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Engineering Education

I went to a lecture today, given by the president of the Illinois Institute of Technology. He was an engaging fellow, and spoke of his school's efforts to optimize both the aims and the means of undergraduate engineering education.

Following his lead, I should note that the engineering field (through the good offices of the American Society of Engineering Education) has routinely sought to improve the content, methods, and presentation of engineering education. Every few years, serious people take a serious look at it, asking "What can we do better?", and (as important) "What shouldn't we be doing?"

So, is the "standard American" model of undergrad engineering education a good one? This post will consider only two of the many options (just to keep it bounded).

Should there be a "core curriculum" with discipline-specific branches, as I experienced?

The upshots of this are that each student is armed with a standard, basic, toolkit. You get calculus, diff-eq, physics, chemistry, and the intro-level courses in statics, electronics, signals, materials, thermo, machines, etc. Then, when you've gotten a flavor of it all, you get to really pick your major, settle down, and do a senior-year design project in your major. Also, because of the commonality across the first two or so years, it's easy to switch majors within engineering if you conclude that you're really a mech-e at heart, or a civil, or whatever.

The drawbacks to this system, though, are nontrivial. By the time you need to integrate a wacky load profile, or add up the area under a vibration PSD, you may not have used your calculus much in a year! When you get to solving wave functions, you've forgotten the methods of diff-eq! There's a disjoint between when a subject is learned and when it is applied, leading to a drag on the upper-level courses, which have to either spend time refreshing old topics, or issue lots of Ds and Es.

Alternately, should the core of your study be project- or design-driven, with students self-selecting the auxiliary disciplines as they see fit to best meet objectives?

This model strikes me as potentially disorganized, but if properly managed it could yield a very solid individual. If your goal is to do something ambitious (which it usually is, in the real world), and you are required, every semester, to assess what you need to learn next semester to accomplish your objective, you might end up with a truly versatile education. The student who had demonstrated significant accomplishment on-time and on-plan, and with a satisfactory academic record, seems to me to be a much more valuable individual. However, you don't get a chance to jump ship conveniently if you don't like it. Perhaps, though, there's something to be said for that.

At any rate, the topic of how to prepare an honest, diligent, smart, hardworking, educated, competent individual remains quite a challenge. I am pleased to see serious people in my field asking serious questions about it.