Engineering education needs to be holistic, giving students a wide skill set and preparing them for the workplace decades from now
Being able to move nimbly across disciplines and bridge technology with policy will be among the critical characteristics of influential engineers of the future, according to Norman Fortenberry, executive director of the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE).
“We need engineers who can create, manage and lead in technology and policy—engineers who can drive economic growth, blend theory and practice with technical and professional skills, and demonstrate global awareness and intercultural competence,” he said.
Fortenberry shared how those essential qualities provide the impetus to transform the undergraduate engineering experience when he delivered the Engineering Dean’s Lecture on February 15. His talk, “Educating the Engineer of 2040,” was the kick-off event for the school’s Engineering Week.
Fortenberry said engineers have always been vital drivers of economic growth who advance societies and the quality of life. But today, complex global challenges—climate change, pollution, population contraction and growth, and limited natural resources—push their critical problem-solving skills into a new arena.
“Engineers must straddle uncertainty,” he said, as well as diverse disciplines and cultures, and be ready to engage with non-engineers around broad questions that transcend their technical expertise. Engineering as a profession “is being depended on to drive economic development in the face of these types of challenges and to address changes in our natural environment.”
Those demands put pressure on engineering schools to innovate, adopting a more holistic systems approach. That assessment, he said, is informed by ASEE’s report “Transforming Undergraduate Education in Engineering” [PDF]. The project identified qualities of successful future engineers, and outlined necessary changes in engineering curricula, pedagogy, and academic culture.
For starters, educational changes are needed to prepare engineers who are “T-shaped,” Fortenberry said. In the T, the vertical bar represents depth and mastery in a technical field, and the horizontal bar reflects related professional skills such as the ability to broaden questions, have empathy, work collaboratively, and communicate ideas.
The report underscores the need for greater shared responsibility for student outcomes. “There seems to be an opportunity . . . to more tightly couple what we hope the student learns in a work experience back into the formal academic program,” Fortenberry said.
Students also want access to project-based team projects and experiential learning. They want to make a lasting impact on “real-world problems and develop skills through challenging creative opportunities, such as those found in maker spaces,” he said.
Fortenberry noted that the AEEE report is not alone in calling for continual improvement in engineering education; with concern over retaining global competitiveness in the sciences and technology, the United States has a vested interest not only in educating engineers well, but also educating more of them.
After the talk, Fortenberry took questions from the audience. Several focused on how engineers could become more active in the political process. Fortenberry replied that the public-facing role of politician is not an easy one for many engineers. “Scientists and engineers value data and evidence,” he said. “To be more engaged in the political realm, you have to connect with emotion.”
Still, he said, ASEE is developing tools for its members to help “build a bridge of comfort” in being a trusted voice on issues that generate debate—and not only during times of crisis. For now, he said, “I think there is also a role [for engineers] in terms of being the local expert for the elected official.”
Laura Ferguson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.