Engineering education has changed over years. Technology has changed too, thanks to good engineers. Society has changed as well, partly in response to new technology. The question is whether engineering education has kept pace with the advancements it has helped bring about. Are engineering graduates doing the same work in the same way their predecessors did? If not, what can be done to improve their preparation?
I posed these questions to Tom Byers, Director and Co-Principal Investigator of NSF’s Epicenter and Professor at Stanford University and Laurie Moore, Communications Manager of NSF’s Epicenter. More engineering curricula are incorporating “non-traditional” coursework,which strengthens engineers in topics such as innovation, management and entrepreneurship. Epicenter is a perfect example of that shift. Here’s what they had to say.
1. Perhaps you could give a little background on Epicenter. How did it come about, and what are you looking to accomplish?
In 2010, the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced a call for proposals for a center that would transform undergraduate engineering education and enhance U.S. competitiveness. My Stanford Technology Ventures Program faculty colleagues and I jumped at this chance to apply our insights from two decades of helping engineering students learn an entrepreneurial mindset. We partnered with other colleagues at Stanford and leaders at nonprofit organization the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA), and the NSF awarded us the grant in 2011 to create the National Center for Engineering Pathways to Innovation (Epicenter). Today, Stanford and NCIIA co-direct Epicenter.
We believe that it is no longer enough for engineers to leave school with a purely technical education. By embedding innovation and entrepreneurship into the undergraduate experience, we believe that the next generation of engineers will be better able to solve big problems our society is facing, enhance our country’s economic competitiveness, and create new and fulfilling jobs for themselves and others. We’re working with engineering faculty, university leaders, and students themselves to make this happen on a national scale.
2. What skills do you believe current engineering education is failing to address? How do you think resources like Epicenter can fill in that gap?
Engineering education has changed significantly in the last decade to address a lack of experiential learning opportunities, connections between classroom-imparted knowledge with real-world problems, awareness of market opportunities, focus on problem solving rather than problem finding, and integration of creative thinking. Some schools have made this shift, but we need all engineering schools to address these issues. This is Epicenter’s goal: to be a catalyst for these kinds of best practices to reach all undergraduate engineering students in the country.
We’ve found that engineering students who take part in entrepreneurship programs learn how to better understand how their education can be applied to solve emerging problems. They learn how to communicate effectively, think critically and creatively, and how to identify and frame problems rather than simply solving what’s put in front of them. Entrepreneurship also encourages collaboration between disciplines, as engineers must be able to work with their colleagues in other fields.
We’re helping institutions teach these skills to engineering students with three initiatives: the student-focused University Innovation Fellows program; the Pathways to Innovation Program for teams of faculty and university leaders; and a research program that builds community and an emerging knowledge base on the intersection of entrepreneurship and engineering education. Each initiative focuses on a group of constituents who are essential in transforming engineering education: students, who can co-create their education; faculty and academic leaders, who can drive lasting change; and a community of researchers who provide data on best practices.
3. Do you think all engineers can benefit from those skills or is this intended for a select group?
We think it makes sense to give all engineering students an appreciation of entrepreneurship. In fact, we believe that all students can benefit from this, not just engineers. To us, entrepreneurship is so much more than just starting a company. Being flexible, resilient, creative, empathetic and having the ability to recognize and seize opportunities are valuable skills that can help all students, whether they major in STEM fields or the liberal arts, and whether they create startups or join existing organizations.
4. When it comes to extending engineering education beyond “traditional” topics, do you believe the approach should be integrative or additive? That is, should it be woven throughout the curriculum, or might it be better as an optional extension, such as a minor?
Both ways work. It’s possible to integrate these topics into existing courses and add them as extra classes or activities, but many engineering faculty will say that the curriculum is packed and that there is no space for adding material. However, we believe that many traditional classes can be taught differently to incorporate these topics, using experiential learning approaches and connecting concepts to real world problems and innovations.
Our research team is currently examining ways that entrepreneurship is being incorporated into engineering education. They recently completed an in-depth qualitative study examining the scope, development, goals and pedagogies of 12 entrepreneurship programs for engineering students. Their papers on these topics can be found at http://epicenter.stanford.edu/research.
