The vital signs may be shaky, but there is a treatment.
BY DAVE GOLDBERG
Is engineering dying? It isn't clear, but in developed countries around the world young people would rather go to the dentist than go into engineering. Law, business, and medicine—just about anything but engineering—seem to be the preference of today's youth.
For example, in Singapore, where engineering once was the royal road to high income and status, today's students are bypassing engineering in droves. Top universities fill seats in engineering schools by putting students in engineering slots against their will; large numbers list engineering as their bottom choice. Yes, India and China are cranking out engineers by the millions, but even those countries need to watch out. As soon as those countries are sufficiently affluent, their kids may choose to become doctors, lawyers, and financers, too.
Engineering: Now More Than Ever
This state of affairs is unfortunate. Actually, it is unsustainable and untenable. Engineering is more important than ever, and a life with diminished technology is not an option. With approximately 7 billion people on planet Earth, and estimating the carrying capacity of the planet before agriculture at roughly 100 million or so, we estimate that approximately 6.9 billion humans currently owe their existence to postagrarian technology.
That's bracing, but sustainable design and living don't come about with fewer engineers. Whether you are a technology optimist or pessimist, the future needs more capable engineers to sustain and improve life, and today's students get it and are attracted to engineering and technology in high school by FIRST robotics or Project Lead the Way or others, but something happens on the way to their becoming engineers.
Three Reasons Engineering May Be Dying
Reason #1: Engineering education is upside-down and backward. Engineering education is a math-science death march in which mathematics and science are viewed as "the fundamentals" and design and technology are viewed as mere "applications." Historically, this view is inaccurate (e.g., there were stone axes 2.5 million years before math or science), and motivationally, the conventional view is backwards.
Right now we make students eat the spinach of math and science before the chocolate of design, and those who might otherwise delight in engineering don't get the chance to do so because they choke on the spinach.
What to do? Schools like Olin College have successfully inverted the curriculum, making design early and preeminent in the curriculum (chocolate before spinach), thereby having math and science serve design, not vice versa. Putting design and practice first, and using theory to serve the real world, is a step toward producing enough capable engineers for our planet's future.
Reason #2: Engineering education is embedded in a dysfunctional culture that delights in the failure of those it educates. It is common enough to have become a cliché. An engineering professor stands at the front of a class and says, "Look to your right, look to your left, two of the three of you won't be here next year." The culture lying beneath such a statement is not one that welcomes or supports its young. It weeds them out and delights in their failure.
What to do? The culture of engineering education should shift from what Dweck calls a "fixed" mindset to a "growth" mindset where students are viewed as resourceful learning agents capable of engaging and mastering the material. Doing so requires moving from the centrality of professor as expert to the centrality of student as learner and a reframing of the role of professor to coach.
Reason #3: Engineering is perceived as a low-status profession in which the engineer is socially captive to the will of nonengineers. One of the reasons students look to other professions is the belief they are held in higher esteem than engineering, and a key point underlying this belief is what Stephen Goldman calls "social captivity." This term suggests that engineers often work in organizations in which they have little control over the work they do, following the orders of professional managers, who carry out goals set by corporate chieftains.
What to do? The socially captive engineer used to be the norm, but increasingly engineers start their own companies or work for companies that rely on intrinsic motivation of innovative employees to create new products and services. Emphasizing engineering leadership, entrepreneurship, and innovation in school can overcome the stigma of social captivity, thereby raising an engineer's potential for autonomy and meaningful work.
These problems are difficult, but many concerned about engineering's future are coming together under the Big Beacon, a global movement for the transformation of engineering education. To find out more about the movement, go to www.bigbeacon.org and read the Big Beacon Manifesto.
Dave Goldberg, cofounder of Big Beacon and president and founder of ThreeJoy Associates Inc. (www.threejoy.com), is a consultant, trainer, and coach to students, faculty, and administrators in higher education. Prior to founding ThreeJoy Associates, he was the Jerry S. Dobrovolny Distinguished Professor in Entrepreneurial Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.