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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.

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Engineering Students Can Do X

One of the many blessings in my life has been my ability to travel and help transform engineering education around the world. These experiences have given me some insight into today’s engineering students and have helped me see that no matter where we live, we’re not so different after all.

While cultures vary greatly from place to place, I’ve found that at the individual level engineering students are more similar than dissimilar. My colleagues elsewhere don’t necessarily see it that way, however. Prior to engaging students overseas, I’m often surprised when a colleague pulls me aside and says quietly, as if telling me a secret, “Dave, you need to understand something. You’re not in the United States anymore. You’re in __________ (fill in the blank), and students here don’t do X,” where “X” is the particular thing that these students supposedly don’t do or aren’t capable of doing. For example, I have been told various times and in various locations that engineering students aren’t curious, don’t answer questions, don’t ask questions, can’t talk about emotions, aren’t creative, and so on and so forth across a litany of supposed inadequacies and incapacities.

As an outsider in all these situations I was sensitive to my role, yet a part of me was always curious to observe students for myself to see if they really don’t do X. I have been privileged and blessed to be able to listen to engineering sons and daughters around the world in a way that is quite compelling, and I want to share what I’ve heard from some of the brightest young engineering students in the world. My hope is that by sharing my observations I can help us all seriously think about educational reform and transformation. The remainder of this article tells three stories of what I found to be true of engineering students worldwide.

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