Engineering Education: The Nature of the Crisis
Our “Crisis in Engineering Education” package in this issue and at designnews.com was born out of a torrent of comments to a post by Chuck Murray in his Electronics News and Comment blog. The post cited The Princeton Review’s conclusion that of 20 schools with the worst professors, seven of the top 10 are engineering schools.
So there’s a crisis in engineering education, right? Based on those comments, we thought so and conducted an in-depth survey of two groups: 62 engineering grads who have held a job for a few years and 85 engineering students still in school. How can one assess the quality of their education without having worked for a while? At the same time, we wanted to know what students think right now.
Are engineers reciting the famous movie line from “Network ” anchorman Howard Beale. “I’m mad as hell and I am not going to take it anymore.” Well, not really, according to our survey. Generally satisfied with their schools and professors, 85 percent of the grads and 71 percent of the students would recommend their schools to others. That’s hardly the bleak picture painted by The Princeton Review and simmering sentiments expressed by those responding to Murray’s blog post.
One could rationalize that if education isn’t in a state of perpetual crisis, it isn’t redefining itself and as such, isn’t education. However, the weight of the evidence tells us there’s a real crisis in engineering education. Two prominent engineering educators interviewed on pages 69 and 71 confirm that. And the problems go beyond the long-standing high drop-out rates and stagnant numbers of those pursuing engineering.
The revelation for us were the comments from the Princeton findings. Some complained they were taught by teaching assistants, especially in the formative stages of their college experience. Several went on at length about how the emphasis on research and the dollars it brings in eclipses teaching at some schools. The biggest single complaint throughout our feedback was professors who don’t speak good English. As one said, learning engineering is hard enough without being able to understand the professors.
We also conducted a focus group with a group of students from Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering. a new breed of engineering school profiled in Chuck Murray’s story on page 46. Olin, along with Rose Hulman and Harvey Mudd. has a unique approach to engineering education that emphasizes teaching and student engagement. That’s not to say other schools don’t, but that perception exists. As former MIT Engineering Dean Tom Magnanti said to me, Olin is viewed as the “anti-MIT,” when in reality it’s not (Magnanti served on Olin’s board).
Another failing of engineering education that comes up is what exactly does and should engineering train you for — your first job or several gigs down the line? Both deans I interviewed (pages 69 and 71) address that. Indeed, the schools profiled by Murray focus on turning out a well-rounded individual instead of someone maxed out in math and science in their respective field or students victimized by more bad instructors than good (it’s hard to imagine any college student who would rate ALL their professors and courses as excellent).
Common sense also tells us there are good and bad instructors. What’s more, SMU Engineering Dean Geoffrey Orsak says both parents and students are looking for more from the megabucks they spend on higher education. Rose Hulman is $45,000 a year. Harvey Mudd is $48,000 and Olin tuition for four years — $130,000 — is free. Which one would you pick? Which one would pick you?
We hope our coverage in this issue has jogged your memory about memorable professors and courses, both good and bad. Share those thoughts with us. Is there a crisis in engineering education? Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org .