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Today's Engineer
Spring, 1999    Volume 2    Number 2   
Catherine S. McGowan
Retooling Engineering Curriculum--
Putting Theory to the Test

Do We Need a Multi-Track Curriculum?

Engineering Education -- The Way It Was

During the 1950s and '60s, students entering college engineering programs expected heavy technical workloads based largely on engineering theory, and they received it. They were attracted by the technical nature of engineering and enthusiastically pursued this theory-intensive course of study -- which placed heavy emphasis on math, included some laboratory practice to back up the theory lectures, and added a hint of non-technical coursework for good measure.

During this time, a smattering of hands-on applications work existed at the undergraduate level to complement lectures. These "hands-on applications" consisted mostly of structured laboratory exercises and projects that allowed students to "see" the lecture concepts at work, but they didn't always have direct application to off-campus, "real-world" engineering work. Back then, theory was king of the curriculum. Even in the laboratory, research faculty often lacked the direct engineering experience necessary to put a real-world spin on the coursework. As a result, students often struggled to find the direct relevance theories had to the industrial work place.

"It would have been more interesting, and perhaps even more useful, had I known how some of those theories applied to real-world situations while I was learning them," said Larry Sadler (BSEE, University of Illinois; MSEE Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute), president of Third Wave Solutions in Reston, Virginia. "Instead, my undergraduate study taught the theory almost exclusively, with little applications work. We had complementary lab work, but for the most part, I didn't realize the value of much of the theory until I actually started working."

Sadler said that things changed in graduate school, "primarily because the teaching faculty were almost exclusively industry people who focused lectures and lab work on their own work experiences. It then became easier to make the connection between the theory and the applications."

Sadler recalls attending graduate-level classes taught by work colleagues who also mentored him. "Looking back, I suspect that much of our hands-on work related to projects our graduate school professors were involved with in their non-teaching jobs, though we didn't realize it then.

"But we had real engineering situations to work with, rather than struggle with the concepts and theories independently from real-world applications. We were able to see the concepts at work -- and use them to help solve real problems and deal with real engineering issues."

Those students looked forward to continuing their studies and entering the research world or seeking traditional engineering positions in a work environment that seemed to stress technical competence above non-technical skills, or "supporting work skills." In that sense, engineering programs were preparing their charges based on the needs of the day.

"I didn't receive much guidance from the undergraduate professors about the non-engineering skills that I would eventually need on the job," Sadler said. "At that time, you entered the job force with only your innate non-technical skills, and honed them as quickly as needed in the workplace, relying on role-model coworkers and mentors."

A Change of Climate

Today's work climate has changed. The number of technical jobs has increased and engineering positions are more varied, while greater job mobility has reduced the opportunity for engineers to take advantage of longer on-the-job training periods. As a consequence, engineering educators are being challenged to look at their curricula and retool coursework to incorporate non-traditional information and subject matter. Students' need for theory understanding to enable engineering problem-solving remains a top priority, but gone are the days when graduates could enter the workforce with technical skill alone.

Because engineering specialties have become varied and diverse, and because industry is demanding new engineers whose initial skills sets stretch beyond technical competency, engineering educators are seeking ways to introduce more workplace-related experience earlier in the curriculum and to incorporate "supporting work skills." These new efforts include writing and briefing communications, project planning and execution, leadership and teamwork, risk assessment and priority setting, time management, workplace ethics, and other critical non-technical skills, into the core curriculum.

"It would serve engineering students well if faculty could, at least, introduce them to the big picture of the industrial workplace," Sadler commented. "Allowing students more time with industry-based faculty would help them experience more real-world problem-solving work before they enter the job market, and introduce them to some essential but basic supporting skills that go beyond the boundaries of pure engineering. By offering guidance and instruction in theory, application of theory, and supporting work skills, engineering schools would be preparing the complete engineer."

