Engineering education: Now is the time to change

In a book published in the year 2000, entitled Learner-Centered Assessment on College Campuses: Shifting the Focus from Teaching to Learning, Mary Huba and Jann Freed asked the question:

 “Tomorrow’s citizens, tomorrow’s leaders, tomorrow’s experts are sitting in today’s college classrooms. Are they learning what they need to know? Are faculty using teaching methods that prepare them for future roles?”

Then, the main mode of teaching in engineering schools, and pretty much everywhere else within the university system, was the time-honoured, traditional, teacher-centred, lecture model. The main characteristic of this method was the reciting of material from textbooks, and passive, rote-learning from students. Then, the main assessment method was the end of course exam. And this was characterised by a tendency to prioritise rote learning as opposed to informed engagement with the study material.

Fast-forward to the year 2019, Mary Huba and Jann Freed would have to rephrase their question to ask:

 “Today’s citizens, today’s leaders, today’s experts are sitting in today’s college classrooms. Are they learning what they need to know? Are faculty using teaching methods that prepare them for present and future roles?”

Why? Because tomorrow has arrived. And it doesn’t look pretty.

Unlike in 2000, this time around changes are sweeping through higher education, and new forms of student-centred, active learning approaches are now in vogue. Yet, the traditional approach, characterised by lectures, passive learning and exams still dominates in large swathes of the university system.

As engineering academics, we can easily forget that the world that our students are graduating into is no longer the same world that we graduated into thirty or forty years ago. Occasionally, we do get shocked when the evening news announces, yet again, the collapse of a high street brand name. However, come the next day, we go back to our academic duties in the world-acclaimed universities that we belong to, and continue teaching our students the same way that we have taught them in the past ten years. We are used to this, and we like it. We know our lecture notes by heart, to the extent of even knowing when to make that dramatic pause, and when to recite that yesteryear joke.

Our lectures might be boring, but they are predictable, and our exams are also boringly predictable. Our students love it. Our exams have not changed in years. Yes, exams, because we do not believe in any other form of assessing our students. Continuous assessment is anathema to us. And our students pretty much know the questions that will appear in our end of year exams – last year it was this question from this paragraph in the lecture notes, the year before it was this other question, and the year before that it was this other question, so this year it is definitely going to be this question. If you are not in the know, and you look at the exam, it may look as if only the Einsteins and Brunels of this world can crack it.  But guess what, by the time the students come to the exam, they will have practised similar examples over and over again – for them it is a matter of recall, and nothing more. And they go on to get first class and upper second class degrees in Engineering, but they are definitely short of the preparation they need to be effective in industry.

Employers have no choice but to hire our not-fit-for-purpose graduate engineers. They are the only offering on the plate, and there is nowhere else to turn to.  They are the product of a well-honed, boringly predictable, first class engineering education, but they are barely of any use to the engineering world of today. We, the engineering academics know it; the students know it, the government knows it, parents know it, and the employers know it. That’s how things  are, but for how long?

Today’s complex world is crying out for nimble-minded graduate engineers whose education has given them the ability to critically analyse, assess and offer viable technological solutions to the myriads of engineering problems that routinely crop up every day. Instead, our graduates, bred on traditional engineering education, are hopelessly incompetent. In all their university lives, they have never had to face the challenging, unpredictable, academic problem sets meant to prepare them for the bold world of 21st century engineering. Suddenly, faced with the reality of modern day engineering, their first class and upper second-class degrees lose their shine. Even the illustrious names of the universities that offered them these degrees suddenly look very unimpressive.

The world has to move on, and even now, employers are beginning to look elsewhere for the talent that they need. That talent might not come from an acclaimed engineering school, or from a world-class university, but it will be the talent needed for the engineering world of today. Engineering education has to change; otherwise, our current engineering schools are doomed.

The retail world has been here before us. Century-old retail giants have been collapsing left, right and centre, whilst newer, more technologically attuned retail enterprises take over. If the engineering school of today does not adapt to the changing winds, then a new breed of engineering school will take over, and we and our students will soon go the way of the dinosaurs, only at a much faster pace.

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