Engineering Flexibility

If becoming a major means writing off most electives, activities and study abroad, students will find other majors, writes Pamela A. Eibeck.

December 4, 2009

Two years ago, my daughter, Katherine, and I appeared on the cover of ASEE Prism magazine. A feature story by the American Society for Engineering Education on two generations of women engineers, perhaps? Not quite.

The cover story focused on how, at a time when the ranks of women faculty and deans in engineering have increased, the percentage of women who earn bachelor’s degrees in engineering is in decline. The lesson, supported by facts and data, is that our nation, our crumbling infrastructure and our ability to lead globally in the future are at risk because too few young people are choosing to study engineering. We will continue to lose talented would-be engineers who are female, as well as some who are male, until we change the traditional undergraduate engineering curriculum, one that is overly structured and lacks flexibility.

Like many women in engineering, I had indeed hoped that my daughter would one day aspire to pursue engineering. She has a knack for math, has always excelled in calculus and chemistry, and earned stellar grades in high school physics while displaying a natural intellectual curiosity in languages and French history. While I support Katherine’s choice to major in French history at the University of Southern California, the interview with ASEE expanded my thinking on a problem facing engineering.

At the time, my thoughts and suggestions about engineering were met with questions from my then-high-school-senior: “If I major in engineering, where’s my study abroad? Where’s my French or history minor? Will I have time to join a sorority?” As we sat down to review a biomedical engineering major that was of interest to her, it was obvious that the demands and rigid structure of virtually every engineering major would leave little room for other important college experiences.

As a dean, and now as a university president, one thing is clear to me: Engineering education in general must become more flexible to draw a wider selection of students enrolled as majors. Not just women, but a wider selection of people from across the spectrum.

If the engineering profession expects to attract sufficient young people to meet the technological workforce needs of our nation, it must be willing to change the educational path. The problem, then, is not how to overcome barriers to women entering engineering — it’s how to overcome the barriers to engineering in general.

An engineering major is like a train ride with only one boarding station, but lots of opportunities to jump off. How can we do a better job of retaining men and women who come aboard as freshmen only to make their way toward the exit door by sophomore year?

Transfer students and undecided majors discover that a degree in engineering is at least four years from the point of entry, regardless of prior college level work. There are just too many other good and simpler paths to a degree and a rewarding career.

If engineering hopes to avoid losing momentum as a profession in this country, it must accept the undeniable reality: young people are losing interest. Not because engineering is hard, or because they dislike math and science, or because engineering is boring. Young people are not majoring in engineering because they want a flexible route to a bachelor’s degree that allows them the opportunity to explore multiple interests while enjoying college and preparing for a job.

After years as an engineering faculty member, department head, dean and an engineering accreditation evaluator, I have come to the conclusion that engineering has to let go of our too-rigid undergraduate degree requirements and allow the graduate degree to provide the depth of preparation needed for professional practice or advanced graduate research. Studying engineering as an undergraduate, in contrast, should be an exciting exploration of engineering fundamentals and the creative design process while also delving into the liberal arts, exploring world cultures and developing social and leadership skills.

Undergraduate engineering degrees should be non-disciplinary and flexible programs that produce broadly educated engineers. These engineering degrees can be accredited under ABET’s existing criteria and will prepare graduates for positions not requiring technical depth. Companies that need engineers with disciplinary depth would select graduates of a professional engineering graduate program. Research organizations that need engineers with research capabilities would select graduates of our traditional master of science and doctor of philosophy engineering degree programs.

The dilemma our profession has faced is that, in an effort to prepare a 22-year-old with the depth of knowledge and skills needed by a specialized engineering professional, our undergraduate curriculums are effectively six years’ worth of engineering study crammed into four years. The resulting rigid, unrelenting curriculum doesn’t allow our engineers to develop sufficient capabilities in other critical areas such as understanding the global, economic, environmental or societal context of engineering or developing strong communication, interpersonal and leadership skills. It is time that our profession adopts best practices seen elsewhere, such as in the health professions, and relies on a professional master's or even a professional doctorate as the primary entry degree.

Undergraduate engineering majors should be able to devote at least 25 percent of their coursework to studies outside the requirements of their engineering degree. This would allow engineering students to explore academic areas complementary to engineering, such as business or foreign languages or nuclear physics, or simply other areas of intellectual interest, such as music or political science.

Those developing the major requirements at colleges and universities should bear in mind that most B.S. engineering graduates don’t practice engineering. According to Jim Duderstadt, author of Engineering for a Changing World, “only about 50 percent of engineering graduates will enter technical careers and after five years, about half of these will have moved into other areas such as management, sales or policy.”

A national shift to the single B.S.E. degree will result in more undergraduates studying engineering -- some for the love of engineering, some for its interdisciplinary implications. Engineering plus biology. Plus business. Plus public policy. Plus economics. Some will use engineering as preparation for other career paths in law, M.B.A. medicine and even politics.

More engineering majors will give us a greater proportion of our workforce that understands problem solving based on facts and reason, the constraints of creative solutions, and the challenging trade-offs of minimizing risks. It will result in engineers who obtain their professional graduate degree having better writing and communication skills and broader world views, and being able to see technology’s impact in a larger social context as a result of their undergraduate degree while also having depth of disciplinary technical expertise gained in their graduate studies.

College students are bright and strategic, and they see what our engineering profession does not: that we have created an educational path toward a profession that expects too much and offers too little to the student.

These oft-touted “Millennials” are values-based and independent. If we continue to give them too few choices, bright and capable students like my daughter will continue to vote with their feet by choosing not to study engineering.


Pamela A. Eibeck, president of University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., previously served as dean of engineering at Texas Tech University


Back to Top