Excellence in Engineering Education
A Position Paper by Tad Beckman
Harvey Mudd College, Claremont, California
How should we describe the excellent engineer and what kind of education is demanded by such a person? Several issues are involved. One of these is the character of our times; that is, the best engineer out of the "science engineering" model of the 1950s may have little value in the early 21st Century. Another issue is the concept of education. How do education and training differ and how is excellence achieved? Finally, clearly, there is the issue of what we would expect of an engineer who is truly excellent.
Fortunately for us, ABET (Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology) seeks to define the excellent engineer and the excellent engineering program by outlining a number of criteria that should be met by any accredited program in engineering education. It is important to note, at the outset, that ABET begins with an overarching criterion that "engineering programs must prepare graduates for the practice of engineering at a professional level." (My emphasis) This must mean something more than mere vocational training. As a professional, the engineer must exercise considerable autonomy and use intelligent individual judgment. The professional engineer can be no mere employee; he/she must become a partner in the development of technology. By its very nature a professional partnership involves certain viewpoints, methods, and standards developed by the community of professionals, who have common interests and objectives, and these must stand independent of those who would employ or otherwise seek the service of these professionals.
Three of the five criteria developed by ABET recognize aspects of the educational institution that, I suspect, all will agree with without much hesitation. Students of high quality must be attracted and served well. Faculty of high quality must be attracted and retained. Educational objectives must be stated clearly and publicly; some form of evaluation must be in place to assure that these objectives are achieved. The one worrisome aspect of the new ABET criteria is what appears to be an overwhelming emphasis on quantitative assessment, phrased in terms of outcomes. While it is one thing to plan for and hope for significant outcomes, it is another to expect that genuinely desirable outcomes will always be so "objective" that quantitative assessment is remotely possible. At the very least, there should be some allowance for the obvious fact that certain outcomes take longer than others to be realized. It is true, of course, that the longer an outcome takes, the more complex are the factors that contribute to it. A given program may have to accept the fact that they merely prepare a student for a certain path which, in its best course, may yield an outcome.
It is the remaining two criteria (#3 and #4) that tackle the more complex and substantive issues of what engineering education, for professionals, is all about. Criterion #3 attempts to describe the "program outcomes and assessment;" that is, it attempts a characterization of abilities that engineering graduate should possess. Criterion #4 attempts to characterize explicitly the professional aspects of the program.
Considering Criterion #3, it is extremely interesting that, out of eleven headings, six involve some component of abilities or capacities that falls well beyond specific technical training in science, mathematics, or traditional engineering subjects. (C), in reference to design, makes reference to "desired needs;" but "needs" are surely more than simply a "job specification" or one person's version of a "problem" to be solved. (D) requires "multi-disciplinary teams" which, I assume, must include components from outside the technical disciplines. While much multi-disciplinary work in engineering is necessarily expressed between technical specialties (mechanical, chemical, civil, etc.), all engineers are frequently required to work closely with people who come from diverse points of view outside of engineering entirely, including public policy, business economics, environmental assessment, etc. (F) refers to "professional and ethical responsibility." Even while most professional organizations have created codes of ethics, the grounding of these must be understood in context of a wider discourse on behavior and community. (G) refers to effective communication; and this clearly goes beyond merely communicating technical formulae and procedures. (H) refers to understanding the impact of engineering in its global and social contexts. This, in fact, is extremely far reaching and requires excellent critical thinking, imagination, and breadth of exposure to timely discussions. And (J) refers to knowledge of contemporary issues, which I assume includes much more than just technical issues.
All in all, if we take these points seriously and demand some form of demonstration that education toward these objectives has been achieved, it would seem to be a very strong argument for a considerably expanded program of studies in areas associated with the humanities and the social sciences. I fear, in fact, that if real assessment were achieved on these six points, few engineering programs in the country (including the program at Harvey Mudd College) would pass for accreditation. We must ask, I think, whether ABET is really serious about what they say. I hope that they are because I really do believe that their criteria describe the excellent engineer.
Criterion #4 is even more involved in non-traditional engineering areas. The professional engineering experience is characterized as requiring "the following considerations: economic; environmental; sustainability; manufacturability; ethical; health and safety; social; and political." Of these "considerations" only "manufacturability" seems potentially to fall under the purely technical sphere. All of the others seem to involve major components of information typically delivered by the humanities and the social sciences. (This is not to say that one can understand theses issues without technical knowledge; it is simply to say that we must find here a thorough merging of humanities and social sciences with the technical.) Thus, while the following list of three components seems to emphasize technical studies, the third "general education component" must be empowered to cope with the very strong burden that lies implicitly upon it. Clearly, while the professional engineer is expected (rightly) to bring strong technical skills to any situation, he/she is also expected to have a high degree of understanding about the economics, public policy, health & safety, environmental, and ethical issues surrounding the work. In this sense, no professional engineer can merely agree to solve a problem presented by an employer; all truly professional engineers must exercise an independence of judgment that questions problems as presented, that explores the deeper ramifications of the technologies involved, and that properly establishes the environment in which a problem is defined and a solution designed. In recognition of this, almost all codes of ethics in engineering societies pay special attention to the fact that the engineer owes special attention to protection of the public.
Now, a very real and important issue is where and how such "general education" ought to be achieved. While I have noted above that resources and discourse for these matters traditionally lie in the domains of humanities and social sciences, learning about these ought to occur in all contexts. The great potential for engineering faculty, it seems to me, is to emulate, in their own professional actions, consulting activities, and teaching, the breadth of professional concerns that ABET has defined. While students of engineering have much to learn within their humanities and social sciences curricula, it is the engineering faculty themselves that stand in the crucial position of being able to show by example how knowledge of this kind should affect their professional lives.
In my view, almost all traditional curricula have a common purpose of delivering the canonical materials defining diverse disciplines of thought and analysis. There must be a central place for this in the university. At the same time, however, we have to recognize that canonical knowledge must become practice; the purpose of education is to convey individual students out of passive study and into active intelligent life. But practice cannot be learned canonically; rather it is mastered collectively and experientially within the bonds of human communication. In my opinion, both the engineering faculty and the faculty of humanities and social sciences should be involved in this workplace communication. And both, in their ways, should become role models for the kind of professionalism that we mean to develop.
It should be clear that a serious and extensive education in humanities and social sciences must be a portion of every professional engineer's education. I hope that it is also clear that the faculty all have a responsibility to bring disparate studies together in intelligent collective activity. Only in this way, it seems to me, can ABET's criteria truly be realized in engineering education.