspective and evaluative but the clarification of desired attributes that is now required will require greater attention to the task. For the next five years, engineering educators will be applying engineering principles to the process of education and this should result in positive changes to education and to the graduates that are produced. A few moved into other professions such as law and medicine, but this number was and is relatively small. Many more went on to study business, often receiving an MBA degree, but their goal was generally to go into technical management.

In recent years, however, a new trend has emerged. Non-engineering industries such as financial services, accounting, and business consulting have learned that engineers have a great deal to offer. With their well-developed problem solving skills, their ability to understand and deal with risk, and their relative comfort with and understanding of the increasingly quantitative and technical issues of modern commerce, engineers can be very useful to the business world. While hard data have not been complied, there are many anecdotes of insurance companies being the largest employer of a university’s engineering graduates, of accounting firms interviewing ore engineers than accountants, and of alumni writing back from Wall Street instead of Dearborn.

Will this have an impact on curriculum? If the trend continues and if individual programs – in the spirit of EC 2000 – identify the business world as a significant market niche for their graduates, it is likely that their curricula will change to better prepare their graduates for success in that world. A more interesting question, perhaps, is to what extent is this trend being observed in other countries and will it continue to grow in the US and throughout the world.

C. Me, Incorporated
During the “downsizing” years of the 1980’s and early 1990’s there was a fundamental change in the employment pattern of engineers in the United States. In order to maintain greater flexibility in the technical workforce, many companies instituted or expanded the practice of hiring ” consultants” either as individuals or as teams subcontracted from firms established for that purpose. This practice reduces the long term obligation of the company to a portion of its employees and, probably more importantly, allows the company to select the expertise it needs at any given time without having to maintain that expertise continually. Thus, if a company needs a mechanical engineering team for a one-time development project, it would not hire a large number of mechanical engineers as its own employees but would instead contract with consulting firm for a fixed team for a fixed time to do the job. At the completion of the project, the engineers move out and the company has no further obligation.

This arrangement has both advantages and disadvantages for the company. Certainly it is desirable to have flexibility in the work force, the capability of expanding and contracting areas of employee specialization in response to changing needs, and reduction of long-term obligations to employees. On the other hand, the competitive advantage associated with having exclusive access to a highly skilled workforce might be lost. Company loyalty and identification with the culture and goals of the company would certainly be significantly diminished.

For the engineer, there are probably more disadvantages than advantages. While the rate of pay may be better, the situation regarding benefits may be less desirable. Obviously, there will be considerably less certainty with regard to continuity of employment. Perhaps the greater implication, however, is that there is no longer the “employer imperative” to continue to advance technically. Engineers are hired for what they can do now, not for what they can do in the future.

What does this imply for the curriculum? For one thing, it suggest that graduates may need better developed business skills if they are to be more responsible for individual benefits and financial planning. Since they will also experience more independence in their career planning, they will need more highly developed skills in self-education and a very clear understanding of the need not only to stay current but to be able always to offer more on the next job than they did on the last. Finally- and I’m sure this will be argued- I believe that they will need a heightened understanding of the fundamentals to prepare them for self-education as well as the fleetness and versatility that a consulting career requires.

I must close this section with a caveat; it is not all clear that this trend will continue. There is evidence that some companies feel they have downsized excessively and that they need to expand their permanent technical workforce. Engineers are also finding that “regular” jobs now easy to find and most consider then more valuable than working as a consultant. None the less, it is likely that there will still be a large number of relatively independent engineers and that some attention to the curriculum that best prepares them for being ” a one person corporation” would not be misplaced.

D. New Engineering Methods

For decades, engineering educators have debated the relative importance of fundamentals versus methods. How thoroughly does one need to understand mechanics of materials in order to properly size a beam or a column using the engineering handbook? The argument has always been that a good understanding of fundamentals will develop intuition and will help the engineer to identify errors that can occur when an established method is extended into new regimes. With the development of faster and larger computers and with the growing effectiveness of computer programming tools, we now have available design packages that outpace our intuition so far that this argument may no longer be valid. Does one really need to know the theory of finite element analysis to do useful mechanical design? Does one really need to know how to do integration by parts in order to use a natural language mathematics package?

Because of these new engineering tools and methods, this debate is intensifying. Coupled with the new freedom that is being afforded by EC 2000, it is likely that different institutions will settle the debate in different ways. Some may educate their students with an accent on fundamentals with the expectation that their graduates will do more to develop tools that to use them, while others will choose to educate their students in a more applied direction. Whichever direction an institution chooses to go, it is essential that this question be central part of their curricular discussions and that prospective students and their prospective employers be informed of the decisions.

