Critics say proposed changes to accreditation standards for general education dilute the competencies that give U.S.-trained students a competitive edge. Accreditor, meanwhile, says new standards will lead to easier assessment of outcomes and more innovation in teaching.
A colleague at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (where I am dean of the College of Engineering) recently emailed me Bloomberg’s interview with Harry Lewis, interim dean of Harvard University's Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Science. Lewis talked about the school’s plans for the $400 million gift it received in early June. My colleague highlighted Lewis’ description of an ascendant engineering program at Harvard and a cultural shift at the school in which “making things, doing useful things is no longer … considered the sort of thing that gentlemen and gentlewomen don’t do.”
My colleague added, “Welcome, Harvard, to the work that public research universities with great engineering schools have been doing for 150 years.” Sarcasm, apparently, isn’t the exclusive province of the Ivies. We heard it all over the place after the announcement of the Paulson gift. But, in my opinion, it’s misguided.
I’ll paraphrase venture capitalist (and University of Illinois alum) Marc Andreessen’s tweet on the topic. This gift and Harvard’s vision for what it wants to accomplish are “moral virtues, full stop.”
Harvard has set the standard for the liberal arts and sciences. Public institutions like the Universities of Illinois, California at Berkeley, and Michigan have done the same for world-class engineering education for the masses. That combination is extremely powerful, and it has made America the most innovative and prosperous country in the world.
Lewis made it clear that Harvard intends to redefine what a well-rounded education means in the 21st century. And John Paulson's investment allows the university to develop an engineering and applied science program to match Harvard’s reputation.
Harvard and similar private research universities lack one major virtue, however: excellence at scale.
Private institutions simply cannot satisfy the demands of 21st-century engineering alone. And turning away top talent is in no one’s interest.
It limits our nation’s economic growth, our ability to make the engineering profession more diverse, and our ability to help students find their true calling regardless of their socioeconomic background. However, growth in student numbers and innovations in how we educate them require more resources.
Given this fact, and the fact that state funding for public universities has declined precipitously in the last two decades, philanthropic support has become just as important to Illinois as it is to the Harvards of the world. Without new levels of philanthropy and new investment models, the American public research university, the world's golden goose, will not be able to deliver on its goal to ensure there are enough top-flight problem solvers available to advance our civilization and to look after our future.
That isn’t to say that elite and exclusionary is still a universal condition at Harvard and other small, private institutions. As Lewis points out, Harvard’s demographics are changing with more rural and first-generation students. Students from these backgrounds tend to gravitate to engineering because it leads to a secure career. An engineering degree is rarely an opportunity to go into the family business. Instead, it’s a way for those from low-income backgrounds -- bright, marginalized and ambitious -- to invent the family business.
Thus, the art of engineering appeals to an ever-broader swath of students, from those interested in entrepreneurship to those creating solutions for the engineering challenges that underpin the modern world. For example, more than 3,100 students applied for about 200 slots in the Illinois computer science program this year. Carnegie Mellon receives twice that many applications for about 30 percent fewer seats.
With demand like that, we are all in an unparalleled position to serve a broad spectrum of students in ways we haven’t before. That’s not only a moral virtue for Harvard. It’s a moral virtue for all of us.
Students are driven by a desire to solve problems with real and lasting societal impact. Today, “making and doing” extend far beyond the disciplinary confines of engineering and the fine arts. With the Paulson gift, Harvard is in a unique position to bring down disciplinary boundaries, to inspire new curricula and experiential learning, and to transform the very concept of a university education.
I have no doubt that Harvard’s engineering and applied sciences program will catalyze such a transformational change. But will all that effort and all those resources transform Harvard’s educational model or the world’s?
Harvard has to take full advantage of this incredible opportunity, and so do the engineering powerhouses. Globally, more and more students recognize the sheer impact they can have by studying engineering. How do we support and serve them?
Even more students seek an education founded on disciplinary depth and enriched through cross-disciplinary experiences. How do we embrace their interests and turn them into the idea creators, the problem solvers and the makers of the new and the better?
