Engineering Education Today
Michael C. Loui is Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and University Distinguished Teacher-Scholar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He earned his Ph.D. in Computer Science from M.I.T. in 1980. Barbara Oakley is an Associate Professor of Engineering at Oakland University in Michigan and vice president of IEEE-EMBS. Here, Oakley speaks with Loui about the state of engineering education today, and how he sees it evolving in the future.
Barb Oakley: Michael, you have been the Editor of the Journal of Engineering Education since 2012. This gives you a unique ability to steer engineering education. What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the field of engineering education today?
Michael Loui: When Bill Wulf was president of the National Academy of Engineering, he said that engineering programs try to cram ten pounds of flour into a five-pound sack. Most undergraduate engineering programs are packed full of long sequences of technical courses—often many more technical courses than required for ABET accreditation. The requirements of these engineering programs deter the enrollment of students with multiple intellectual interests, and the structure of these programs discourages students from switching into engineering from other undergraduate majors. As a result, engineering programs continue to attract only students with narrow technical interests who decide early in their studies to enter engineering. Engineering programs should overhaul their curricular requirements to attract students from a broader range of backgrounds, and to prepare students for a wider range of professional work. Engineering graduates today take jobs not only in industry, but also in consulting firms, government agencies, and financial services.
Barb Oakley: Mentoring is an activity that’s important for both industry and academia. You recently won your Campus Award for Excellence in Graduate Student Mentoring. Do you have any advice for our more senior EMBS members on mentoring—and for our more junior members on being mentored?
Michael Loui: Junior professionals should have more than one mentor because a single mentor is unlikely to meet all of an individual’s professional needs. A senior professional who serves as a mentor should avoid the extremes of neglect and micro-management. In general, the senior mentor should adapt to the stage of development of the protégé: if the protégé is a complete novice, the mentor should be more attentive and directive; if the protégé is self-directed, the mentor should take a more consultative role. In addition, a mentor should not merely provide advice, but should also introduce the protégé to other professionals. A mentor should promote protégés by recommending them for responsible positions. For example, in an academic context, a senior professor should nominate a junior professor for positions on editorial boards of scholarly journals.
Barb Oakley: Does bioengineering education face special advantages or challenges?
Michael Loui: Compared with other engineering fields, bioengineering has an advantage in recruiting women and minorities because of its direct applications to solving medical problems and to promoting human health. Some students use bioengineering as a stepping stone to careers in the health professions. The disadvantage of bioengineering is its lack of a clear identity. Since bioengineering seems to lack unifying ideas, undergraduate programs in bioengineering differ significantly from each other. Bioengineering programs may teach chemical engineering principles in the context of proteins, materials engineering principles with soft tissues, mechanical engineering principles with prosthetics, and electrical engineering principles with biosensors.
Barb Oakley: What do you think are important future trends or themes in engineering education?
Michael Loui: In the near future, universities will develop new ways to meet the demand for online and continuing education. MOOCs are a natural contemporary extension of previous online programs, and correspondence courses from an even earlier generation. The new requirements for professional licensing for civil engineers will prompt all engineering disciplines to consider the master’s degree as the first professional degree, rather than the traditional baccalaureate degree. Other professions, such as medicine and law, decided long ago to organize professional education as master’s and doctoral degree programs. Medicine and law have also achieved gender parity, at least in the United States. I hope that engineering will eventually attract women and men in equal numbers.
Barb Oakley: What would you say to engineers working in industry about the importance and relevance of engineering education? And do you have any insights for academicians about the importance and relevance of industry?
Michael Loui: Engineers who work in industry should support engineering education because without a diverse group of well-educated engineering students, industry would be unable to hire a diverse, well-qualified workforce. To support engineering education, engineers in industry can participate in outreach efforts in precollege classrooms, they can contribute realistic problems to undergraduate courses in engineering design, and they can sponsor internship and co-op students. Companies who prefer to hire engineering students with prior internship experiences have a reciprocal obligation to provide those internships. More generally, companies who benefit from well-educated engineers have an obligation to support the schools who educate those engineers. Donations are always welcome; no gift is too large! Academic engineers should realize that most engineering students—both undergraduate and graduate students—will enter professional practice in industry. Therefore, undergraduate engineering programs should prepare students for successful careers by developing general professional skills such as written and oral communication, teamwork, and leadership.
Barb Oakley: You do a fantastic job of balancing your home life with your very comprehensive professional responsibilities. Any useful tips for our members on how to achieve this careful balancing act?
Michael Loui: My wife of thirty years has been extremely supportive of my career. She has taken more than her fair share of responsibility for maintaining our home and raising our children. But I served as our children’s math consultant and piano accompanist—they played oboe and saxophone. For dual-career couples, the best solution is to spend lavishly on quality child care and on household services. Since all of us have the same number of hours per week, we must make wise choices about how to use our limited time. While we should fulfill professional and work obligations conscientiously, we should avoid perfectionism, give ourselves permission to say “no,” and turn off electronic devices. From personal experience with family vacations in remote locations, I have learned that I can survive an absence from e-mail and phone contact for many hours, even days. So can the rest of the world.
Barb Oakley: Thank you!