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.
How do we change the mindset that engineers can also save lives?
It's going to take a while. There are some great efforts around to try to change the image of engineering. Right now, people think of engineering in terms of Dilbert as where they associate science with the Nobel Prize. How many people know who won the Draper Prize? There is a branding problem. While we're working on that branding, we also need to address the problem of how we prepare engineers. If we get high-school students excited about engineering and then in their first calculus class, the professor says "look to your left, look to your right. Two of the three of you won’t graduate," that's false advertising. That practice still exists on most college campuses.
What's your impression of the "maker" movement? Do you think things like Raspberry Pi are opening up a new generation of engineers?
The maker movement is very exciting. It has the potential for some real positive change in engineering education. The maker community culture is very empowering. There's a lot of opportunity in engineering education if we embrace that culture. It gives people a feeling of "I can do it." It's all about intrinsic motivation and a growth mindset, giving people the feeling that "if I keep doing this, I can get better at it."
How do you integrate the maker culture into engineering education?
We can start by questioning some of the premises we have from our own educational background. Engineering educators often make the assumption of "they can't do that yet, they need more background." That is, you need to have enough of a math, science, and engineering background before you can design and realize something in the world. That's clearly not the case in the maker community. People are building things without having the background. In some cases, they're making some really bad design decisions but they're learning an enormous amount and raising their self-esteem. Anyone who has designed a product knows that the reason you build a prototype to learn and make a better design on the next iteration.
The maker ethos is not a totally radical idea, it's being done all over. It's important to get students to work as engineers in their first year of college as opposed to working as students in science and math for three years, then working as an engineer in a senior design class. I think that if students work as engineers designing things right away, they'll be a lot more engaged in their education.
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