How do we inspire them and empower them as they put ever more pervasive digital technology and ever more important engineering principles to work? What does that well-rounded and well-educated student of the 21st century look like?
These are questions for us to answer together, taking full advantage of our variety and our diverse strengths.
So welcome, Harvard, to the conversation.
Andreas Cangellaris is dean of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s College of Engineering and the M. E. Van Valkenburg Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
If the United States is facing a STEM workforce crisis, as so many economic and industry analysts argue, the worst thing we could possibly do is abandon the very thing that sets U.S.-educated STEM workers apart: the broad education that endows our workers with professional competencies, the perspective to lead organizations in private and public sectors, and the flexibility to adapt to the changing and complex technologies that pervade our culture.
But engineering’s accreditation organization, Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), appears to be doing exactly this with the rollout of new draft criteria that remove most professional competencies for engineers. In shifting from the existing 11 criteria to a new list of six seemingly streamlined requirements, ABET’s proposed revisions eliminate previous emphases on students’ knowledge of contemporary issues, educational scope intended to produce understanding of engineering in global and societal contexts, professional responsibility, and lifelong learning, among others.
What would possess ABET to do such a thing in the face of widespread industry demands for “T-shaped” workers who embody both breadth and depth? Why uncouple deep technical knowledge and “21st-century skills” like creativity and critical thinking? One answer may lie in economic pressures at American institutions of higher education, continually forced to trim budgets well past bare bones, cutting into core competencies. That seemingly practical circumstance, however, threatens the unique value of American-educated engineering graduates in an increasingly competitive global labor market.
Engineers of 2015 lose valuable capacity as STEM professionals when they lack the ability to comprehend the role of government and geopolitics in the engineering enterprise (and vice versa), or to reflect on how engineering enables and is itself facilitated by complex transnational flows of people and commodities. These are the deliverables of careful, immersive instruction supported by the excised criteria.
Another rationale for the reduced criteria likely lies in complaints from engineering faculty members and administrators that professional skills are too “fluffy” or “soft” to assess, whatever industry may demand of graduates. The pressure on all academic fields to maximize returns on institutional investments pushes assessment to the forefront and in this climate old stereotypes of humanistic, liberal or critical capacities as unmeasurable find new claimants.
But in fact, there are off-the-shelf packages that have been developed for assessing skills such as lifelong learning (see, for example, various standardized critical thinking batteries or the self-directed learning readiness scale). These may still be imperfect but they are no more so than tests deployed to measure skills like mathematical problem solving. Those bothered by the inadequacy of multiple-choice tests to assess the nuanced, multiperspective thinking required in, say, engineering ethics and professional responsibility instruction can turn to more sophisticated measures through evaluation of student case study analyses or reflective essays. Whether approached with off-the-shelf or more boutique instruments, it cannot be said that these skills are not assessable.
In at least one way ABET’s new draft criteria weaken the foundational idea of engineering as a professional collective, and in backing away from its historic position as disciplinary steward the organization may well cause lasting damage to its domain. Note that ABET has replaced the existing criterion that students attain “an understanding of professional and ethical responsibility” with a required “ability to demonstrate ethical principles.”
These are not equivalent, and we see a real risk of a deprofessionalization of engineering in this apparent move to detach practitioners’ decision making from disciplinary norms. Once personal morality can stand in for collective, professional responsibility, engineering is reduced to a vocation, its practitioners untethered to any consensus regarding societal welfare.
We do not advocate for a singular ethical framework but rather for a shared profession-level commitment to working through the contentious matters inhering in ethics, a commitment the new criterion leaves aside. How could such a turn away from common purpose not further weaken American STEM workers on the global stage?
If our nation is in a STEM crisis, we must not lower the bar for STEM workers but maintain and strengthen the professional competencies that set U.S.-trained engineers apart from those with narrower technical preparation. In our present-day assessment-driven regime, we assess what we value, and our assessment methods must evolve to do justice to the sophisticated professional skills of our STEM workers.
