We live in a technological time. With nearly 7 billion people on the planet (and
counting), we depend upon technology in almost every aspect of our lives. Billions
are clothed, healed, fed, transported, connected, entertained, and employed through
increasingly complex products, processes, and systems. And while technology is in
one sense the gift that enables life for billions, its unintended consequences cause
environmental and sustainability problems that are increasingly a concern.
As such, engineers and engineering are increasingly necessary to sustain and
improve our way of life. Unfortunately, engineering is increasingly not the career
path of choice for many who would otherwise make terrific engineers, and even if
it were, the kinds of engineers being turned out by colleges and universities around
the globe are too narrowly technical to address the complex and integrated nature
of the opportunities and challenges of our times.
Big Beacon is a global movement to transform engineering
and engineering education, to make engineering an attractive career path to
young people and to help educate the kind of engineers that our world needs. The
Big Beacon Manifesto calls for (1) a whole new engineer
appropriate to our times, (2) a whole new engineering education to educate the
engineers we need, and (3) steps of educational rewire or effective educational
change or transformation that will bring about the necessary change.
The following are ten steps necessary to bring a new generation of whole new
engineers into the world:
Step 1: Become aware how engineering and engineering education
got stuck. To create a whole new engineer, we need to understand the
historical consensus, sociological factors, and conceptual ingredients of the
cold war engineer. After World War II, there was a belief among engineering
academics that physics won the war, and the curriculum was stripped of
practical subjects and injected with a heavy dosage math, science, and
engineering science. These decisions were made in large part to tap into the
growing status of science, and they went against the distinctive philosophical
nature of engineering as a practical discipline.
Step 2: Recognize ways the world has changed. Since World War II there
have been three missed revolutions that have changed the world in ways
that call for a significantly different kind of engineer: the quality revolution,
the entrepreneurial revolution, and the information technology revolution
have change the way we make things, the way we make institutions, and
the way we make connections. These revolutions were "missed" in the
sense that they were embraced by organizations that face competition in the
marketplace and largely missed by those that don't, including universities.
Friedman, Florida, and Pink highlight these changes in their sayings that "the
world is flat," that "we live in a creative era with a rising "creative class,"
and that we need a "whole new (creative) mind." As a result, the engineer
of the cold war, a category enhancer, is being replaced by the engineer of
the 21st century, a category creator. Unfortunately, engineering schools are
continuing to turn out engineers appropriate to earlier times.
Step 3: Understand why reform efforts haven't worked. Many efforts
have been mounted to fix the engineering curriculum, and they have largely
focused on content, curriculum, and pedagogy. These bright shiny objects
of reform are attractive, because they seem to offer a fairly direct way to
bring about change, but they largely haven't worked. Content and pedagogy
change can be brought about classroom by classroom, but the efforts end up
being isolated and don't diffuse or spread quickly. Curriculum change could
be more transformative, but it ends being a political process with a stable
equilibrium in the status quo. The twin sentiments that "Transformation is
great," but "Don't change my course" is something of an academic NIMBY
problem ("not in my back yard") in which people generally favor change, as
long as it doesn't require personal change or commitment. Thereafter, the
political process of logrolling ensures that curriculum change goes nowhere
Step 4: Use a change approach that combines emotional, conceptual,
and organizational factors. In industry, change processes use a
combination of heart, mind, and restructuring, and change eventually
takes place. In academic life, universities date back to the Middle Ages, and
they received their last organizational upgrade when German universities
invented the modern research department in the 19th century. To overcome
this inertia, best practices such as those described by the Heath brothers or
John Kotter must be brought to bear in ways that activate passions among all
stakeholders, especially students. The educational system currently assumes
that all of the key change variables are rational, but effective change practices
recognize that the key variables are emotional, cultural, and institutional.
Step 5: Trust students before they trust themselves. An unexamined
assumption of the way we educate students (not just in engineering) is
that they are fundamentally incompetent and unable to learn without
the disciplinary expertise and learning guidance of the teacher. Although
not intended as such, this message creates a continuing dependency on
expertise and guidance that is inconsistent with the ideal of lifelong learning.
Programs that trust in students and help them take action, fail, and learn
on their own teach students that they are resourceful, creative, and whole
human beings and capable of taking initiative whenever it serves them. The
result is a more courageous, self-confident practitioner right out of the box.
Part 2 to come next week!