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Ten Steps to a Whole New Engineer and a Whole New Engineering Education: Part 2

In the first installment of this article, we discussed the ways in which engineering is increasingly not the career avenue of choice for an array of talented young people who might otherwise make terrific engineers; we suggested how this situation could be reversed by adopting a new vision of the whole new engineer (WNE) and a whole new engineering education (WNEE).  In particular we outlined 5 steps to the WNE and a WNEE as follows:

Step 1: Become aware how engineering and engineering education got stuck.
Step 2: Recognize ways the world has changed.
Step 3: Understand why reform efforts haven’t worked.
Step 4: Use a change approach that combines emotional, conceptual, and organizational factors.
Step 5: Trust students before they trust themselves.

In this second and final installment, we add five more steps that will help frame engineering and engineering education in a way that naturally attracts a wider group of talented young people to the challenge and joy that is engineering.

Step 6: Instill the keystone habits of noticing, listening, and questioning (NLQ).  If we think of education as an iceberg, much of the effort of traditional education is above the waterline.  We teach and master concepts, facts, and figures, essentially mastery of the already mastered.  Education in a world of change is largely about factors below the waterline, the ability to notice, inquire, reflect, and learn.  Explicit experiential training in noticing, listening, and open-ended questioning transforms schools by (1) giving teachers the tools they need to become aware of the perception, needs, and untapped potential of students, and (2) give students the tools they need to become aware of their own stories and purpose, and to guide their own learning in productive directions of their own choosing.  NLQ is not the whole story, but the current system becomes more amenable to the needed changes as more students and faculty members practice NLQ.

Step 7: Promote cultural change through intentional shifts in language and story.  The current culture of engineering and engineering education is held in place through certain unnoticed stories and language.  The need for “rigorous” courses and the disdain for “soft” subjects is preserved by the very words we use.  To change the culture in ways that promote the values of the whole new engineer requires the creation of sticky language and stories that compete against the status quo.  “Soft” subjects become the “missing basics” and the “fundamentals” become a “math-science death march” as part of an essentially cultural process that leads to effective and sustainable change.  Successful exemplars of change such asOlin College are as much about culture shift as curriculum or content shift.

Step 8: Create new institutional forms to promote innovation, community, and connection. The current educational system is a collection of individual teachers and students acting largely as individuals in a world of teamwork and collaboration.  New programmatic incubators such as the iFoundry model connect dots across the organization to permit pilot innovation and experimentation.  New and revitalized forms of student organizations connect students to their school experience from the very first day, thereby connecting them socially to a supporting culture and community.  Faculty members connect to students and each other in ways that promote lifelong faculty development in ways that bring greater meaning and leadership capability to their teaching and scholarship.  These forms help knit together a less parochial and more interdisciplinary organization.

Step 9: Practice and teach entrepreneurship in thought and action.  Enterpreneurship has a different kind of action logic from the usual planning practices of routine organizations and business.  In routine settings, we plan by setting goals, predicting how to achieve them, and then arranging a reasonably sure sequence of tasks to achieve exactly the predetermined goals.  In entrepreneurial settings, our ability to predict is much less certain, so both the goals and ability to predict outcomes for tasks is much less predictable.  As such, entrepreneurs must be present to what happens in the moment and then must be much less attached to the goals they started with.  Instead, given the high uncertainty and high variability in outcome, the entrepreneurial actor must immediately learn from what just happened and in real-time formulate a response to those outcomes and possible next states.   This kind of behavior has been studied in successful entrepreneurs and has been called effectuation by Sarasvathy. In a world of change and uncertainty, it is fundamental that young engineers be taught these processes in addition to those ofcausal thinking or planning.  Moreover, the processes of changing our educational systems must themselves become more effectual and entrepreneurial and less dependent on more rigid action logics if they are to be successful and bring about more effective reforms.

Step 10: Band all stakeholders together coordinate effective action and collaboratively disrupt the status quo.  To date, education reform has largely been a school-by-school or even classroom-by-classroom attempt to bring about local change, and oftentimes schools or departments carefully guard their innovations as giving their unit a competitive advantage.  Unfortunately, the real competitor here is not the university down the road.  The real competitor is an educational system and cultural forces that preserve a 60-year old engineering curriculum that is demoralizing prospective engineers while or even before they come to school.  Even when change efforts aren’t viewed in this competitive way, schools have had difficulty coordinating, diffusing, and sustaining the results throughout their own institutions and to others.

To bring about the necessary changes it is important for likeminded stakeholders, whether students, educators, employers, or practicing engineers, to come together and unite to bring about the needed changes.  Studies of innovation suggest that radical innovations take place outside of the organizations that are wedded to earlier innovations, and that disruptive innovator takes over from the earlier innovator after the radical innovation has shown its superiority in the marketplace.  In the Big Beacon the movement creates a global virtual organization, a disruptive innovator, that transforms the organizations wedded to the status quo.

These steps are not easy ones, but increasing numbers of students, faculty, engineers, and their employers are coming together to help ensure that we have the kinds of engineers our world needs now and in the future.

Originally published on The Huffington Post on July 11th, 2012.

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