Why is it so hard to change engineering education?

In the last two decades we have seen waves of advocacy for changing engineering education, while at the same time we have entrenched the existing model ever deeper through international standardization and accreditation models like the Washington Accord.

Our research on engineering practice, what engineers actually do, demonstrates the need for changes – see my recent blog post on Dave Goldberg’s Big Beacon site.

Students know that they will never have to solve partial differential equations as engineers, so why do we continue to teach that, and not teach them the things they will actually be doing in practice? Most professors teaching engineering will concede that students won’t use most of what they teach, but will argue that no one can truly call themselves an engineer unless they know something about it.

So let’s briefly summarise the situation now.

Is the current engineering education system working well enough that we could leave it alone and deal with other more pressing issues?

Definitely not. Without a doubt.

When young engineers report “When I started work, I felt completely incompetent” you know something is wrong.

When India and Pakistan and lots of other countries train hundreds of thousands of engineers and yet the real economic cost of safe drinking water (including indirect cost) remains 20-30 times as much as industrialised countries, you know something is wrong.

When we have no idea how to provide for everyone on this planet to live in modest comfort and health with reliable water, sanitation and a modest supply of electricity, without destroying the planet at the same time, we know something is wrong.

What we know now is that there is a fundamental mismatch between what engineers are expected to do and what we teach them to do.

So, why do we find such difficulty in changing engineering education?

Like Rosalind Williams wrote in her insightful essay “Education for a profession formerly known as engineering” (also here) I think that the answer lies in identity — who we think we are.

When I asked engineers for interviews to learn about what engineers really do, they often responded “Why are you asking me, I hardly ever do any real engineering?” Practically all the engineers we interviewed and shadowed shared the same thinking, that most of their work is not the engineering they identify themselves with. Yet, when we examined the detail, little if any of their work was not based on technical insights and understanding. Yes, lots of it seemed superficially to be non-technical, like chasing people to do things, negotiating contracts, work-arounds, specifications, change requests and variations. At the same time, it was work they could not delegate to administrators because technical insights dictated the priorities and direction of the work.

So, because engineers see most of what they do as “non-engineering” work, and often cannot see much structure in what they do, they don’t tell engineering schools to teach students how to do it.

In our research, we have identified extensively detailed structures in all of this seemingly “non-technical” work. We found and identified several distinct classes of technical collaboration activity which occupied nearly all of the time for most engineers:

  • Discovery learning
  • Technical coordination
  • Teaching
  • Project management (with so much more than the classic references like PMBOK acknowledge)
  • Negotiation

Now that we have identified specialised structure in most of what engineers actually do, and at the same time explained why technical knowledge is critical, it should be possible for engineers to reclaim their real identity. Engineers can now learn to see all of what they do as “real engineering”, not just the tiny part that they were taught in conventional engineering education classes.

This identity issue finds a mirror in the minds of engineering academics, who privately acknowledge that they are not “real engineers” because they know that what they teach is seldom if ever used by their students. Many find it hard to tell the difference between science and engineering, and see engineering as “applied science”, “problem solving” or “design”.

Unfortunately, until now, education reform has been advocated without a clear idea about what engineers do. Yet at the same time, the majority of engineering teachers might be consciously or unconsciously noticing the weakness in the underlying logic of the reformists’ arguments. The weakness is easy to expose: how can anyone argue about education for engineers without a sound understanding about the work that engineers perform? (see Why Do Attempts at Engineering Education Reform Consistently Fall Short?)

This helps to explain the resistance to change among engineering educators today.

How could we unlock the potential that lies here? With a deep understanding about engineering practice, education reform can now be advocated with sound arguments.

A transformation of our world would then become much more feasible, with a new generation of engineers who can deliver real human productivity improvements and energy supplies to provide reasonable and sustainable comfort for all people. Such a transformation would free enough people from providing essential food and water enable them to provide a truly global civilisation with social welfare support, education, health care and governance for all, while at the same time securing enduring protection for our living environment, the planet we live on.

The old zero-sum argument that the university engineering curriculum is already tightly packed and there is no space for anything new then collapses. The same technical collaboration skills on which expert engineers depend can be seen working in cooperative learning classrooms, where research has proved over and over again that young people learn so much faster than conventional classes. So we can teach students to learn collaboratively, and in doing so, give them the grounding they need to become truly expert engineers, all of them.

The change won’t be easy. But now we have the research evidence and a deep understanding about what engineers do, it will be much easier than before.

And, in case you’re wondering, I will continue to argue that students need to learn just as much (if not more) mathematics and theories. Eileen Goold has shown in her chapter “Mathematics in Engineering Practice: Tacit Trumps Tangible” in “Engineering Practice in a Global Context” that engineers use mathematics as tacit knowledge. And the only way to acquire that deep seated tacit knowledge is through practice, practice, practice. And once students understand that, they will enjoy the practice all the more.

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