E. Distance Learning (and not so distant)
For centuries, technology has been used to increase the separation – in both space and time- between the teacher and the student. The development of the blackboard allowed on e teacher to address many students, thereby increasing spatial separation and increasing instructional efficiency. Invention of the printing press, and the resultant printing of textbooks and other references, allowed students to acquire information without the physical presence of the teacher, increasing spatial separation and also enabling temporal separation as well. In more recent times, audio recording, video recording, remote real time video, various “learning machines”, and other technologies have had some impact on this increasing separation, but it has been minor. Now, the marriage of the computer to our growing capability of long distance, wide band communication has the potential for bringing about the greatest change in education since the development of the textbook.

The obvious application of so-called distance learning technology is to provide instruction for students who are geographically distant from the source of instruction. Virtually every major university in the United States is engaged in, initiating, or considering a distance education program. Those who are not either feel very safe in their niche or are not paying close attention. While most such programs are at the graduate level, undergraduate programs are growing rapidly. Probably the greatest attraction of distance learning programs is the availability of education “any time, any place”. Obviously, this is a very desirable characteristic for working professionals who must sandwich their additional education between slices of work, friends, family, and recreation. It would be naпve, however, to believe that this kind of flexibility is not equally desirable to a full time student – graduate or undergraduate. It has already been noted that on-campus student wants the same access to distant learning programs as that afforded to promote students. In most cases, institutions are providing that access.

There is an even more significant issue than access, however. As teachers learn to use the full capability of the computer and the Internet, they are developing a better understanding of the learning process itself. If one is to design a course module that is be effective without the direct, concurrent involvement of the teacher, one must carefully define what is to be learned and must effectively design the activities through which the student is to achieve those objectives. Both of these things should be done in a traditional class as well but it possible to muddle through without doing them. It is doubtful, however, that “muddling” will be successful in true asynchronous learning systems.

Now, once teachers have developed effective learning modules for remote students, why would they not use the same module for those who are on campus? Rest assured that they will. Thus, all of the elements exist for a major change in out system of higher education: the students’ desire for flexibility, the faculty’s desire for efficiency and effectiveness, a better understanding of the role of teaching in learning, and the ubiquity of an enabling technology. I believe it is very likely that in the next decade we will a significant change in the way the classroom is used in higher education. The combination of high speed computing with wide band communication could prove to be the 21st. Century equivalent of the Gutenberg press.

F. Globalization
While it is trite to say that the world is shrinking, it is clear that its dimensions -as defined by the time it takes to communicate, travel or transport goods – are significantly smaller than at the beginning of the 20th century. Moreover, this closer physical linking has led many people and many nations to recognize their interdependence and to develop shared goals and cooperative means of pursuing commonly referred to as globalization – has resulted in some changes in the educational programs. Some curricular goals have been added in both the cognitive and the affective domains; that is, both in what students can do and in what they value.

1) Global engineering
One of the results of globalization is that the process of product design and development is increasingly being carried out across time zones, national borders, and oceans, To do this effectively, engineers need new skills. The ability to communicate clearly-probably in more than one language-using different communication technologies is essential. If projects are to be partitioned and assigned to widely dispersed groups, the concepts of systems engineering with its emphasis on performance specifications, subsystem interfaces, and requirements management must be learned. An understanding of the role of standards, while important in the past, is now critical. Students must also learn to work effectively not only in teams that are composed of people of similar background but also in those that include people from other countries whom they will probably never see except on slow motion video.

For the most part, these skills cannot be taught in a single course. Indeed, in some cases, they can’t be taught at all, in the conventional sense. Faculties are, however, aware of the need for a broad capability in this area and are interspersing related materials throughout the curriculum. The author does not know of specific courses in global engineering but if they don’t exist, I would expect to see them generated in the near future.

2) International experience for students
While it is important to learn the cognitive skills needed to work in a global environment, skills alone will not guarantee success. In addition students must develop some level of comfort in living and working in another country and must learn to appreciate and tolerate-indeed, embrace-other cultures. It may be possible to achieve these goals without the physical experience of living, learning, and working abroad, but it is not likely. Realizing this, virtually all-major universities have developed some model of international program where students spend some time in another country either as a student or an industrial intern. In the United States, this is complicated by the lack of language training but there does seem to be renewed interest in learning other languages. There are several joint degree programs where a student earns a degree in engineering as well as a degree in foreign languages and these are growing in popularity.

The United States had been relatively slow to develop international educational programs but is now starting to move rapidly. The European Union’s Erasmus and Scorates programs have set an excellent example and provided significant inspiration. If a country expects to be a major partner with any other country, it is essential that its citizens-and certainly it engineers-be comfortable with each other and be able to work efficiently and effectively in partnership.

Few institutions are as ponderous and possess as much inertia as a university. While this relative stability is probably its greatest strength, it can also keep it from responding to changes that are needed. Fortunately, engineering schools differ widely in the United States but virtually all are very familiar with the influences that have been identified and are moving to meet the associated challenges. We may expect to see significant changes in the next five years as the colleges develop their individual understanding of the new accreditation criteria and, under the guidance thus provided, adapt to the changing environment and continue to provide the best possible education for the new generation of engineers.


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