Student Needs --- Strong theory foundation; engaging, real-world applications work; creativity/problem-solving skills; introduction to critical work skills

Industry  Needs --- technical competency; communications skills (written, verbal); leadership and teamwork skills; "eye of the tiger" enthusiasm; personal drive, intuitiveness; integrity; other supporting work skills

Traditional Curriculum --- Theory; limited hands-on experience through lab work and practical example

Multi-Track Curriculum --- Theory; complemented by more intense hands-on work using industry-based scenarios and problems, with opportunities to develop basic yet critical supporting work skills.

Is A Multi-Track Curriculum the Answer?

Engineering faculty must place more emphasis on both engineering applications and basic supporting work skills. By establishing a multi-track curriculum, engineering schools will educate their students adequately for future opportunities, they will engage the students earlier -- which could help them retain more undergraduates throughout the program -- and they will succeed in getting our nation's next wave of engineers and technical personnel better positioned to begin thinking outside the cubicle.

What skills sets are necessary for young engineers? Can a multi-track approach to the engineering curriculum accomplish educators' goal of providing sound technical instruction, while meeting students' needs as they relate to future employment? Is such an approach fiscally possible, or possible within the constraints of a four- or five-year undergraduate program?

Responding to the Call for Change

In response to industry's call for change, many engineering schools have initiated programs or projects that weigh heavily on theory (tradition), but bolster the students' college experience by placing more emphasis on applications (hands-on; applied theory) and building in critical work skills instruction to their coursework (multi-track). According to Stephen Director, engineering dean at the University of Michigan, universities including MIT, Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of Michigan are teaching engineering fundamentals early in the curriculum, integrating mathematics and science, reducing students' course loads, and minimizing the required core to allow students more elective choices. But while these and other campuses have or will incorporate similar changes into their curricula, some faculty believe that reducing core requirements will lead to weakened standards and insufficient attention to engineering fundamentals.

Recognizing that curriculum changes are necessary to prepare engineering students better for entering a changing workplace, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) adopted Engineering Criteria 2000. It is composed of eight criteria that emphasize quality and professional preparation. While these criteria maintain the traditional core of engineering, math, and science requirements, they place new emphasis on teamwork and global, economic, social, and environmental awareness.

Schools taking this more contemporary and diverse approach are taking a giant step toward preparing "complete engineers" who will be better prepared to contribute immediately on the job. These programs are using progressive teaching methods that will balance their curriculum. As a result, they will be able to continue providing sound theoretical instruction, they will facilitate engineering understanding through more applications and hands-on opportunities, and they will begin to incorporate activities that introduce students to some of the other critical work skills they will need to succeed. Following are illustrations of how engineering faculty are approaching multi-track engineering instruction.

A two-year program with a real-world approach

"Students go into engineering with their eyes open, if they have a freshman-level design >course," says Dave Meredith, head of civil engineering at Penn State University-Fayette in Uniontown, Pennsylvania. PSU-Fayette's program offers the first two years of undergraduate engineering study, plus Associate degrees in engineering technology. From there, students transfer to four-year programs to complete their bachelor's work or can enter the work force as engineering technologists.

Engineering theory and applications work alone won't always get the job done.

"Waiting for a senior design project is too late for hands-on experience. When students can apply the theoretical information to real-world problems early on, we will more likely keep them in our programs. They will benefit by knowing how theories map into solutions."

Meredith believes such courses are critical for freshman and sophomore students. "It gives them the framework to understand why they will need to know electrical concepts -- even if they are a civil or mechanical engineering major."

As a faculty member, Meredith finds the greatest challenge with this approach to engineering instruction lies in developing design projects for the younger students, who have developed few technical skills. "It is also difficult to come up with a project that incorporates all engineering majors," he said, noting that students take many of the same core fundamentals courses, regardless of major.

"The best project I ever developed for the students was a 100 kilowatt wind energy tower for the campus. The aerospace/aeronautical students worked on the blade shape; the electrical/electronics students split up to work on the generator and on a control strategy; the mechanical students worked on the step-up transmission; and the civil engineering students worked on designing a tower that didn't sway. I called upon the chemical engineering majors to be environmentalists and government agents and gave them free rein to harass the other students."

