Thank you to the National Science Foundation for initiating the Revolutionizing Engineering Departments (RED) program! These $1.5-2 million grants are intended to fundamentally restructure engineering education to increase participation and retention by under-represented groups. This restructuring approach is likely required. Despite substantial programs and efforts to increase participation from these groups, improvements have been modest, at best, and in some cases remain stagnant.

I was recently inspired during a presentation by Tony Maciejewski, Chair of the Electrical and Computer Engineering departments at Colorado State University (CSU), who received one of the early awards. CSU is restructuring around three core ‘threads’ that transcend the traditional 1-year content blocks. The core ‘threads’ were determined via consultation with their industrial advisory board:

  1. Foundations
  2. Creativity
  3. Professionalism.

CSU is going even further by associating students with ‘studios’ instead of traditional courses that address these themes. To ensure synergies wherever possible ‘faculty integration specialists’ have dedicated responsibilities to ensure that the content does not have disconnects, but rather is consistent between faculty and courses. Contrary to the “mass production”, a.k.a. one-size-fits-all, approach typically associated with traditional engineering education, Tony agreed that CSU’s approach is directly analogous to cellular manufacturing:

The cellular mode of process organization is in contrast to the functional, or “job-shop,” form, which “groups similar equipment” (e.g. lathes, mills, drills etc.) “into functionally specialized units in order to manufacturing a variety of dissimilar parts that may follow highly variable routings. . . . A cell, on the other hand, groups dissimilar equipment in order to produce similar parts using identical or closely related routings.”

Please allow me to take CSU’s approach and merge this with the educational theories I’ve discussed at length in this blog and in my TEDx talk. The end result is, in my opinion, a plausible future design for engineering curriculum.

The core threads that CSU is applying were determined by intuition and discussion with their industrial advisory board. Interestingly they closely follow the levels of epistemiological character development of spiral memes I’ve discussed previously:

  1. Legalism: characterized by complex algorithmic rule following epitomized by foundational classes such as Thermodynamics, Statics, Circuits, etc.
  2. Performance: characterized by applied projects, heuristic development epitomized by modern design classes, and student club competitions.
  3. Community: characterized by service projects, outreach, professionalism, cooperatives with industry, and sustainability.

Mapping to Bloom’s Taxonomy helps with transitioning between legalism and performance based values. I’ve presented other value taxonomies for the performance-community and community-systemic shifts. Where CSU’s approach dives nearly completely into the studio ‘cellular manufacturing’ approach, these three themes acknowledge that the mass manufacturing of old, cellular manufacturing, and totally lean/custom manufacturing all have their respective places and context within the continuous manufacturing spectrum of our highly complex ecosystem(s). The challenge is training students to correctly identify the core values required of the problem/situation and designing systems that efficiently solve the need.

So what does the typical student day look like in this new curriculum? The morning begins with the well-posed foundational courses traditionally seen in engineering. However, the course content is experiential learning in nature and presented within the context of a real problem related to the design of a particular product they are delivering for a real customer/client. Similar to CSU’s example, rather than front-loading mathematics and science in the curriculum, they are taken when the project demands necessitate. Mid-day to early afternoon the students are in applied design and production labs/studios working with diverse teams of students at different experience levels. Late afternoon to evening students are networking with industry, local project stakeholders, and peers through co-operatives, tutoring, and other service learning activities. Everything about this process is directed at helping the students develop their personal portfolios by delivering real product for actual stakeholders.

One potential problem with CSU’s approach is little to no consideration for how students will aggregate knowledge gained from the threads. As Conway’s law shows, this will have a substantial influence on the students and the future products they produce. Imagine a future where students continuously compile their personal portfolios in websites and aggregate content within these key threads. It would be huge for student recruitment into industry, it would fundamentally change how they complete and document their work, and create a target for universities to promote. In many ways, it would be directly analogous to a faculty member aggregating WordPress content within the core themes of Research, Teaching, and Service.

In the end, revolutionizing engineering education may be easier than CSU’s approach and does not necessitate totally removing the traditional foundational courses. Moreover, this modified approach easily maps to the Grand Challenge themes advocated by Michael Crow as part of the New American University without creating a dichotomy between the Challenge areas and traditional academic disciplines.