WPI Journal

December 1996

Getting on With the Job of Change

In a special inaugural symposium, eight leaders from academia, industry and the accreditation community looked to the future of technological education in the United States.

The world of work has changed dramatically. Today's technological professionals enter a workplace transformed by mergers, downsizing, the globalization of business and industry, the incredible pace of technological change, and the growing importance of small, entrepreneurial companies. To succeed in this new world, they need more than a strong technical education. They need a set of skills and abilities that most science and engineering programs don't currently provide, or provide well. For that reason, technological higher education in the country must change - and change quickly.

That was the conclusion of a symposium held in conjunction with the inauguration of WPI President Edward Parrish. "The New Liberal Education for the Age of Technology" brought together eight leaders from academia, industry and the accreditation community to discuss the state of technological higher education and to make recommendations for its future. In addition to Parrish, the panelists were Eleanor Baum, dean of the School of Engineering at Cooper Union; Douglas Bowman, director of electronics and information technology at Lockheed Martin Corporation; Frederick E. Hutchinson, president of the University of Maine; David A. Kettler, executive director of science and technology at BellSouth Corporation; Mark M. Little, vice president for power generation engineering at GE Power Systems; and George D. Peterson, executive director of the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. The moderator was Joseph Hinchey, chair of the board of trustees of Union College.

In brief remarks that opened the two-hour panel discussion, Bowman explained why many corporations today have an abiding interest in the state of technological education. "More than market share - more than almost anything else - the future of our business depends on the quality of the scientists and engineers we hire."

Bowman said those new hires must be prepared to work in an environment that differs greatly from the workplace of just 10 years ago. "We used to have small design teams and lone engineers," he said. "But the lone engineer has gone the way of the Lone Ranger. Today we work in multidisciplinary teams that need not be co-located geographically, or even limited by political boundaries. Work on projects can continue 24 hours a day as the sun moves around the Earth. And professionals must be able to adapt to the staggering pace of technological change. For example, the division that employs the largest number of people at Lockheed Martin - software engineering - didn't even exist 15 years ago."

While industry will always look to hire engineers and scientists who have received solid technical educations, today they also seek graduates who know how to apply that knowledge to real problems, Little noted. "We are looking for students who have the breadth to go beyond the intellectual application of technology to the real-world application." Just as important, Bowman added, students need to understand the context in which they will create those applications. "Today, many engineering decisions are made independent of the engineering and technology that might go into a specific product. There are often social, political and economic factors to consider, as well."

"We require the students we hire to demonstrate their communicative abilities - written and oral," noted Kettler. "We want to see if they can sell an idea. They will be immersed in project activity with people from different backgrounds and different disciplines, and technological professionals have to be able to articulate their views so those who have no insight into the technology will feel part of the team. Lifelong learning is also important. The half-life of an undergraduate electrical engineering degree is now on the order of five years - if that long. Because the technology is changing so fast, students must gain the learning, decision and analytical skills they will need to move forward."

There is no doubt that technological education must change to prepare graduates who possess these qualities. The question, Baum observed, is how to accomplish that change. "How do you do all that within a traditional engineering program? The way you don't do it is to just keep adding courses. You have to rethink the way you teach, and the way you integrate knowledge from various disciplines, and not be so terribly involved in being a conveyor of information. You have to help your students develop the versatility they need to change as their careers change, as technology changes, and as society changes. So the main thing we have to do is teach students how to learn on their own."

Peterson said the same approach should be taken to broadening the liberal component of technological education programs. "Don't simply add a course in the humanities or a course called 'The Impact of Technology' and conclude that you've satisfied that objective," he said.

He added that for a revised technological curriculum to be effective, it must have a clear set of objectives and that these must be clearly communicated to students. "When the expected outcomes are clear to students, the courses they take will make more sense. And since you will be focused on producing a product you've advertised to your students, you can get away from the idea of adding courses and instead integrate the liberal arts and technology throughout the curriculum."

Parrish said colleges and universities also need to rethink the way they deliver a technological education. To deal with the rising cost of teaching engineering and science, they will need to improve the efficiency of their educational programs without eroding their quality. "We have to get our rising costs under control or we will be out of business," he said. "We can't continue to have the escalating costs that have pressed us over the past few years."

"For most of our histories we've operated in a growth mode," Hutchinson said. "But things are different now and it looks like that will be so for a long time. We are having to set priorities as we've never had to before. As we do so, we have to be clear about those priorities."

Parrish described an ongoing experiment at WPI, funded by the Davis Educational Foundation, that trains students to help teach other students. These peer learning assistants help increase the effectiveness of faculty members "without simply adding more students to the classroom. We also have the promise of educational technology, which we've been hearing about for decades," he said. Now, however, with the World Wide Web, multimedia and so on, the technology has reached a point where we have some powerful ways to engage students and lower the cost of education, without negatively impacting quality."

Noting that "the days are gone when universities could be all things to all people," Baum said educational institutions today can further increase their efficiency and hold down costs by entering into partnerships with other colleges and universities to share programs and resources. "We can collaborate with neighboring institutions," she said. "And with the Internet, our neighborhood can be the whole world. These partnerships may not bring down the costs of our programs dramatically, but they can help us provide a quality education for students while we hold the line on costs."

Even with increased efficiency and the sharing of resources, technological universities may find it difficult to provide students a sound technological education and equip them with the attributes they need to succeed in today's workplace in the span of a traditional four-year undergraduate program, Peterson noted. "You can't do all this in four years if you want to retain a strong technical core," he said. "If we are going to embellish the curriculum with these other necessary skills, we need more time - possibly five years. Will industry pay for that additional time, perhaps in higher entry salaries?"

"That depends," Kettler said, "on what is added in that fifth year. Colleges and universities are delivering a product - their graduates. If industry can find a product it wants and can work in partnership with academia to deliver this product, they will pay for it."

As the symposium concluded, the panelists agreed that there is considerable reason for optimism. They pointed particularly to the growing national consensus within industry, academia, and a wide range of organizations with an interest in maintaining the nation's technical and economic competitiveness on the need for reform in technological education, and to the vision that is emerging for how technological education should evolve. It is a vision that points to a solution not unlike WPI's own project-based, outcome-oriented program, the WPI Plan.

"We are at a stage where people recognize that engineering education needs to change, where accrediting agencies are encouraging that kind of change, and where partnerships are being formed to bring that change about," Baum said. "Getting on with the job is now the challenge. I think you are fortunate at WPI because your president is the person who has the vision to really meet the challenge."

Michael W. Dorsey


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