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Ten Steps to a Whole New Engineer and a Whole New Engineering Education — Part 1

We live in a technological time. With nearly 7 billion people on the planet (and counting), we depend upon technology in almost every aspect of our lives. Billions are clothed, healed, fed, transported, connected, entertained, and employed through increasingly complex products, processes, and systems. And while technology is in one sense the gift that enables life for billions, its unintended consequences cause environmental and sustainability problems that are increasingly a concern.

As such, engineers and engineering are increasingly necessary to sustain and improve our way of life. Unfortunately, engineering is increasingly not the career path of choice for many who would otherwise make terrific engineers, and even if it were, the kinds of engineers being turned out by colleges and universities around the globe are too narrowly technical to address the complex and integrated nature of the opportunities and challenges of our times.

Big Beacon is a global movement to transform engineering and engineering education, to make engineering an attractive career path to young people and to help educate the kind of engineers that our world needs. The Big Beacon Manifesto calls for (1) a whole new engineer appropriate to our times, (2) a whole new engineering education to educate the engineers we need, and (3) steps of educational rewire or effective educational change or transformation that will bring about the necessary change.

The following are ten steps necessary to bring a new generation of whole new engineers into the world:

Step 1: Become aware how engineering and engineering education got stuck. To create a whole new engineer, we need to understand the historical consensus, sociological factors, and conceptual ingredients of the cold war engineer. After World War II, there was a belief among engineering academics that physics won the war, and the curriculum was stripped of practical subjects and injected with a heavy dosage math, science, and engineering science. These decisions were made in large part to tap into the growing status of science, and they went against the distinctive philosophical nature of engineering as a practical discipline.

Step 2: Recognize ways the world has changed. Since World War II there have been three missed revolutions that have changed the world in ways that call for a significantly different kind of engineer: the quality revolution, the entrepreneurial revolution, and the information technology revolution have change the way we make things, the way we make institutions, and the way we make connections. These revolutions were “missed” in the sense that they were embraced by organizations that face competition in the marketplace and largely missed by those that don’t, including universities. Friedman, Florida, and Pink highlight these changes in their sayings that “the world is flat,” that “we live in a creative era with a rising “creative class,” and that we need a “whole new (creative) mind.” As a result, the engineer of the cold war, a category enhancer, is being replaced by the engineer of the 21st century, a category creator. Unfortunately, engineering schools are continuing to turn out engineers appropriate to earlier times.

Step 3: Understand why reform efforts haven’t worked. Many efforts have been mounted to fix the engineering curriculum, and they have largely focused on content, curriculum, and pedagogy. These bright shiny objects of reform are attractive, because they seem to offer a fairly direct way to bring about change, but they largely haven’t worked. Content and pedagogy change can be brought about classroom by classroom, but the efforts end up being isolated and don’t diffuse or spread quickly. Curriculum change could be more transformative, but it ends being a political process with a stable equilibrium in the status quo. The twin sentiments that “Transformation is great,” but “Don’t change my course” is something of an academic NIMBY problem (“not in my back yard”) in which people generally favor change, as long as it doesn’t require personal change or commitment. Thereafter, the political process of logrolling ensures that curriculum change goes nowhere fast.

Step 4: Use a change approach that combines emotional, conceptual, and organizational factors. In industry, change processes use a combination of heart, mind, and restructuring, and change eventually takes place. In academic life, universities date back to the Middle Ages, and they received their last organizational upgrade when German universities invented the modern research department in the 19th century. To overcome this inertia, best practices such as those described by the Heath brothers or John Kotter must be brought to bear in ways that activate passions among all stakeholders, especially students. The educational system currently assumes that all of the key change variables are rational, but effective change practices recognize that the key variables are emotional, cultural, and institutional.

Step 5: Trust students before they trust themselves. An unexamined assumption of the way we educate students (not just in engineering) is that they are fundamentally incompetent and unable to learn without the disciplinary expertise and learning guidance of the teacher. Although not intended as such, this message creates a continuing dependency on expertise and guidance that is inconsistent with the ideal of lifelong learning. Programs that trust in students and help them take action, fail, and learn on their own teach students that they are resourceful, creative, and whole human beings and capable of taking initiative whenever it serves them. The result is a more courageous, self-confident practitioner right out of the box.

Originally published on The

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Huffington Post on June 26th, 2012.

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