Canadian Consulting Engineer

exit from the ivory tower: educating engineers for a new millennium

With about 8,000 students graduating every year from engineering programs, Canadians have a hefty financial stake in how well these young people learn their skills. But the concern is more than a matt...

December 1, 1999  By Bronwen Ledger

With about 8,000 students graduating every year from engineering programs, Canadians have a hefty financial stake in how well these young people learn their skills. But the concern is more than a matter of money. As technology expands its reach into almost every human activity, the people who are being trained to wield its growing power will indirectly have an influence on the quality of all our lives.

Nobody is more aware of how critical a good engineering education is, however, than the future employers — the consulting firms, manufacturers, governmental organizations and myriad other self-described “user-groups” of engineering services. For these organizations, the technically oriented brain is the processor at the core of their operations, the gold bullion that determines the value of their firms.

A group that partly represents those future employers has just issued a report that calls for major changes in the education of engineering undergraduates. The Canadian Academy of Engineering is a self-governing college of up to 250 fellows founded in 1987. Elected “on the basis of their distinguished service and contribution to society, to the country and to the profession,” the fellows are all professional engineers, and tend to be acting and retired executives of engineering companies as well as senior academics. The president is Alex Taylor, chairman of the board at Agra in Mississauga, Ontario.

The Academy’s report is called the “Evolution of Engineering Education in Canada,” and its main message is that engineering students need a curriculum with a broader, more well rounded base. As technology has become more complex and sophisticated in recent years, professors have tried to keep pace by packing highly specialized technical learning into the classroom. However, many feel this trend has gone too far, and the Academy’s report, is one attempt to redress the balance.

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Written by a task force established in 1998, the report says schools should give more time to design projects and a teamwork approach. The authors also suggest technical courses could include more consideration of societal and environmental issues. Above all, they would like students to graduate with better managerial and communication skills. In essence, although it doesn’t say so explicitly, the Academy is saying it wants students to come out from the ivory towers of academia to learn to operate more as they would in the working world.

The Academy isn’t the first to argue that engineering education should be broader in scope. Its report cites several previous studies done for the Canadian Council of Professional Engineers which it says agree with its principles. Certainly a report by the engineering students themselves written in May 1997 came to similar conclusions. The Academy’s report also acknowledges that the Canadian Accreditation Board has already made changes to its teaching criteria along the lines it recommends.

Despite all the past efforts, however, the Academy does not see change happening fast enough in the classrooms and laboratories. What is lacking, it seems, is money — which is where the high profiles of the Academy Fellows come into play. The report suggests the Academy members could use their position to exert pressure on universities and governments to pour more resources into engineering faculties. In the introduction it says: “The Academy plans to mobilize the support of its Fellows together with that of leaders of industry to assist the engineering academic community in persuading governments, universities, industry, the engineering profession and the public of the need for these changes, and in requesting from them the necessary resources.” (p. 4)

Five-part plan

The authors of the 17-page report have organized their shopping list into five sections, summarized below. Most of the recommendations apply to undergraduates.

Engineering faculties should ensure that breadth of learning, beyond the technical aspects of the specialist engineering discipline, is a major thrust in engineering education.

This recommendation is the heart and soul of the report. Following is an extract of the rationale behind it:

“The tremendous growth of technology has resulted in pressure on engineering faculties to pack more and more technical content into their undergraduate engineering curricula. [But] engineering graduates are increasingly required to contribute in areas well beyond the technological dimensions. Modern society requires that engineering graduates be broadly educated, that they be knowledgeable about the society in which they live and work, that they be sensitive to the economic, social, political, environmental, cultural and ethical dimensions of their work. In Canada, there is a particular need for graduates with entrepreneurial skills to develop new enterprises on which future economic and social wealth depends.

“Employers of graduating engineers seek technologically based, broadly educated people with good oral and written communication skills, [the] ability to work as part of a team, potential to take a leadership role, a basic knowledge of business and management and a sensitivity to the economic and social impact of engineering activity.”

The authors of the report recognize that there may not be enough time in a four-year undergraduate program to introduce a broader approach without sacrificing some of the highly specialized technical teaching. However, they say specialized studies and research should be reserved for the Master’s level in university. The students who leave for the working world can improve their expertise through continuing education. The report insists that the more broadly educated students would still receive the basic technical grounding they need, and would actually graduate better qualified: “It is felt that, given the appropriate resources and effort, the proposed broadened programs can more fully meet the spirit of the profession’s accreditation criteria than is currently feasible.”

Engineering faculties should emphasize the development of the learning skills of their students. A high priority should be placed on “learning how to learn.”

Here the Academy suggests that engineering students should be more involved in project assignments as opposed to sitting passively in formal lectures. In project work they would have to find out information for themselves, acquire new skills and apply analytic tools. They would also exploit new information technology such as the Internet. The Academy believes this kind of learning is useful in preparing for life in the business world. Students would learn how to work in teams, and sometimes in co-operative programs with industry. The professor would be a “facilitator, coach and mentor,” rather than simply a provider of information.

Leaders of engineering faculties should ensure that their faculty members have the vision, values and behaviours needed for their evolving role in preparing undergraduate and graduate students to function effectively in our rapidly changing world.

This recommendation could be the most contentious. It says that engineering faculties should hire more professors with experience in the working world. The Academy notes that most professors are appointed on the basis of having highly regarded specialist knowledge and for their potential for conducting original research. However, it suggests these qualities are “not necessarily adequate” for teaching undergraduates a broader understanding of professional engineering in practice. Policies may have to be restructured so that recruitment, promotion, tenure and reward programs give credit to a professor’s teaching and mentoring skills as well as to research. That way young professors who devote themselves to practical teaching won’t fear they are jeopardizing their careers. The report recommends that the quota of engineering staff and facilities be increased in order for such changes to take place.

