It occurred to me the other day that the next evolution of education may be a return to self-service education. Early engineers and scientists, even those who were fortunate to have access to formal education, had to fill the gaps with self-study. Their biggest impediment was lack of access to learning resources. Today, we have open access resources and MOOCs readily available to most learners. The only thing missing in a self-serve education is a curriculum. Perhaps this is not an impediment. It seems that only the first two years of the engineering curriculum are universally prescribed; the advanced engineering course requirements vary so much from one institution to the next, even within the same engineering discipline, that the exact selection of courses is somewhat arbitrary.
Every engineering school has its own curriculum, generally a mix of core or general education, a science and math foundation, and a set of program requirements, about a year-and-a-half of upper-level engineering courses. Each graduate is considered an engineer, although the exact mix of courses is left to the institution. The accreditation organization for engineering programs worldwide, ABET, prescribes the standards very broadly. The accreditation criteria are silent on the exact mix of required upper-level courses, while specifying that measurable student outcomes should address certain abilities, for example:
- application of math and science
- data analysis and experiment design
- system design to meet desired objective
- multidisciplinary teamwork
- solving applied science problems
- ethical responsibility
- understanding of global and societal context
ABET criteria cover evaluation of student performance, competent faculty, facilities, and institutional support. With the advent of open resources, personal computing, and even labs-in-a-box, such as Virginia Tech’s “ANDY” board, designed to conduct take-home electric circuit experiments and projects at home, “facilities” and “institutional support” may take a different form than previously defined. Can such resources be used to deliver the same quality of engineering education? As ABET criteria call for student assessment, program evaluation, and continuous improvement, the question is potentially answerable for accredited programs.
Perhaps community colleges will be important in a transition to self-service learning. Community colleges are well-equipped to provide the first two years of engineering curricula, including the broad core, science and math foundation, and introductory engineering courses. Community colleges are distributed throughout each state, making them accessible to the population. An accredited associate degree program could be (and should be!) universally transferable to a baccalaureate degree. The choice of upper-level courses sees such variation between schools that it is conceivable that a student could self-select courses without any loss of rigor. The resulting credential may be a general engineering degree, with certificates reflecting specialties that the student has earned.
In most states, professional engineering registration is not specific to a discipline; there is just one “PE” license, although the registrant must pass an exam in a specific engineering discipline. If a PE license is not tied to a discipline, the engineering degree could be general as well. The engineer could demonstrate competence in a discipline by passing that discipline’s principles and practice of engineering exam. Likewise, a graduate could be credentialed with certificates earned through a combination of coursework and experience.
Perhaps the master’s degree will be of importance for engineer’s advanced credentialing. A single engineering discipline is really too broad to be a meaningful label on its own. Mechanical engineering graduates could certify in engineering mechanics, materials science, or the thermal sciences, to name a few. Electrical engineering encompasses electronics (which itself is very broad), power, information science, communications, and many others. How about nanotechnology? Is this electrical? mechanical? chemical? materials? Such inherently multidisciplinary fields could be accommodated easily through certificates. In my case, I have bachelor’s degrees in mechanical engineering and electrical engineering and a master’s degree in electrical engineering, with research in electric power and signal processing. A more focused credential for me would be a bachelor’s degree in engineering with a certificate in power (which is “electrical” and “mechanical”), followed by a master’s degree.
This may not be a new idea. My thinking was influenced by a banquet address given by Dr. William Kelly, P.E., Director of External Affairs for the American Society for Engineering Education. Dr. Kelly said that engineering licensure is not a path for all engineers, for a variety of reasons, and that certifications are becoming more numerous and important as credentials in many fields of endeavor. I was so struck at the prospect of community colleges taking on an increased role in engineering credentialing that I wrote an article about Dr. Kelly’s talk, and you can see it here.
To gain practical problem-solving skills in the discipline, an internship can be an important component of engineering education. Institutional support can take the form of matching students with internships, perhaps on a rotating basis, and integrating work experience with capstone courses. With the flexibility of self-paced courses and freedom from constraints of the semester system, the program could potentially be completed in a shorter time, or a longer time, depending on the student’s needs.
For more information, look here:
ABET Accreditation Criteria for Engineering Programs
VT “ANDY” Board User Manual and Test Procedure
Certifications are the New Coin of the Realm (page 7)