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What’s Coming for Higher Ed

I think quite alot about how our current approach to engineering higher education does, or does not, make sense.  And how it is likely to change in response to prevailing trends in pedagogical thought, student/parent demands and expectations, workforce needs, etc.  Academic institutions move quite slowly, and often this is both appropriate and a true strength of institutions.  Dare I quote Jefferson:  “In matters of style, swim with the current;  in matters of principle, stand like a rock”.  And institutions of higher education really ought to stand on principle most of the time.  But I’d hardly characterize these trends as mere fashion, matters of style or preference.  I think these really are important factors that will change the way higher education works and how we, as faculty, go about our business.  Some ideas:

Students Want an Experience, Not a Curriculum. My job as the Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs has taught me that students and their families view the college experience holistically, with the actual courses taken for the degree (the “curriculum”) being only one part of their decision-making process. Equally important considerations are other high-impact experiences, including study abroad, internships, and undergraduate research. Many institutions and faculty have yet to catch up with this experiential view of engineering education. My vision for engineering education in this area is that experiential learning will become an important and recognized role for faculty in the future, and one that differentiates the best institutions from the rest.

Information is Free, Knowledge is Expensive. The recent rise of MOOCs has taught us that basing education on transmittal of information is both cheap and scalable, and can be an asset for students around the world. But knowledge is something more elusive and represents a critical schema formation process for students that can be further developed via personal mentorship. Students will continue to choose a residential educational experience because of personal access to world-class expertise on the faculty. The ability to personally interact and form a relationship with a faculty expert will continue to be a primary academic draw for students. This personal relationship simply does not develop in large lecture halls. My vision for engineering education in this area is for an environment in which these personal interactions are encouraged, recognized, and rewarded for faculty, and transformative for students.

Maker Culture Spawns Innovation and Entrepreneurship. The past several years have seen dramatic decreases in complexity and expertise required to make things. Multimedia authoring tools, for example, are widespread, easy to use, and cheap. 3D printing technologies are available via FabLabs (including one at my current institution), easy to use, and fast. Although currently expensive, their price will continue to fall in the coming years. App development culture, hack-a-thons, and entrepreneurship competitions are symptoms of a broader cultural resurgence of actually making things. Students have high aspirations, great ideas, infinite energy, and resourcefulness beyond measure. Engineering education cannot ignore this cultural trend, for it is a crippling missed opportunity if we do. My vision for engineering education in this area is for institutions to embrace this culture, provide opportunities for students to couple “making” into the academic experience, and empower students to express their entrepreneurial spirit.

Diversity is Crucial, and Grit is the New IQ. Engineering as a field has had a historical diversity problem, and not only in dimensions like race or gender. In a globally-connected world, diversity is crucial in promoting an environment that values the “full spectrum of human attributes, perspectives, and disciplines.” (From the University of Virginia Commitment to Diversity). In addition to the usual measures of diversity, we must also consider intellectual diversity. Recent research illustrates that grit, perseverance, character, determination, creativity, resilience, and resourcefulness are crucial factors for success in academics and life, and these attributes are typically not considered next to the typical “good in math and science” profile of engineering students. Engineering education has a special role to play here in fostering development of these non-cognitive skills in our students by challenging them with complex, unconventional, ill-posed problems. My vision for engineering education in this area is for programs to foster diversity-rich environments, and challenge students to draw upon all that diversity–including the rich variety of non-cognitive skills–to solve real, challenging, ill-posed problems.

Data, Data Everywhere. This is an exciting time in so many domains because of the confluence of three factors that make “data” crucial to the future of engineering education, and to everything else. First, we have access to data like never before. Second, we have data modeling and analysis tools that are mature, powerful, and reasonably easy to use. Third, and perhaps most importantly, we now live in a data culture, one that values analytics and respects sober, objective analysis. This is clearly the Moneyball era, and higher education institutions now have all the ingredients for intelligent use of their own data to make good decisions about their performance as organizations. Moreover, for engineers and technical people across industries, data analysis is a new, crucial, marketable brand of technical literacy. My vision for engineering education in this area is for engineering education to take the lead in both educational and research programs that ensure every engineering graduate understands (at least) the fundamentals of data modeling and analysis, and can apply them to important problems in their discipline.

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