Sorting Out the Lines of Thought

It is my hope that, by making frequent blog entries, I will slowly sort out the tangle of thoughts that go through my head each day. These ideas and notions are often related to the engineering profession or engineering curriculum—and they all seem tangentially related to one another in some way as they pass through my consciousness. Without stopping to write them down, however, all I retain is an emotional agitation that comes from knowing that things are changing, but not being sure what to do about it. It is somewhat akin, I must confess, to the way that I felt about my stock investments throughout most of last spring.

So, as a first pass, I see these issues as needing resolution to put my tiny brain at ease:

Role: Are engineers to continue as problem solvers, or should they (could they?) become advisers to society? In a Talk of the Nation interview on NPR, former marine biologist Randy Olson talks about why scientists need to involved in presenting their findings to the general public, and how they might do so effectively. It seems to me that as the world becomes more complex, we need engineers to speak up about the inevitable compromises that are part of any sufficiently robust system. The concept of relying on facts, rather than anecdotes, is only now starting to get due attention in management circles. Courtesy of Stanford professors Bob Sutton and Jeffrey Pfeffer, the notion of evidence-based management reached the readers of the Harvard Business Review in 2006. If not evidence, on just what have managers been basing their decisions up to now? Could engineers really do any better, or are they so lacking in charisma and social skills that they could barely stay afloat in the choppy waters of corporate politics?

Skills: Are the skills that students learn in college in any way related to the skills they need to be productive in society? It seems to me that engineering curriculum is too often subject to the tyranny of technique. Yes, students can calculate the maximum stress in a beam, but do they know what to do with the number they generate? They may be able to produce a Bode plot for a feedback system, but can they use that information to reduce system error? It is undoubtedly easier to teach and grade technique, but is this ultimately a disservice to students, and to society? Further, a majority of the engineers that I graduated with become project engineers, rather than designers or researchers. Would their classroom time not have been better spent learning more about project management, and less about the intricacies of partial differential equations? This is not to say that we could ever abandon mathematical rigor in the engineering sciences. However, with college costs climbing without bound, perhaps a more judicial use of students’ time and money is prudent; not every engineering student want to pursue an academic career. For those who want to proceed to grad school, the current arrangement may be fine. However, are the remaining students receiving an education that will allow them to acheive rapid proficiency throughout their working careers?

Education: Based on the roles and skills needed by engineers, it is possible to start addressing the education of engineering students. This topic is vast, and I might start by breaking it down into four subheadings:

  • Topics: What skills should we be teaching? More software programming? More interpersonal skills? More hardcore engineering?
  • Methods: By what method should we present these topics? Screencasts? Online lectures? One-on-one tutoring?
  • Style: How might the material be best presented to allow students to quickly comprehend key concepts?
  • Structure: What is the structure by which this education is best delivered? Are universities still the right venue for delivering an engineering education? Will new organizations, either ad-hoc or private enterprise, sprout up to deliver an education at a lower cost, and in less time?

I’ll try to work through these issues in future posts. If blogging fails to help me sort out these thoughts, then perhaps the “Preparing Future Faculty” program I enrolled in today will get me moving down the right path. By completing the course I am supposed to be able to:

  • Explore and reflect on my assumptions about academic roles, positions, practices, missions, and institutions.
  • Construct an institutional profile and relate my career goals and faculty skill sets with institutional missions and departmental goals.
  • Construct a career strategic plan for enhancing and maintaining faculty skill sets and competencies.
  • Develop a portfolio including curriculum vita, cover letter, research statement, and teaching philosophy.

Sounds like a good start to me!

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