The global state-of-the-art in engineering education: A review

It is no longer in dispute that engineering education has to change if it is to produce graduates who can face up to the challenges of the 21st century. Moreover, it’s no longer a case of “Are there any curriculum transformation strategies that I can look at?” Instead, it’s now a case of “Which transformational strategy should I adopt for my engineering school.”

Ten year ago, conferences and journals focussing on engineering education were scarce and infrequent. This is no longer the case. In fact, we are now spoilt for choice. Multiple engineering education conference proceedings and journals are now crammed full with ideas and examples of curriculum change by a multitude of authors from engineering schools all over the world. This now leaves the Director of Education wishing to transform their engineering curriculum with the following questions:

  1. Whose voice should I listen to if I am considering curriculum change in my own school?
  2. Which successful institutions, worldwide, should I turn to for guidance?
  3. Of these successful institutions, which ones closely match my own, in terms of size, operational environment and institutional education mission?
  4. Of the plethora of engineering education models out there, which ones are likely to stand the test of time, and which one are just passing fads?

At the best of times these are very challenging questions. However, the publication of an MIT-sponsored report by Ruth Graham entitled “The global state-of-the-art in engineering education: Outcomes of Phase 1 benchmarking study” will make it much easier to address these questions. The report came out of MIT’s desire to have a clear insight of the current state of cutting edge engineering education globally and how this was likely to pan out in the future.

Individuals currently at the forefront of engineering education reform

In order to come up with the report, Ruth first needed to identify and interview some of the leading figures in engineering education. To do so she selected 50 individuals from 18 countries from across the world. The selected individuals were either pioneers in engineering education research, policymakers in the field and/or university leaders with direct experience of delivering the world’s most highly regarded engineering education programmes. This list has been placed in one of the report appendices, and it is a good starting point if you need to talk to someone with current experience in engineering education transformation.

Ten institutions at the forefront of engineering education reform

One of the key objectives of the report was to identify institutions that are leading in engineering education innovation. The report identifies ten institutions that are currently acknowledged as world leaders. These institutions include MIT, Stanford, Olin College of Engineering, University College London, and, with the exception of the National University of Singapore, all of them are based either in the USA or Europe. With the exception of Olin, these institutions are typically well-established public universities that are renowned for research excellence, and that cater for relatively large cohorts of undergraduate engineering students. Also, without exception, all the ten institutions  actively engage in disseminating their ideas and practices across the international higher education community.

The report also identifies key pedagogical features that are common to these leading institutions. Typically, these institutions offer student-centred, hands-on, experiential learning, with opportunities for engaging with the university’s research activities. Design-based learning is also a feature of their curricula, and all the institutions have well established partnerships with industry that inform the engineering curriculum as well as the engineering research agenda. In addition, these institutions also offer their students opportunities to engage in student-led, extra-curricular activities and experiences.

Ten institutions emerging as leaders in engineering education reform

The report also identifies ten institutions that are viewed as emerging leaders in engineering education, with the most cited being Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) and Olin College of Engineering. Other institutions that make it into the list include the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, and Tsinghua University in China. Compared to the earlier list, this one is more globally distributed, with only four institutions coming from the USA and Europe, which are the traditional strongholds.

The report also identified a “watch list” of some of those institutions that did not make it into the emerging world leaders list. This includes New Model in Technology & Engineering (NMiTE), UK, Lassonde School of Engineering at York University, Canada, B.V. Bhoomaraddi College of Engineering and Technology, India, and Insper, in Brazil.  Apart from B.V. Bhoomaraddi, all these other institutions have been established within the last five or so years.

The engineering curricula in the emerging world leaders share a number of common traits. First, all the ten institutions have opened up entry to students with non-conventional entry requirements, and they have all put in place selection processes that take into consideration the aptitudes of prospective students towards engineering. In addition, programmes at these emerging institutions place significant emphasis on integrating work-based learning into their curricula, as well as blending off-campus online learning with on-campus intensive experiential learning. Another common characteristic is that programmes offered at these institutions place dual emphasis on both engineering design and student self-reflection, and both these are integrated across the entire curriculum. Finaly, in addition to the formal curriculum, student-led, extra-curricular activities are a key feature of these institutions.

Additional remarks

The report also highlights contextual features that have driven curriculum reform in these institutions that have been identified in this report. This includes government initiatives, and local labour market requirements.  The report also highlights the likely future trajectory of engineering education, as well as identifying the likely key ingredients necessary for effective, sustainable engineering education reform within individual institutions. It is definitely a report worth reading, even if you are not contemplating making changes to your own curriculum in the near future.

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