5. Who are you primarily looking to reach? Are you targeting Freshman? Seniors? Faculty? Industry? Is it a combination?
Our primary focus is undergraduate engineering students, engineering faculty and academic leaders. We also work with several industry, government and nonprofit organizations to learn from their experiences and expand our reach.
We’ve found that it is necessary to engage with the whole academic ecosystem in order to help establish long-lasting change. For example, in our University Innovation Fellows program, we initially targeted undergraduate engineering students only. This program empowers students to analyze the existing innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystems at their schools and work with peers and faculty to make the changes that are needed the most, such as new maker spaces, clubs, venture funds, and more. We found that there was a significant level of interest from students outside our original target market, so our program now includes graduate and PhD students as well as undergraduates from other majors in the sciences and humanities. We encourage these Fellows to work with their peers, faculty, administrators, and community leaders to help their changes take root. More information about this program can be found at http://epicenter.stanford.edu/university-innovation-fellows.
6. In the future, do you believe most engineering programs will devote more focus to innovative/entrepreneurial thinking?
We certainly hope so, and our mission is to contribute to this transformation of engineering education. In our Pathways to Innovation Program, teams of faculty from U.S. institutions are working on projects that they’ve identified for their schools, ranging from new majors to student design spaces. We’re guiding each team through a two-year strategic planning and doing process to help make these changes a reality. The 12 schools in the first cohort represent more than 24,000 undergraduate engineering students, and we’re currently seeking 24 more schools to join the program in 2015.
7. If there need to be significant changes in the way we educate engineers, who do you believe will be the hardest to convince?
It’s not about just convincing any particular stakeholder. We need academic institutions to offer the right set of incentives and support systems that empower faculty and leaders to experiment and figure out how to make these significant changes. We see a great demand on the part of students to learn these skills, and interest from faculty in figuring out how to teach the skills to their students, but they all need the support of their entire academic system.
8. In your experience, are employers aware of the differences that non-traditional engineering skills offer? Is there already general awareness and demand in the marketplace for these skills?
This is still an area where more work needs to be done to help employers recognize that these skills are those that make new employees great collaborators, team leaders and innovators. However, there has been more focus recently on companies that actively seek out these “non-traditional” engineering skills.
Thomas Friedman’s New York Times article “How to Get a Job at Google” featured an interview with Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of People Operations at Google. Bock notes that Google seeks employees who have more than just technical skills and smarts: they want people who have an ability to learn, emergent leadership traits, humility and a sense of ownership. This article actually inspired our University Innovation Fellows to write a manifesto that lists the traits and beliefs that they work hard to share with others.
In summary, Friedman writes, “The world only cares about — and pays off on — what you can do with what you know (and it doesn’t care how you learned it). And in an age when innovation is increasingly a group endeavor, it also cares about a lot of soft skills — leadership, humility, collaboration, adaptability and loving to learn and re-learn. This will be true no matter where you go to work.”
When engineering students learn how to innovate, seek answers to questions that haven’t been asked, and apply their knowledge and ideas to real-world problems, they’re learning how to be better and more active citizens of the world.
9. Epicenter is still fairly young. Do you feel like you are still learning the best approaches? Perhaps there isn’t any one “right” way to educate diversely skilled engineers?
As good practitioners of what we preach, we’re always learning, always listening to our “customers,” and always willing to pivot if needed. One belief that we have not pivoted from, that we’ve stuck with since the beginning, is that the people who make up each university community know what that community needs the most. There isn’t one right way to educate diversely skilled engineers, although that would definitely make our work easier. There are many models that work well, but each of those models depends on a number of variables, from the availability of resources, to the new trends in technology in higher education, to the way that the community influences and is influenced by the institution. Therefore, we’re not prescriptive in our programs. Both our faculty and student programs promote a strategic planning approach that starts with participants understanding their ecosystems and the needs of their schools.
10. Is there anything else you’d like to say about Epicenter, the current state of engineering education or your plans for the future?
We’d love to expand our community and meet new engineering educators, leaders and students who are interested in enhancing the educational experience of undergraduate engineers and their peers.
Tom Byers, Director and Co-Principal Investigator of NSF’s Epicenter and Professor at Stanford University
Laurie Moore, Communications Manager of NSF’s Epicenter
Photos courtesy of Epicenter