Time to Rethink Professional Training
Traditional programs don’t provide the diversity of learning experiences that develop the kind of engineers society and employers actually need.
Opinion by William Scherer and Michael Smith
Is traditional undergraduate engineering education adequate in today’s complex and connected world? Or do engineering professionals need a liberal education foundation to be both personally successful and socially responsible? Many successful engineers eventually gain a liberal education, but when and how it is obtained is our question.
Although many high school students pursue a technically oriented academic path, thanks to the popularity of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) programs, 18-year-old undergraduates are ill-prepared to decide what kind of professional they want to be. They haven’t lived or learned enough, and they haven’t reflected enough on life and their futures. This inexperience manifests itself in dissatisfaction and subsequent career shifting due to the forces of tradition and expectations from institutions, parents, and society that influenced earlier choices. Give students the gift of a liberal education, including science and mathematics, and they can determine their paths for themselves.
Historically, successful engineering professionals applied specialized technical knowledge to develop and design solutions, often without full knowledge and understanding of the context in which these solutions existed—with both positive and negative effects on the environment and society at large. This reflected an engineering education that provided training in the skills needed to design, develop, and deploy complex systems, as opposed to the education essential to lifelong learning and growth.
Typical undergraduate engineering degree programs load their curricula with significant technical content, leaving very little room for nontechnical electives, into which students must fit politics, government, history, literature, sociology, religion, languages, philosophy, or the arts—hardly conducive to in-depth exploration of these topics. Some progressive engineering programs allow one year of unrestricted electives, but even that is only 25 percent of the college education.
“Only Connect,” a classic piece by University of Wisconsin historian William Cronon in the American Scholar, provides a thoughtful list of 10 qualities—not courses—that define a liberally educated person. These attributes include oral and written communication, humility, listening, problem solving, nurturing, and rigor as a way of seeking truth. It’s an incredible list that most would wish for their children’s education. To gain these qualities, students need to explore a diversity of subjects, be exposed to a wide range of people and experiences, and engage in a variety of learning opportunities. Our engineering colleagues’ goals are noble and their quality remarkable; however, we don’t believe that we can realize the vision of an educated person through typical engineering curricula. We try by adding courses on the broader societal impacts of engineering, instituting practitioner capstone projects, bringing in speakers from all contexts of engineering, and other worthwhile approaches. But it’s not enough.
What’s a solution? Almost all professions have a terminal professional degree that consists of a considerable training component, be it law, medicine, architecture, education, or business. Over 100 years ago, many of these professions received a terminal undergraduate degree. Today, all have moved to the first professional degree as being the dominant and desired degree, built upon the foundation of a liberal undergraduate education. Why not engineering? Students getting a liberal education could take a “pre-engineering” curriculum that would prepare them for, should they decide to pursue it, a graduate first professional degree in engineering. A pre-engineering educational program would afford students the opportunity to enter the workforce directly in a wide range of endeavors. Thus, students could receive a truly liberal education along with preparation for numerous future pathways in disparate disciplines.
Such an approach would put engineering in line with many other professions and let undergraduates pursue learning before training. We believe that there is not a shortage of STEM workers but a misalignment of people and jobs and, therefore, a need for a diversely educated and agile workforce. Our recommendation would improve America’s economic competitiveness by creating the types of graduates with the broader vision that both society and employers actually need.
So let us begin a serious discussion in the engineering education community about how best to prepare the next generation of engineering professionals. As Cronon noted, liberal education “aspires to nurture the growth of human talent in the service of human freedom.” Sounds like engineering’s core mission, doesn’t it?
William Scherer is a professor of systems and information engineering at the University of Virginia, where Michael Smith directs the Accelerated Master’s Program in Systems Engineering.