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From the summer 2003 edition of Purdue Engineering Extrapolations

Reengineering Engineering Education

Purdue aims to reshape engineering education to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

"Engineering over the past century has had more impact on human life than any other profession," says Bill Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE). "Clean water and sanitary sewers have done more to increase our lifespan than all of medicine put together." And engineers’ impact in the 21st century, this expert predicts, is going to be even greater.

Yet Purdue and other engineering institutions face this new century with a host of challenges that swirl around one fundamental question: How to educate today’s engineering students to contribute in a rapidly changing world?

"Engineering fundamentals used to consist largely of continuous mathematics and physics," says Wulf, "but engineering is changing. Information technology, based on discrete mathematics, will be incorporated into every engineered product. Engineering systems are increasingly containing components from across the spectrum of traditional engineering fields, so some knowledge of the full spectrum will be fundamental."

Other considerations include "society’s need for an expanded workforce with high technical capabilities, the availability of inexpensive computational power and its delivery through high-speed networks, and students’ expectations of exciting careers," adds Rita Colwell, director of the National Science Foundation (NSF).

New technology is affecting how professors teach and how students interact with them, and one another, both inside and outside the classroom. Industry, facing intense pressure from competitors around the world, is demanding engineers who have traditional technical expertise but who also have design experience and can work in teams, communicate ideas effectively, and perform in cultures other than their own and with colleagues different from themselves.

Throw into the caldron a shift from defense to civilian work and the use of new materials and biological processes in engineered products and systems–plus the accelerated pace of change stemming from all the above–and the result is an educational brew at high boil.

Purdue, for its part, has "embraced the challenges imposed by the requirements of change," says Linda Katehi, the John A. Edwardson Dean of Engineering. "We have asserted a vision of becoming the preeminent engineering program in the country, and education is at the core of that vision. It’s about equipping our students to prosper in their engineering careers as creative, productive professionals and about remaining competitive as an educational institution of choice."

Providing students opportunities to work in teams and across disciplines, engaging students in research and design, emphasizing cultural and global awareness, promoting lifelong learning, increasing diversity–all these are essential (see sidebars on pages 11 through 22). As Purdue engineering’s ambitious building program proceeds, expanding square footage by some 60 percent, designing space to allow such interaction is a key consideration. New thrusts in the Schools of Engineering add urgency to the cause.

In December 2002, Katehi announced eight multidisciplinary areas of excellence, called signature areas, that will present Purdue engineering with opportunities to address national priorities and to establish international leadership in education and research over the next five years. The signature areas are:

• Advanced materials and manufacturing

• Global sustainable industrial systems

• Information, communications, and perception technologies

• Intelligent infrastructure systems

• Nanotechnologies and nanophotonics

• Renewable energy and power systems

• System of systems (the analysis and synthesis of very large systems)

• Tissue and cellular engineering

Nanotechnology–the development of devices and systems at the nanoscale (~1—100 nanometers, or billionths of a meter)–is one area that Katehi highlights to illustrate the need for a new approach to engineering education. Another is biotechnology (including tissue and cellular engineering), the application of biology to the development of devices and systems.

"Nanotechnology draws on a range of engineering
disciplines and nonengineering disciplines, such as biology, physics, chemistry, engineering, and materials science," she says. "The range of potential applications exploiting properties found at the nanoscale is enormous, from medical devices to computers to novel self-assembled materials. Biotechnology, including biomedical engineering, also draws on the life sciences and various engineering disciplines. So getting our students working with students in other engineering disciplines and with students in business, the liberal arts, and the sciences will be critical."

Some two million nanotechnology workers will be needed around the world in 10 to 15 years, according to Mihail Roco, chair of the National Science, Engineering and Technology Council’s Subcommittee on Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology. And the biomedical industry is a significant growth area for Indiana and the U.S. in general.

Says Wulf of the NAE, "It’s safe to say that today’s engineering undergraduates will be using biotechnology and nanotechnology in their careers, regardless of their engineering major. Biotechnology and nanotechnology need to be woven into the fabric of undergraduate and graduate engineering curricula at every level. We need to include examples, problems, case studies, and theory that are relevant to the nanoscale and to the chemistry, structure, and mechanisms of living organisms."

Diversity figures into the educational equation as well.

"There are strong parallels between diversity and interdisciplinarity," says NSF’s Colwell. "Just as many of the most interesting problems of the day can be solved only by bringing together knowledge and expertise from multiple fields of study, many of our most challenging social and technical problems are best addressed by bringing together different cultural perspectives. This tends to be especially true in emerging disciplines such as biotechnology and nanotechnology–and these disciplines are often more attractive to women and underrepresented minorities."

Katehi ties diversity to creativity and quality. "I firmly believe that achieving diversity is a component of achieving excellence," she says. The social sciences report that creativity results from making unexpected connections between what is known. An engineering team that is diverse by race, gender, and other factors, Katehi notes, is more likely to find the best, most creative solution. "It’s a matter of competitiveness," she says.

The need to develop creative thinkers also factors into Purdue’s push to introduce research earlier into the engineering curriculum. Two newly announced centers at Purdue–NASA’s Institute for Nanoelectronics and Computing, and the NSF’s Network for Computational Nanotechnology–will offer student-research opportunities.

"Research as an educational component is completely different from the typical classroom experience, because nobody knows the answer," says Jennifer Curtis, head of the Department of Freshman Engineering and associate dean of undergraduate education. "We have a huge opportunity here at Purdue to significantly enhance the educational experience of our undergraduates by involving students in the cutting-edge research of our faculty."

As Katehi, Curtis, and the rest of Purdue’s engineering faculty apply their own ingenuity and enthusiasm to reshaping engineering education, students will continue to benefit from already existing sets of initiatives related to diversity, student service-learning, and design.

Purdue is a national leader for diversity in engineering, having graduated more women engineers with bachelor’s degrees than any other school in the country. In 1969, Purdue established the country’s first Women in Engineering Program, and the University gave birth to the National Society of Black Engineers, the largest student-managed organization in the country, in 1975. The Schools of Engineering have also pioneered multicultural and gender workshops for faculty, staff, alumni, and student leaders aimed at improving, understanding, and developing a welcoming climate. The model is being followed by other schools.

Purdue also is building on its leadership in student service-learning engineering programs that combine engineering curricula with public service to social service agencies. The most recent example: A group of universities, led by Purdue, signed a partnership in 2002 with Habitat for Humanity International. It’s one of dozens of community-outreach programs taken on by Engineering Projects in Community Service, or EPICS. The organization, founded it 1995, offers undergraduates real-world experience working in interdisciplinary teams to design projects for nonprofit clients.

Design–at the heart of EPICS projects–also is introduced to all first-year students. "Our freshmen take a course called ‘Engineering Problem-Solving and Computer Tools’ that puts them to work on a hands-on programming project like the development of a rubber-band-propelled car," says P. K. Imbrie, who teaches the honors version of the course. There’s also a freshman-level programming course that students can take in lieu of a standard computer science programming course. Students develop a program with Lego software to build robots that can autonomously make their way through various kinds of mazes.

"We’re keeping pace in the race to reengineer engineering for the century ahead," says Katehi. "We’ll remain true to the traditions that have built our success, but we will move forward boldly to teach our students well. Our society depends on it."

Writer: Lisa Hunt Tally

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