Higher ed engineers the future

Graduates must solve real-world problems at the intersection of technology and society.
By: | Issue: April, 2016
March 28, 2016

With unsafe lead levels in city water systems, injured military veterans in need of smart prosthetics, and a demand for sustainable sources of clean energy, our need for engineers has never been greater.

The good news is that despite concerns to the contrary, the ranks of engineers in the United States are growing. About 100,000 engineers graduated with bachelor’s degrees from U.S. universities last year, a number that has grown by 25 percent in the last decade, according to the American Society for Engineering Education.

Training engineers to take on the challenges of the future is one of the most important contributions that colleges and universities make to advance the human condition.

New conversation

We realized during the recent celebration of National Engineers Week (February 21 to 27) that it is time for a new national conversation about how engineers are educated.

Are these inventors of our future currently being educated to meet the highest standards? Will graduates be prepared to solve immense challenges such as the Flint water crisis or the complexities of increasing urbanization? What about cybersecurity? Regenerative medicine? Improved materials for our bridges? Developing a safer food supply?

At Arizona State University (ASU) and Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), we understand that a skill set is not enough. We must help students to become master learners with the outcome-oriented mindset necessary to bring solutions to life.

Entrepreneurial mindset

As institutions dedicated to innovation in engineering education, ASU and WPI joined more than 20 other institutions (including Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, Villanova University and Lehigh University) in the Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network (KEEN).

KEEN’s mission is to help college engineering programs instill an entrepreneurial mindset that’s driven to investigate the interconnectedness of systems and integrate knowledge across disciplines. The program sets specific goals for developing students’ deep curiosity and appetite for learning— with a strong focus on outcomes. It places a clear emphasis on creating solutions with high impact on the world and value in the marketplace.

At our universities, we have developed and elevated programs that unleash the combined power of skill set and mindset. ASU reorganized the academic structures in its Fulton Schools of Engineering to align all programs with a set of transdisciplinary “grand challenges,” such as:

  • making solar energy cost-competitive with coal
  • engineering better medicines
  • ending extreme poverty and hunger
  • securing cyberspace

With this approach, students work, think and discover across traditional disciplinary boundaries.

WPI’s nontraditional, project-based undergraduate curriculum focuses squarely on developing students who are driven to make an impact through applied research and interdisciplinary work. Students and faculty travel to one of 45 project centers around the world, where they work in interdisciplinary teams to address real-world problems at the intersection of technology and society.

This unique teaching and learning approach was recognized with the 2016 National Academy of Engineering’s Bernard Gordon Prize.

Addressing global challenges

Too often, a rigid framework in higher education prevents development of an entrepreneurial mindset. Reaching beyond traditional structures, we can give the next generation of engineers the best possible preparation to address global challenges and create prosperity.

We call on more universities to join programs like KEEN, and for organizations such as the National Academy of Engineering to advance a national conversation about the importance of students developing creative, determined mindsets, in addition to great technical skills. Such work is vital to our future, as engineers will be called on to help heal, protect, feed and improve our world.

Michael Crow is president of Arizona State University and Laurie Leshin is president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute (Mass.).