Broadly, there are two big but interrelated questions being asked inside Engineering these days. The first is who gets to be an engineer, and the second is what it means to be an engineer. Increasingly, the answer to the second question seems to involve a great deal less technical specialization: first-year programs which place less emphasis on technical expertise and more on design thinking, general problem-solving, and much more team-based, multi-disciplinary challenge-based learning in upper years. Much of the genesis for this new kind of thinking comes from the Franklin Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts (we recommend the book A Whole New Engineer
by David Goldberg and Mark Somerville which describes the Olin experience). Notably, Olin has freely provided advice and material for use by institutions across the United States. Internationally, University College of London and the National University of Singapore have been experimenting along very similar lines. In Canada, there are some fascinating new experiments along these lines at McMaster University and the University of Saskatchewan.
This shift in emphasis from narrow technical expertise to broad-based problem solving is not just about a changing view of what an Engineer is; it is also a calculated step to try to broaden the appeal of the field as a whole. Engineering has had some successes with respect to Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, in particular with respect to Arab, South Asian and East Asian males (run down a list of recent Canadian University Presidents and you will see a number of individuals who fit this profile, most notably Mamdouh Shoukri at York and Mohamed Lachemi at Ryerson). But as a field it has a long way to go with respect to gender equity, and in enrolling students from African, Caribbean, or Indigenous backgrounds. Reaching those students is not simply a matter of outreach: it is also a matter of re-profiling the field as a whole to make it more relevant to students from non-traditional backgrounds. Turning engineering from a field of technical expertise into one which is mission-driven doesn’t change the nature of the education: it changes the nature of would-be engineers, too.
The extent of the changes are considerable: they range from admissions, to pedagogy, to curriculum design. Few, if any, other fields of study in higher education are attempting this level of re-imagination. And, perhaps surprisingly, this is happening in a field which is governed in part through a system of external accreditation which in general is thought to make programs much more conservative in their thinking.
While other fields of study are not exactly shying away from program innovation – previous issues of MTAP have documented many such initiatives across a variety of fields
. However, to a large extent what we are seeing in other fields are new combinations of programming; that is, attempts to cover new ground by bringing together insights across multiple fields of study. What we are seeing in Engineering, however, is something different: a deeper and more fundamental interrogation of how a field’s practices can be brought up to date. This, emphatically, is not something that is not evident across the rest of the academia at the moment, and one is tempted to ask why. Might some other fields benefit from some deep introspection and re-design? We’re confident they can; and we’re also confident that the changes underway in Engineering can act as a model and an inspiration.