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September/October 2008
ProVocative

Advancing Engineering Education

An Interview with American Society for Engineering Education Executive Director Frank Huband

Frank Huband discusses work by ASEE on behalf of engineering education, including its roles in outreach and advocacy, and the connection with standards.

How is ASEE working with industry and educators to ensure an adequate supply of engineers in the next few decades?

ASEE is keenly aware of the lead role it plays in engineering education and the need to support and work with partners in kindergarten through 12th grade education. Our purpose is to promote engineering as a career and also to educate the U.S. public on the importance of engineering to the quality of life that many take for granted.

The ASEE Web site, in the K-12 section, features an “EngineeringK12 Center” designed to build awareness of engineering education, provide education resources and promote networking on the topic. We are currently in the process of upgrading the K-12 Web site to be more relevant for today’s middle and high school students and will be producing a new edition of “Engineering: Go for it!,” a guidebook to engineering and technology careers for high school students.

We also support a number of groups dedicated to enhancing the K-12 education to workforce pipeline. ASEE has a K-12 advisory committee and the Dean’s K-12 Committee on the educational side, plus a public policy colloquium and a Corporate Member Council.

ASEE administers several federal programs designed to ensure an adequate supply of engineers. One good example is the SMART Program — Science, Mathematics and Research for Transformation Scholarship for Service Program — established by the U.S. Department of Defense to support undergraduate and graduate students pursuing degrees in the disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The goal of the program is to increase the number of civilian scientists and engineers working at DoD laboratories.

These are just a few examples of what we’re doing. It’s critical that we find ways of increasing the level of collaboration and find new ways of working together.

Today, standards are business as well as technical documents. Similarly, do you see advantages to studying business principles in addition to engineering curricula?

Yes, there are advantages. The focus of the undergraduate degree in engineering is design. However, students are expected to gain an appreciation of context for the field of engineering they are studying.

Gaining this understanding means that engineering curricula are already jammed with topics such as the environment, sustainability, safety and business principles, which are all often required. The challenge is finding topics that could be taken out, left to graduate school or better learned on the job. We have not been very successful at that. It should be remembered that engineering remains a four-year curriculum and that this is not likely to change, although some fields are advocating a master’s degree.

A better strategy, in my view, is to find better ways to integrate what students need to learn. There are a lot of good examples of integration going on in first-year engineering courses. For example, first-year engineering courses are often structured around a relatively simple design project that allows students to integrate all aspects of design, including standards and specifications. That’s a strategy that has been demonstrated to work.

Not everything has to be done in the classroom. I’ve seen a lot of good examples where students have been exposed to business principles by being out on a co-op, an internship or a summer job. That comes back to the idea of integration. These activities are effectively integrated into the engineering curriculum by making them part of the overall college or university experience.

It’s also important to note that some programs in engineering have more of a business focus such as undergraduate degree programs in engineering management; they are focused less on design and more on management. There are even more such programs at the graduate level. Interestingly, the engineering master’s programs experiencing the most growth in the last several years have been engineering management.

Given that standards are an important part of the infrastructure of engineering practice, how can standards development organizations and ASEE work together to educate engineers around the world to give them the knowledge they need about standardization?

We suggest new workshops at both the national and international levels that provide participating faculty with resources they can immediately use in their classrooms.

Our K-12 Engineering Education workshop is a model to build on. It is held as part of our annual meeting and is designed to provide resources to educators and lay a foundation for ongoing exchange between the K-12 and post-secondary engineering and technology education communities.

Last spring, several K-12 workshops were run as part of our regional meetings. These regional and zone meetings are held around the country every year. Several years ago, standards workshops organized by ASEE members were held in conjunction with section meetings. A next step could be to support members in organizing workshops for the annual meeting and long range, to organize workshops as part of our international meetings.

What is ASEE doing in engineering education response to increasing globalization?

We are in the process of advancing relationships with stakeholders in engineering education around the globe and working to move U.S. engineering education into a more globally oriented, culturally sensitive and strategic position.

ASEE provides leadership of and support to the recently created International Federation of Engineering Education Societies; we are the secretariat for that group, which will work to provide well-prepared engineering graduates globally. One IFEES initiative is the creation of a worldwide forum, the Global Engineering Deans Council, which will aid the exchange of information, challenges, experiences and best practices for leading an engineering school.

A number of universities have international partnerships for research and exchange and a number of institutions have partner campuses outside the United States. We’ve been involved in promoting global collaboration. This summer, for example, a number of U.S. faculty members were in India to help develop a cadre of engineering faculty there.

We continue to think creatively about how to take advantage of globalization and how we can productively work together and collaborate.

What’s your biggest challenge as an advocate for engineering educators?

Our biggest challenge as an advocate is the perception of engineering as a career — one that engineering is very difficult, dull and not stimulating. Changing that perception is not easy.

A study released at our annual meeting addresses changing the message regarding engineering. The report, “Changing the Conversation: Messages for Improving Public Understanding of Engineering,” from a study done by the National Academy of Engineering, recommends that the engineering community begin using a coordinated communications strategy with the messages that engineers make a world of difference, are creative problem-solvers, help shape the future, and that engineering is essential to our health, happiness and safety.

There are really a lot of opportunities to make a difference through engineering. For example, if you’re really going to get serious about energy, it needs to involve a lot of technology and a lot of engineering.

These are real challenges and in fact engineering work is very stimulating. And they’re not new challenges, either. It’s an ongoing process.

 

Frank Huband is executive director of the American Society for Engineering Education in Washington, D.C.