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The 'Creeping Crisis' in Engineering Education

In a Q&A, William Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering, challenges U.S. engineering schools to better prepare future professionals.
University Business, Sep 2006

How can universities best prepare the professionals of tomorrow in an environment in which change constantly outpaces capability? Take engineering as an example. By all indicators, engineering is a highly relevant subject to the technological world of today, and the job outlook for engineers for the foreseeable future seems positive. Yet, have engineering schools met their full potential in serving new and emerging technology needs, and in applying engineering competencies to solve larger social and economic problems? Are they preparing the leaders who can influence their field and its applications in the 21st century?

Several educators, associations, and industry leaders are concerned with what they see as a growing disparity between engineering education and the external environment. William Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering, and George M. C. Fisher, chairman of the NAE Council and retired chairman and CEO of the Eastman Kodak Company, put it bluntly when they wrote in Issues on Science & Technology Online :

The changing nature of international trade and the subsequent restructuring of industry, the shift from defense to civilian applications, the use of new materials and biological processes and the explosion of information technology--both as part of the process of engineering and as part of its product--have dramatically and irreversibly changed the practice of engineering. If anything, the pace of this change is accelerating. But engineering education--the profession's basic source of training and skill--is not able to keep up with the growing demands.... Because we live in a time of rapid change, engineers in current practice face issues that little constrained their predecessors; and engineers we educate today will be practicing in future environments likely to be very different from our own. Thus, if engineering education does not change significantly, and soon, things will only get worse over time.

In a recent discussion, Wulf expanded on some of the provocative ideas that have established him as a pre-eminent leader in the field. He also explored the implications of some of these issues for the educational, recruitment, and management components of engineering schools.

Most engineering faculty do not see a need to change. Most of them have never practiced engineering, of course, and many, I find, have a quite distorted view of what the practice is like.

The 1950s changed fundamentally the nature of engineering education from purely technical to the engineering science model of today. The motivation for change--the "howling wolf at the door"--was the need to understand science to contribute to national security in the face of the nuclear threat. If there is a howling wolf around the corner today, it might be the "out-sourcing" of engineering jobs overseas-- but it's a bit soon to tell. My description of the situation is that of a "creeping crisis"--one whose consequences are significant, but which accrue incrementally and slowly and never raise alarm.

The threat of terrorism is another potential catalyst for change. At the moment, however, the government has not linked security directly to technology. This may be changing and new needs are perceived. People in the defense department, for example, are concerned about the demographics of the defense laboratories--their rapidly aging population. Because of security concerns, defense and security are not areas that can be outsourced to non-U.S. citizens. There is also discussion about a new version of the old NDEA grants, to support engineering education.

You are right. There's no data that screams oversupply or shortage. In fact, the starting salaries are sort of stable--suggesting that in the short term we have neither. This presumes an inflow of talent from other countries, however, which we are reducing with our visa policies. Just how this will play out I have no idea.

I am more concerned about the quality of the engineering graduate "product" than the numbers--although I will come back to numbers later. The expectation is that after a four-year Bachelor's degree, the first employer will invest at least two more years before the new employee becomes productive. Crazy, but that is just an assumed part of the culture.

I believe that with curriculum and pedagogy changes we can reduce that dramatically... and if employers begin to see that from some the graduates of newer programs, that could also be the howling wolf.

I don't have data at hand that speaks to the newer fields of engineering, but there is one clear trend that is encouraging.

It's pretty well known that women and underrepresented groups prefer occupations that are of direct benefit to people--ergo the popularity of law and medicine, both of which are basically at parity in the professional schools.

The stereotype of engineering is not that of being people-oriented; I happen to think the stereotype is dead wrong, but it is what it is. Some of the new fields like bioengineering and environmental engineering do not share that stereotype, and we do see more women and members of underrepresented groups in them.

You are right about the emphasis on outcomes. However, I see very few schools actually taking advantage of the freedom afforded by the outcomes based approach. It's too soon.

I do see that tension in principle, but since few schools are taking advantage of the freedom, I am not yet seeing the tension in practice.

On a related point, 40 percent of engineering graduates are said to have some community college experience--it might only be a course or two, but it is there. This is going to be another tension. Right now the community colleges depend on being able to teach a course that is "equivalent" to those in most engineering schools. If engineering schools exercise the freedom of EC 2000 that will become difficult and, I think, some new form of relation will have to be forged between the CCs and four-year schools.

Most schools think of improvement in terms of rankings. It is difficult to change rankings. It is also an expensive undertaking with uncertain results since you are competing with many others for a limited pool of resources. A former president of Carnegie Mellon (under whom I worked) always said: "Don't compete unless you have an unfair advantage." Finding a niche in which you have an unfair advantage, and can establish leadership in, is a viable strategy. Bioengineering and nanotechnology have become areas of differentiation for some engineering schools. However, everyone now wants to emphasize these specialties. Yet, there are many potential "niches" that have not been fully exploited. For example:

Worcester Polytechnic Institute (Mass.) has created a unique niche in fire protection.

Engineering schools see themselves as professional schools. Engineering is the only baccalaureate program that behaves this way. Producing engineers that possess the kind of professional preparation that does not require the employer to invest in lengthy training can be a strong competitive advantage.

Protectionism may not be a realistic short-term solution to stem outsourcing. Educating a different type of engineer, whose competencies cannot be outsourced, is a more viable approach.

Research data indicates that a great number of engineers do not remain engineers 10 years out, yet credit their training for other types of success. Undergraduate education that provides transferable competencies would be attractive to those who may want to expand their options beyond the engineering field.

Anna Caraveli is a higher education strategy consultant. She has assisted many complex, constituency-based organizations-universities, research and cultural institutions-increase their customer base, identify new niches for leadership and strengthen their value to their constituencies-members, students, alumni, donors and other stakeholders. Professional schools are an area of special concentration. She can be contacted at She is an affiliate of Anthony Knerr & Associates (, an international strategy consulting firm that assists leading higher education and other nonprofit institutions.

William A. Wulf and George M.C. Fisher, "A Makeover for Engineering Education" , Issues on Science & Technology Online, Spring 2002

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