Through this and other design projects, students began to grasp some of the other, non-technical skills as well. They learned that the engineering theory and applications work alone won't always get the job done. "This was a team effort; the kids had to work together. They had to know what was going on in all areas of the design, had to work out scheduling conflicts, and had to communicate with one another. Knowing that technical stuff isn't enough, these projects let students come to realize that first-hand."

Professors who incorporate such projects into the coursework and then point out the non-technical aspects of the students' work -- either during the process or in a debriefing session after project completion -- allow the students to see just how important such non-technical work skills are in engineering work. But do professors who use this approach compromise theory instruction? Could a multi-track approach produce less technically competent students? Meredith believes such an approach to educating our next generation of engineers is essential.

Some faculty believe that the traditional theory route has been and continues to be the best way to prepare engineering students at the undergraduate level, as evidenced by dissenting opinions expressed at a 1997 National Academy of Engineering conference that dealt with changes being made in engineering education. Dissenters feel that engineering theory must remain the focus of undergraduate education and that redirecting even some of this focus to accommodate non-technical skill development would produce engineers with inferior technical capability.

"Teaching methods tend to lean toward individual strengths," Meredith commented. "While there are many exceptions, I think many research faculty are more comfortable teaching theory, because that is where their interests and strengths lie. It then becomes a challenge for some colleges and universities to find faculty who have industry experience and can transfer that experience into classroom instruction. When we have research faculty who have never worked in industry teaching design courses, we might compare them to medical doctors teaching surgery who have never operated on real patients. That's a little scary."

Applying "book theory" to real-life scenarios

Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) has approached the engineering curriculum in the more contemporary, "hands-on" fashion for a long time. Educating some 2,500 undergraduate and 400 graduate students each year in 14 bachelor and six master's degree programs, MSOE's curriculum stresses a sound understanding of theoretical principles, but complements that foundation with extensive laboratory time that is integrated with lectures to foster reducing theory into practice.

"Our focus of incorporating labs so strongly into the curriculum results in graduates who are work-ready and have an excellent grasp of theory," said O.G. Petersen, program director of electrical engineering and MSOE's Applied Technology Center.

Virtually all MSOE's core curriculum courses at the bachelor's level include required laboratory time. Design becomes a key emphasis in both lectures and labs in the junior and senior years.

"In typical laboratory assignments, students are given specifications and must design and implement reasonable engineering solutions," said Petersen.

Faculty at MSOE have not had to restructure their approach to engineering curriculum dramatically. In fact, they have included extensive laboratory use as an integral part of their approach to the curriculum for years. "The labs are essential for learning the theory thoroughly," said Peterson, "and the faculty strongly support this academic approach to learning."

Multi-track curricula are absolutely essential to train students adequately for future opportunities.

"Seldom do we observe the ideal theoretical solutions in actual components and systems," Petersen continued. "By designing and implementing theoretical concepts, students must consider the various nuances of the real possibilities. By giving them the opportunity to recognize deviations from ideal solutions and to understand the cause of such deviations, we find they leave with a deeper understanding of the theory."

MSOE's students agree. "My labs have enhanced the theory I have been learning," commented Essex Bond, an MSOE senior. "Design and implementation processes reinforce theory. Because of the way MSOE has approached the engineering material, I have come to realize that there is 'book theory' and there is 'lab theory,' and one must know both to be a good engineer."

"I now have full appreciation for the design labs," he said. "They have helped me really understand the theory of engineering. I will be going on to graduate school, and graduate schools want engineers who know theory inside and out. I look forward to being able to conduct research and I feel comfortable with my choice. I know I will do it well, too, because MSOE has taught me both theory and application, and I need both to do good research."

