There has been a vigorous debate going on in engineering and computer science academic circles recently about how the four years that comprise an undergraduate education can best prepare a graduate for the modern working environment. Books and articles stress that the graduate is entering an entirely different world than the graduate of the mid-twentieth century. Where once the newly minted graduate entered the corporate environment simply as a cog in a hierarchically stratified machine methodically churning out products such as automobiles or appliances, the modern graduate must be prepared to enter the workforce as an entrepreneur or a disruptive innovator. Hence traditional modes of teaching and learning are obsolete, and far more than just curricula need to be rethought to fit the current environment.
This kind of stirring of the educational system is always welcome, and it is fortunate that today there are schools of all sizes trying to implement reforms that aim to improve a sense of interconnectedness in the curriculum, a sense of community among students pursuing common goals, and even a sense of joy in the doing of engineering work. Ideally, education should not be a series of distinct modules tied up in a package at the end with the string of one capstone design course.
At the DeMatteis School, we have been incorporating many of the insights that are emerging in these discussions. Our first-year engineering experience bears a striking resemblance to the paradigm outlined in the recent book A Whole New Engineer by David Goldberg and Mark Somerville, which relates how the Olin School, an elite small engineering school devoted to undergraduate education, and the University of Illinois, with a large established research-focused engineering school, each pioneered incorporating methods and a learning environment that is student-friendly as well as academically rigorous.
Of course, many of the skills that are cultivated in these programs grow with time and practice. Such attributes as being good communicators and team members can be fostered in the four years of schooling, but interactions with colleagues, customers, and others over many subsequent years in the business environment will typically be where they will come to fruition.
One question that always emerges in these conversations is: what has to give way in a four-year program if more emphasis is to be put on developing these attributes? Can you redesign a curriculum for 21st-century education that abandons some of the staples of 20th-century education? Different schools will adopt different approaches. Some schools boast that their students need not be taught the basics of engineering disciplines in the classroom anymore because all that information is easily available to them online. That is not something we would maintain: having top notch faculty teaching our introductory courses is one of our hallmarks as a primarily undergraduate school. It should be noted, also, that expecting all of a school’s graduates to be cutting-edge innovators is somewhat unrealistic. At the DeMatteis School, we anticipate that many of our alumni will find jobs in some established fields, such as MEP design, environmental consulting, structural design, and software design. The 21st century still needs bridges, wastewater treatment, and other infrastructure essentials of the modern world. The companies we partner with through our Co-op Program often specify particular technical competencies that they require of students and graduates. So we are all for making our programs as student-centered as possible while retaining a curricular structure that appeals to potential employers.
Our conclusion as we try to gauge the relevance of technical education is that there is no single answer to the curricular and program innovations necessary to produce graduates ready for 21st-century challenges. But we continue to observe trends and educational trend-setters, and are always ready to adopt and adapt what we think will work best for our students.