As I enjoyed lunch with a friend today, he described a teenager that he has been counseling. The young man that my friend has been advising wants to be engineer. When asked why, the teen replied that he wants “to build things.” That’s certainly why I wanted to be an engineer. It’s also why I was so frustrated in my first two years of college. I didn’t understand what possible connection all of the math and physics I was “learning” had to do with making things. My father ran a machine shop, so I knew what making things looked like. It usually didn’t involve a lot of calculus. In fact, I worked in industry as an engineer for twenty years without ever having to solve a single integral.
This doesn’t mean that I didn’t need to understand math and physics. On many occasions I approximated an integral using Riemann sums, because I understood the integration concept. However, the connection between my engineering studies and the shop floor certainly escaped me for my first couple of years in school. I know many talented young people who got frustrated with engineering and quit because they couldn’t see the relevance of the engineering curriculum. Their youthful passions “to build things” were quashed for a lack of clear and direct communication about what engineers do and how they complete their assigned duties.
As I think about the future of engineering education, it’s easy to get caught up in interesting conversations about college costs, classroom technologies, and alternative certification. However, the problem I need to focus on is that of curriculum relevance. What does an engineer need to know in order to go “make things?” How do you make that knowledge relevant to an eighteen year old student? What are the key points that every engineer should remember and understand a decade after graduation? All in all, I need to narrow my focus and concentrate on these issues.
Oh yeah, it wouldn’t hurt to get my dissertation finished, either.