Research conducted in engineering faculties should be characterized by excellence, by relevance to industrial and social issues and by concern for the life prep
aration of the graduate students involved.

Insofar as graduate research is concerned, the Academy emphasizes that the university’s first responsibility is to the professional development of the individual students. It also stresses that the research done must be relevant to society. Not surprisingly perhaps, given the business background of many Academy members, the report spends time pointing out the value of research done in collaboration with industry.

Engineering faculties should participate in providing the technological aspects of a liberal education for university students, and in improving the technological literacy of the general public.

Looking out to the university’s broader community, the report says that engineering faculties can play a much bigger role in campus life. It points out that as our society becomes dominated by technology, even the liberal arts student has to have an understanding of it. Who better to provide that education than the engineering faculty through elective courses and workshops? The report also advocates that more inter-disciplinary and integrated study activity should take place between engineering and other departments. The aim is to break down the “silos” of specialized knowledge that are building up throughout the universities, not just in engineering.

Why now?

If the Academy is to see any of its wish list realized it has to win the support of many important players, notably the deans of engineering in the universities who set the curricula, and the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board which sets the bar for qualifying engineering degrees. The Academy has had comments back from both groups on earlier drafts of the report, and is next set to meet with the accreditation board in February. The board is part of the Canadian Council of Professional Engineers (CCPE).

How the board will respond is open to question because it has already made efforts to broaden engineering education in recent years. Deborah Wolfe, P.Eng., director of educational affairs at CCPE, points out that the board has put certain structures in place. For example, she says professors are already asked to integrate societal considerations into engineering courses. The list, she says, includes ethics, equity, environment, leadership, teamwork and sustainability. As well the board requires that undergraduates take 225 of their total 1,800 Accreditation Units in complementary studies. These include courses in the arts, management, economics, communications and the social sciences. Wolfe says, therefore, that though the board hasn’t done everything the Academy recommends, “We are doing a good chunk of it.” She adds that the board will carefully study the report and may propose changes to the accreditation criteria

However, it is left up to each university to decide how they fulfil the accreditation board’s requirements and there is still room for improvement according to the Academy.

More than Philosophy 101

Arthur Heidebrecht, P.Eng., a professor of civil engineering at McMaster University who helped write the Academy report, says his university did a survey about four years ago that supports the argument for a broader education. McMaster asked engineering graduates who had been out in the working world between five to 10 years what they thought now about their schooling. “In the technical areas they felt very comfortable with the extent to which they had been educated,” Heidebrecht explains. “Some even felt they had received more than they needed.” However, he adds, “in the complementary skills areas it was generally not the case.”

Heidebrecht has seen a change in the incoming students themselves that is creating a need to widen their educational horizons. “Probably we’re getting a larger proportion of those who are technically qualified but with not as broad interests as students had 25 years ago,” he says. “In a sense we are recognizing that we have to build that consideration into the program so that the students are not just seen as narrow technocrats.”

Both Heidebrecht and John Lockyer, P.Eng., a director of the Academy who has taken a deep interest in the report, stress that what is important is how new components are integrated into the engineering program. “This isn’t all about an extra course here displacing another course there,” says Lockyer, a retired vice president of Spar Aerospace. “A lot of it is about the general climate and context in which all courses are taught, and particularly the need for professors to recognize and talk about the broader context of engineering in the country and in society.”

Heidebrecht agrees, “The Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board requires complementary studies. I think that’s very important and has been recognized widely as a major contribution to broadening. We’d like to build on that. We’re not saying simply make it more. It’s a question of how you do it.”

“One desired outcome,” Lockyer says, “is that there should be better social and technical interchange between engineering and other disciplines. It is not well done by just putting on a course of Philosophy 101 on Friday afternoons. It is something that has to be woven into the fabric.” He suggests the same principle applies to broadening within the engineering courses, with more emphasis on design and project management. “I won’t say there was no recognition of it before. There are excellent design courses in most universities,” he says. “But what some people have been trying to achieve is to get design more integrated so that you don’t learn Physics this course and Mechanics the next, and Electronics the next, and then, ‘Oh, now we’ll do Design where we can use some of this.’ Rather we would use design as a reason for finding out more about physics and mechanics and electronics.”

For Taylor of Agra it is also a matter of producing engineering graduates who will be good business for firms like his, and who will also advance Canadian technology. For that it seems we need universities to give us the best of both worlds: produce engineers who can do specialist research, and engineers with broader management skills. “It’s the obvious conundrum,” Taylor says. “We’ve got to do both, and yet there are limited resources. As a user of engineering I need the innovation, and I need it both from a management viewpoint and from a technical depth viewpoint, and from an ability to synthesize, to bring engineering together to create innovative products.”

Taylor may yet have his wish. In the Throne Speech this fall the federal government announced it would finance 1,200 new research chairs in Canadian universities. Some of those positions might be in engineering, which would free up resources for broader teaching at the undergraduate level.

Certainly the political tenor of our times is in tune with the Academy’s recommendations. As we head into a new millennium the federal government is afraid that Canada is being left behind in the world’s high-tech sweepstakes. Hence, despite the protestations of many eminent academics who think that business has no business in the classrooms of the nation, the government is encouraging closer ties between industry and academia. One idea is that we could capitalize more on technology research done in the universities to produce commercially viable products. Just before the Academy finalized its report, a government Expert Panel issued another — currently being circulated for comment around the country — entitled the “Commercialization of University Research.” In this milieu the Academy’s arguments in favour of a practical, industry-led education for engineers seem destined to fall on sympathetic ears.CCE

The report suggests that engineering faculties hire professors who have more experience in the working world.

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