Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Holistic Engineering

Fancy buzz words aside, the more I read about the "latest" methods of engineering education, the more I am grateful to have graduated from the school I did.

So what is Holistic Engineering? Quite frankly, it's the ability to look at the big picture. In terms of engineering education, it's teaching engineering students how to look at the big picture and how to communicate it to others.

My alma mater was on a trimester system and the first two years were packed full of core competencies. Sure, there was a bit of statics and dynamics in there, but mostly it consisted of chemistry, physics, language, mathematics, and social sciences. It wasn't until my Junior year that I got to start playing with the cool stuff and realized why I paid so much in tuition. It also wasn't until my Junior year that I got into the specialized engineering classes, the interesting ones that made the first two years worth while. (Sadly, a lot of student burned out in the first two years and never got to see experience the fun.)

A decade later, a study has been published (http://www.nspe.org/PEmagazine/pe_0808_Dispelling.html) stating that my school has it all right, yet some people doubt the necessity of a strong foundation and instead prefer to make specialists out of every student.

I'm sorry, but those people are wrong. Engineering degrees should be degrees that teach students how to learn. The cutting edge technology being used in industry today can not be taught in schools. The only way for engineering students to thrive in the real world is to have the general tools necessary to learn and adapt to the specialties they will be exposed to in industry. The authors of the above listed article have the right idea. I just wish they would have included other engineering colleges and universities that teach the same philosophy.

Let's take a look at this from another direction.

Engineers have historically had a problem with informing the public as to what exactly engineers do. The problem is not with the vast expanse that is engineering: mechanical, civil, electrical, structural, aerodynamic, bioengineer, and all the subsets and other disciplines I can't possibly mention in the space of a blog. No, the problem is with the ability of engineers to communicate. I don't want to draw a broad stereotype, but engineers typically focus on the specific details and can not find common ground in explaining how we view the world compared to how the public sees it. Personally, I strive to not use jargon and to explain things on the most basic level, even when conversing with other engineers. I strongly believe that this is the best skill taught to me and the thing that has carried me so far along my career.

Perhaps an education that focuses on general knowledge and includes more of the "soft studies" will provide engineering students with the tools necessary to not only learn and thrive in their environment, but to be able to communicate that environment to everyone else, thus promoting the profession. It seems to me the answer plaguing our most basic problems has been in front of us all along, teach undergraduate students how to communicate and learn. Specialties can be taught on the job or at the graduate level.