A Vision for Engineering Education Post-COVID-19
The pandemic’s disruption affords the opportunity to also disrupt the engineering curriculum.
Opinion By Adedeji Badiru
In response to the COVID-19 lockdown last spring, educational institutions transitioned to distance learning. Many continued with the method this fall with classes either fully or partially online. But in addition to such short-term measures, we now have an opportunity to develop a new long-term strategy. Prior to the pandemic, engineering practice was already changing, largely due to the digital revolution. Engineering education needed a facelift. COVID-19 has expedited the necessity to change and adapt. We must act now to move engineering education beyond the pandemic era.
I recommend we return to the first principles of engineering, which establish that if we understand the pieces of a system, we understand the whole system. In this case, the keystone of the system of engineering education is the curriculum, which needs to be transformed for the future.
COVID-19 offers the opportunity to apply our own engineering principles to the enterprise of engineering education. The forces of status quo have been difficult to overcome, but empowered by the pandemic, we can now boldly attempt curriculum changes that we have always wished for. In addition to reacting resiliently to continue the education mission, we should focus on transforming the curriculum itself for a new environment that will increasingly be digital, interactive, and multidisciplinary. How can we do this in a way that ensures all the pieces fit together? I recommend the following pathway, using the DEJI systems framework:
- We must Design new and nimble engineering curricula. This can be done with the standardized framework of ABET accreditation criterion of student outcomes. We design an engineering curriculum to ensure such outcomes as the ability to identify, formulate, and solve complex engineering problems by applying principles of engineering, science, and mathematics. This is the crux of engineering education, which must be preserved in any new curriculum. The challenge then is how to design a nimbler curriculum that avoids the archaic structures of the past. Some considerations are interchangeability of courses, collaborative course enrollment across other disciplines, competency-based award of course credits, and skills-focused assessment of the attainment of course objectives.
- We must Evaluate how the new post-COVID curricula meet current and future needs of engineering practice. This can be done through pre-capstone credit-based education-with-industry courses that expose students to real engineering workplaces. Such courses would be augmented versions of typical internships or co-op assignments. For example, an internship augmentation could include assignments that expose the engineering student to multi-organizational or multi-company alliances, as are often seen in practice.
- We must Justify why and how the modified curricula fit the future of work for engineers and other professions. This can be done by comparing time to graduation with a conventional engineering curriculum. The goal is to accelerate engineering education without compromising the desired student outcomes. In essence, our goal is to produce engineering graduates who can do the engineering job regardless of the number of credit hours that get them to graduation.
- Most important, we must Integrate the new curricula into the ways new generations of engineering students learn. We must also consider how the practice of engineering will shift with the increasing reliance on artificial intelligence, virtual reality, digital manufacturing, space travel, and other emerging technologies. This can be done by adopting the ABET criterion of program educational objectives. The modified curriculum is aligned with what graduates should be able to accomplish in the evolving, technologically infused future work environment. Not all such work preparations are achieved through conventional credit-hour-based courses. One way to achieve this could be through imaginative capstone projects that focus on conceptualization of work environments of the future, scenarios that don’t yet exist. In other words, get the students to integrate their thinking in terms of their workplaces-to-be. Think ahead, work ahead, but get course credit now.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a challenge that has necessitated innovation, creativity, and new strategies in the delivery of engineering education. Whenever the disruption ends, the experience will fundamentally change how engineering education is delivered—similar to how the events of September 11, 2001, permanently changed the protocols of air travel. Will we be ready? Now is the time to start designing engineering curricula of the future. Deinceps transeamus! (Forward!)
Adedeji Badiru is a professor of systems engineering and dean of the Graduate School of Engineering and Management at the Air Force Institute of Technology.