Individualized engineering programs are gaining popularity as problems within the field call for greater flexibility and broader skill sets -- and a new generation of ambitious students who want to tackle those problems emerges.
“There is a recognition within the engineering community that the challenges that engineers have to address require a greater deal of flexibility; a broader mix of skills than in the most traditional of traditional programs,” said Norman Fortenberry, executive director of the American Society for Engineering Education, an organization which brings together engineering educators to collaborate on instruction, research and service, adding that the traditionally rigid engineering models by themselves will no longer attract and retain students.
“These students are from a different generation,” he said. “To a degree, they might be more ambitious; they might be more world-aware, and that level of awareness and ambition can allow them and encourage them to tackle new types of problems.”
Flexible programs -- such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Course 2-A in mechanical engineering and Stanford University’s recently updated computer science curriculum -- allow students more room to develop their areas of interest by cutting down the number of required core courses and allowing students to choose specialized track concentrations, or, in MIT’s program, design their own.
“The engineering community is going through a process of defining, ‘What are the quintessential pieces of being an engineer?’” Fortenberry said. “Once you strip things down to that base, you can stack other stuff on top of it.”
Room to Explore
MIT’s Course 2-A is a customizable version of Course 2, the college’s traditional engineering degree. Students in this course take the same first level of six core courses as students in Course 2. Then, they must select two additional required courses from Course 2 and fill in the rest of the curriculum with elective courses that have engineering content.
Students work with an adviser to design a curriculum of equal academic rigor to the traditional one that is tailored to either a specific subset of mechanical engineering, such as robotics, or a broader interdisciplinary area, such as energy.
“This shows how empowering the program is for students,” said Mary Boyce, an engineering professor and head of MIT’s mechanical engineering department. “It’s a great program because it really makes students think early on what is it they really want to be studying, and how do they want to be spending their time.”
Boyce said Course 2-A has been offered to students since 1934, and it became accredited in 2002. This is the first year that its enrollment has exceeded that of its more traditional counterpart. Boyce accounted for some of this increased interest by noting that students are entering college with a greater sense of purpose of what they want to do when they graduate. She added that the growth in Course 2-A enrollment has not been at the expense of Course 2, which has seen steady enrollment levels.
“It’s a fantastic program -- it’s attracting more students to engineering,” Boyce said. “I do see that as a future trend that will increase, but I don’t see it as taking away from our core disciplinary engineering, but actually as quite another option, and one which I think is attracting more students to engineering who hadn’t quite realized that this is a field they were attracted to.”
Last year, MIT’s department of aeronautics and astronautics began offering a flexible degree, and the department of chemical engineering began offering a flexible degree this year, Boyce said.
Updating the Curriculums
Specialized curriculums have also spread to computer science departments. Stanford University is one of many to update their computer science curriculums, scaling back the number of required core courses and allowing students more opportunity to specialize in different aspects of the field.
Stanford rolled out the new curriculum in 2008-9, and the university saw an increase of more than 40 percent in students declaring a computer science major -- 87 students declared in 2007-8, and 123 did so in 2008-9, according to a paper published by three members of the department in 2010. And, in a survey conducted of the newly declared computer science majors, about half of them said their decision was influenced by the curriculum update.
Mehran Sahami, one of the authors of the paper, credits this increase to the attractiveness of the new curriculum structure, along with the broader national trend of enrollment in computer science majors that has taken hold in recent years: “We’re certainly influenced in the same way the national trend is, but there seems to be something specific to Stanford as well that has caused our interest to be much greater.”
Sahami, an associate professor and associate chair for education in Stanford’s computer science department, chaired the departmental curriculum committee responsible for creating the new curriculum. He said the biggest deviation from the old curriculum, which he called “monolithic,” is in its structure. Previously, students were required to take about 12 core courses. Now, they must take only six core courses, along with four or five courses from a chosen track specialization. The remaining courses are chosen from a much larger offering of electives.
“Our primary goal was just to create a more modernized and streamlined major,” he said. “Our goal was not simply to change the major to bring in more students -- it was to modernize the program and think about ways that modernization can show students more options in computing.”
The department created three entirely new courses and significantly revised the others to arrive at its current list of six. He said courses on compilers, operating systems, artificial intelligence, computer architecture and automata theory were required in the old curriculum, and, while specific courses in each of these areas are no longer required in the core, the material has not been lost: “What we thought was the essential material got folded into our new core classes,” he said.
He said Stanford did not eliminate any course offerings during the overhaul. All of the previously offered courses still exist, and while they might not be required for everyone, they are required for some tracks -- such as the former core automata theory course, which is now a required course in the curriculum’s theory track.
The new structure contains nine track concentrations  from which students can choose -- including an option to remain unspecialized -- along with an option to design a track themselves.
“The tracks are more reflective of active areas in computer science both academically and from a research standpoint, and areas that employers would potentially be interested in,” Sahami said, adding that the tracks are based in areas in which there is a lot of faculty coverage, indicating popular areas within the field of computer science.
Cornell University also updated its computer science curriculum around the same time as Stanford -- it carried out its changes in spring 2009. Eva Tardos, department chair at Cornell at the time of the updates, said a number of other colleges besides Stanford were also working on curricular reforms, including the Georgia Institute of Technology and MIT, and she reached out to them: “I collected information from many schools I knew who were doing changes,” she said. “Stanford was one of them.”
Tardos, now senior associate dean for computing and information science at Cornell, said the new curriculum allows students to take a smaller number of core courses and then pick a specialized “vector ” to study further -- similar to Stanford’s tracks.
She said the old curriculum required students to take a computability course and a scientific computing course among other core courses. She said much of the computability material has been integrated into two of the current curriculum's core courses, and the scientific computing course is still required for many vectors even though it is no longer required for all students.
“The main point is to engage students with applications where computer science makes a difference,” she said, adding that students appreciate the ability to take more specialized courses earlier in their undergraduate careers. “Computer science is maturing as a field -- it’s broadening.”
Looking to the Future
Sahami said there is widespread agreement among leaders in computer science that, in the future, computing is going to have an even larger impact on other fields. He is co-chair of a joint effort of the Association for Computing Machinery and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers to produce its next set of computer science curricular guidelines, which are issued about every 10 years.
The last set of guidelines was released in 2001, and this newest set will be released next summer. A strawman draft  of the guidelines, created by Sahami along with representatives from leading international universities and corporations, was made available for comments in February.
Sahami said feedback on the draft has been pretty positive, save for some very specific critiques of the draft’s proposed parameters for measuring students’ levels of subject mastery and the benchmark characteristics that all computer science graduates should possess. He said the reaction from outside commenters has been favorable because more than 100 people have already been involved in the drafting process, offering a wide range of opinions and in-house critiques before the draft was released to the public.
The draft includes a set of principles which emphasize flexibility -- both in providing students the ability to work across many disciplines and allowing departments to easily make future curricular modifications to reflect changes in the field -- and it displays a similar philosophy to Stanford and Cornell about the modernization of curriculum to reflect the broadening field.
Sahami said that before the committee members started drafting the new guidelines, they surveyed more than 200 computer science chairs throughout the world and asked how they have used the previous sets of curricular guidelines, and the majority of respondents said they treated the guidelines as advice.
Fortenberry said he believes programs such as the ones offered by MIT, Stanford and Cornell will continue to crop up, as driven by student demand. He said engineering students are increasingly acquiring the skill sets necessary to address the challenges of this century and the next.
“I’m just pleased to see students pursuing these opportunities and institutions providing them.”