Industry continues to seek engineers with a sound theory foundation as well, but needs people who can put those theories to the test to find innovative solutions to problems. As a result, graduates entering the work force who have sound applications skills often have a leg up on their competition.

Peterson believes that the combination of "deep understanding of theory and the proven ability to design and implement functioning components and systems" benefits students tremendously. "First, our graduates are well-prepared for further study in graduate school, if that is the route they want to take. Second, our students graduate with functional skills as engineers and are sought after by industry because they are immediately productive; they are work-ready."

Bond agrees. "MSOE gives us problems in non-technical terms. We have to define the problems technically, come up with solutions to those problems, and then implement the solutions. The ability to do this defines a good engineer, and good engineers are what industry wants. They need engineers who are able to apply their technical knowledge to any given situation or problem, and find solutions and better ways of doing things."

These campuses and many others have found an approach that bridges the theory with the applications. Other programs will continue to evolve, moving away from the strictly traditional and making the more progressive multi-track approach more mainstream.

Incorporating Supporting Work Skills Into a Full Curriculum?

Educators agree that engineering theory and fundamentals must remain the heart of undergraduate education. Many also believe that increasing students' exposure to applications coursework will enhance their understanding of theory, help them think more creatively, and be innovative in their work. Opinions start to divide, however, when discussions turn to non-technical coursework.

Today's engineering positions involve much more than pure engineering work, so engineers need skills that match their job responsibilities. With the teamwork approach that most engineering companies practice today, employees are working with colleagues with different backgrounds -- some technical, some non-technical -- and everyone must be able to understand the same language.

But where do you include communications in engineering curricula? Should time management, interpersonal skills, or economics be taught separately? Should we add courses in these and other support skills areas as requirements to an already full course load?

Meredith believes that such supporting work skills can and should be incorporated "into the fabric of every engineering course. With the emphasis by industry on team building, communications, and leadership, I don't see how we can avoid using each course to develop the full package."

In Meredith's thermodynamics class, for example, students debate the environmental issues around various design options. They use economic data to compare alternatives. "I also break the class into design teams and we spend time talking about how to deal with the ringer who is not pulling his share of the load."

Petersen agrees. "To the greatest extent possible, these skills should be integrated throughout the curriculum, rather than be taught in isolation -- to give students a full-picture view of real-world engineering."

"During my 30-year career in industry, I learned the necessity of non-technical coursework, especially communications," he added. "While graduates may initially be hired primarily for their technical skills, long-term career success is more dependent on non-technical skills."

Industry seeks engineers with a sound theoretical foundations, but with the ability to find innovative solutions.

And Larry Sadler's 40-year career, which began in the "engineering trenches" and reached the upper levels of corporate management, illustrates how essential the full package is. "I learned that to succeed I had to have a solid technical reputation within the company, so I worked to achieve that first," he said. "But I quickly found out that I had to rely on more than just my technical expertise. Most of the critical supporting work skills I needed I learned on the job with considerable effort and sacrifice to my free time."

Steps in the Right Direction

Engineering students and engineers must understand that education and skill-building is a life-long process. Likewise, engineering colleges would serve their students well by teaching non-technical expertise to complement technical capability.

As with any change, steps toward the final goal will take time, continuous evaluation, and improvement. The traditional engineering curriculum has been in place and has served students well for decades. It has undergone change and improvement before, and will continue to evolve.

The engineering community is composed of problem solvers. Engineers will continuously strive for better methods and solutions, as this talent defines the heart of the engineering discipline itself. With faculty and industry working together, our engineering schools will certainly find the way to ensure that future engineers have all of the tools they need to contribute and to succeed.


1 "The Changing Nature of Engineering," May-June 1998 ASEE PRISM, American Society for Engineering Education.

2 "Engineering Criteria 2000: A Bold New Change Agent," George D. Peterson, Executive Director, Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, as published on American Society for Engineering Education home page.

Catherine S. McGowan is a freelance writer and is president of Current Communications Company in Ashburn, Virginia. (