There is no question that accreditation systems must respond to changing economic and societal conditions, but in ABET’s proposal we see not an address but a denial of those conditions, including those that we believe are actually responsible for current shortages of excited, well-prepared young engineers. It is in fact time to double down and add one more essential professional competency: the ability to meaningfully include diverse groups in engineering practice, incorporating ideas from all groups in defining engineering challenges, fostering participation of all groups in engineering practice and equitably addressing impacts of engineering on all groups. This, more than any other professional competency, holds promise to lead us out of the STEM crisis.
Amy E. Slaton is professor of history and politics at Drexel University. Donna Riley is professor of engineering education at Virginia Tech.
Instead of trying to counter the survey data that led Professor Cech to conclude engineering education makes students cynical, I would instead like to highlight some of the motivations and actions of engineers and engineering students and then consider whether these indicate a desire to improve the human condition.
Lafayette College hosts a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) summer camp for elementary school students. At the camp last summer, I was asked by a camper to explain what engineers do. Engineering covers such as vast array of applications and technologies that summarizing the whole of engineering to a group of 10-year-olds in a sentence or two was a challenge. I’ve heard it said that engineers are “problem solvers” but that description seems a bit vacuous. Medical doctors are problem solvers, but they’re not engineers. The description of an engineer as a “problem solver” is, at the very least, incomplete. I needed to think of something better for the camper, but I’ll get back to that later.
Let’s dig a bit deeper and look at the motivation for engineering problem solving. Why do engineers develop things like smartphones, medical devices, and (my favorite on this frigid winter day) central heating? The cynical answer here would be the money. Engineers do have relatively high compensation rates compared to many liberal arts degree recipients and they have excellent job prospects. However, it is not money that motivates students to become engineers. The high salary may initially attract students to the programs, in a similar way that high salaries attract people to become medical doctors, but the hope of future earnings does not drag students into a lab at 2 a.m. to complete an analysis. Passion does.
Data support the premise that engineering students want to have a positive impact and improve the human condition. Over the past decade, enrollment in undergraduate engineering programs across the United States has increased by nearly 25 percent. Over this same period, environmental engineering enrollment has grown nationally by over 75 percent and biomedical engineering has grown by an astonishing 170 percent. The very nature of these degree programs is to help people and the environment. This provides direct evidence that engineering students are deeply committed to using their talents to improve people’s lives. More traditional engineering disciplines have also grown in numbers partly due to employment prospects, but also because prospective students see engineering as a way to simultaneously have a financially rewarding career while bettering the world.
Students who pursue engineering careers want to combine their math and science skills with their creative abilities in what is called engineering design. Although the engineering design process is taught at every engineering school, there is no single agreed upon “best” design process. Just like different companies have different design principles and practices, faculty and engineering programs have different variations of the design process as well. That said, engineering design always starts off with the same first step; recognizing a need. Engineers, at their core, are trying to make things more efficient, easier to use, and more effective.
One of the most progressive engineering design processes, made popular by Stanford University’s Design Institute, is called Design Thinking. An early step in Design Thinking is to empathize with the client. Whether an engineer is developing a prosthetic leg to enable an amputee to walk, a process to produce a drug to lower cholesterol, or a bridge to better connect people’s lives, engineers are empathizing with the condition of those impacted by their design.
One can gain insight into the values embraced by the field of engineering by looking at its professional organizations. In addition to the traditional ones founded to improve safety and reliability of engineered systems, organizations such as Engineers Without Borders, Engineering World Health, and the National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges were formed in the last 25 years to make a positive impact on the human condition. Recently a new type of organization was created called Engineering for Change. This community brings together the combined talents of engineers, social scientists, NGOs, local governments, and community advocates to improve the quality of life in communities around the world by promoting the development of affordable and sustainable solutions to the most pressing humanitarian challenges. These types of service organizations are thriving at engineering schools across the country with broad participation from students who are doing impactful work to help people live happier and healthier lives.
Engineers are optimists who believe that they can design and create solutions to help solve the problems facing society. This brings me back to the response I gave the camper who wanted to know what engineers do. “Engineers make people’s lives better through the use of technology,” I told her.
There is nothing cynical about that.
Scott R. Hummel is the William Jeffers Director of the Engineering Division at Lafayette College.