Thursday, January 15, 2009

'Change' needed in engineering education, James Plummer

SAN FRANCISCO — More calls for a change in engineering education surfaced at this week's International Electron Devices Meeting (IEDM) here.
James Plummer, Dean of Engineering and Professor of Electrical Engineering at Stanford University, warned that U.S. universities must change or reform engineering education to prevent further shortfalls in the discipline.
Change is also needed to become more competitive. In the United States, as well as Europe and Japan, student interest in engineering is on the decline. In contrast, the field of engineering is exploding in developing nations like China and India.
"There is a lot what's right about engineering education,'' Plummer said in a keynote address at IEDM, entitled ''Educating Engineers for the 21st Century.'' ''I would argue that we could do better.''
There is ''a real need for change'' in engineering education to survive in the ''increasingly global'' and ''flat world,'' Plummer said.
He said that today's engineering schools are packed with difficult curriculum, which, in some cases, ''filters out'' a large number of students in the field. To reverse the trend, there are two schools of thought to change engineering education at the undergraduate level.
On one end of the scale, Plummer said that engineering could follow the same model as law and medicine. Students learn any discipline (i.e. art, physics) at the undergraduate level and then move to the targeted field.
A more realistic approach is to mix current engineering curriculum with other types of classes in related and unrelated fields. He proposed the following changes in U.S. engineering schools:
1. Engineering schools need to develop ''T-Shaped People.'' In other words, engineers need to learn their discipline in depth. But they also need to expand and broaden their education in areas beyond math, science and related classes.
2. Engineering schools must teach students how to innovate and be creative. For example, Plummer showed how students in teams were supposed to create something from mere ''post-its.''
3. Engineering schools must teach entrepreneurship. For example, ''Introduction to High Technology Entrepreneurship'' is one class in Stanford's curriculum.
4. Engineering schools must teach students how to work well as a member of a diverse team.
5. Engineering schools must offer undergraduate research programs in a faculity lab or related settting.
6. Engineering schools must offer student competitions (i.e. Darpa Grand Challenge).
7. Engineering schools must provide global knowledge and experience. For example, Stanford offers summer internships in companies worldwide.
8. Engineering schools must teach better communication skills.
9. Engineering schools must have life-long learning programs, such as online courses and free lectures.
10. Engineering schools must teach why engineering is important.
Engineers are key to solve the next wave of problems in technology, life sciences and energy needs. ''We need to (let people know that) engineering is the occupation of choice for the best and brightest,'' Plummer said. ''Unfortunately, this is not the case today.''