It's Time to Re-Engineer the Engineering Curriculum

Valley News

January 18, 2008

By Dean Joseph Helble

In the most recent presidential debates, we again heard candidates discuss the significant challenges facing the nation in energy supply, climate change, and health care. The barriers we face are not just political, however; there are underlying technological challenges that can only be met through creativity and innovation. With the candidates focused on the need for political leadership in Washington, we must not lose sight of the equally important need for leadership in science and technology.

But who will provide this leadership? In the long term, it must come from the next generation. Our economic and technological future, therefore, depends on inspiring students by connecting science and engineering education to these urgent contemporary challenges.

Unfortunately, students considering a technology-based education these days are confronted by stories of the growing numbers of engineers in countries such as India and China, stories suggesting that many U.S.-based engineering jobs will be outsourced. The implicit message is that America doesn't need to develop its own technical talent. This is wrong, and it is a dangerous message to send to those now making decisions about colleges, their majors and their careers.

This message gains power when students look at college engineering programs with narrow discipline-focused curricula bounded by rigid departmental structures. Somewhere we have forgotten that an engineering education is about being creative and applying the tools of science to address the broad multi-dimensional challenges of today.

Last month, a report released by James Duderstadt, former president of the University of Michigan, called for a fundamental shift in the way universities approach engineering education. Duderstadt recommended a complete rethinking of the way engineering is taught, with a greater emphasis on a broad undergraduate education, closer ties to the liberal arts and a focus on "creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship."

Duderstadt is right—change is needed. Academic programs need to focus on teaching the skills required for technological innovation and job creation. The message to students and parents should be that engineering is about inventing the new technologies that are most needed to solve our most pressing problems.

It is true that India and China produce more engineers than the United States, but per capita production of engineers in those countries lags far behind that of the United States, and those countries, with their needs for basic infrastructure, have ample work to keep their local engineers busy for decades.

The question is not whether we are graduating as many engineers as India or China, the question is whether we are producing the technical talent we need to create new industries and address pressing problems in energy, health care, the environment, sustainable manufacturing, security and communications.

Providing students the interdisciplinary education they need to address these challenges requires new thinking about academic structure. Engineering schools that offer but a single introductory course to bring together students from different engineering departments before sequestering them behind the walls of their discipline fall short in providing the interdisciplinary education these problems demand. Contemporary problems don't fall neatly within departmental boundaries; why should engineering education?

As Duderstadt notes, there are signs of progress. Olin College, now five years old, fully integrates engineering education with business and focuses on the process of technology entrepreneurship. The University of Vermont recently eliminated individual engineering departments and is in the midst of major curriculum reform focused on the notion that engineering must exist "in service to humanity." My institution, Dartmouth's Thayer School of Engineering, is building programs focused not on "mechanical engineering" or "electrical engineering" but on energy technologies, complex systems and the interface between engineering and medicine. At Dartmouth, we are also starting a Ph.D. program in engineering innovation to produce technology leaders who are prepared to build enterprises to tackle our most complex problems.

It's time for engineering schools to reorganize and restructure curricula to reflect the technological and societal challenges of the 21st century. Genuine curricular reform that has true interdisciplinary project-based courses and embraces the liberal arts would be a welcome start. Engineering enrollments soared in the late 1970s and early 1980s in this country, not in response to Sputnik or perceived economic threats from abroad, but in response to an urgent need to address an "energy crisis," problems in the environment and the nascent field of biotechnology.

These challenges are even more relevant today. We educators need to build more programs to reflect this, to inspire the next generation of students and train the next generation of technology leaders. Our country needs nothing less.

Joseph Helble is the dean of Dartmouth's Thayer School of Engineering.