SANTA CLARA, Calif. Engineering education for 2020 and beyond will require a variety of skills not commonly taught in universities today, according to Leah Jamieson, dean of engineering at Purdue University and 2007 IEEE president. The need to teach attributes like creativity, flexibility, leadership, and business acumen will drive a demand for an "experiential" approach to education, she said.
Jamieson was keynote speaker at the DesignCon 2007 conference Wednesday (Jan. 31). "In many ways, the world is changing," she observed. "Are our graduates going to have the skills they need over the next 40 years?"
Drivers for change, she said, include new multidisciplinary technologies, an unprecedented rate of technological change, globalization, and offshoring. The "half life" of an engineer's knowledge the point at which half of what the engineer knows is obsolete may now be as little as five years, she said.
"If it's below five years, we'll get scared," Jamieson said. "That means that by the time we're done with a graduate, half of what we did will not be relevant. We ask ourselves what will stay relevant, so they'll at least be current the day the graduate."
Jamieson noted that there's been a declining interest in engineering majors in the U.S. "There is a sense that engineering is not attractive in the U.S. in the way it used to be, and we're trying to understand our role in that," she said. Meanwhile, Jamieson noted, there's an "explosion" in the engineering workforce in China and a growing workforce in India, while the U.S. engineering workforce is stable or shrinking.
Moreover, she noted, there's been no progress with diversity since the mid 1990's, in terms of attracting women or minorities to engineering.
Jamieson briefly reviewed a National Academy of Engineering (NAE) report about engineering in 2020. It paints a picture of "breakthrough technologies" such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, and photonics, applied within an urban physical infrastructure. Technology for an aging population will be a major driver. Health care and security will be key issues, and there will be many interactions between engineering and public policy.
Required attributes for engineers in 2020, the report says, include analytical skills, creativity, ethical standards, ingenuity, leadership, dynamism, agility, and resilience. Some of these are "fairly foreign" in the academic environment, Jamieson noted. "It's not just how much math and circuit theory you know, it's communications, the ability to work in teams, to understand professional ethics," she said. "How are we going to teach, and how will students learn, all that's necessary for their careers?"
A controversial suggestion in the NAE report, she noted, is that a bachelor's degree be considered a "pre-engineering" degree, and a master's degree should become the "recognized professional degree" in engineering. A more likely alternative, she said, is to "turn the curriculum inside out." While engineering science was at the core in the 20th century, the 21st century would put engineering experience at its core, and wrap engineering science around that as it supports design.
This more experiential approach to engineering education might include internships, entrepreneurship, service learning, and study abroad, Jamieson said. It also involves "having students work on very realistic projects."
Still, she said, there are unanswered questions. One is which portion of education universities should provide, and which portion should be learned on the job. Another is the role of professional societies, such as the IEEE, in ongoing professional development.
"It's an amazingly exciting time to be an engineering educator," Jamieson concluded.