Re-engineering engineering education
March 16, 2007
Fifty years after Sputnik, some of the basic premises of engineering education are under critical review. The space race of an earlier generation, where innovative minds set about to conquer a difficult but manageable set of tasks, sits in active contrast to the complex, multi-layered issues of today. Climate change, animal-borne diseases and the search for renewable energy are among the challenges to the creativity of our engineering knowledge. As these challenges demonstrate, calculations and material science are not enough to combat issues that traverse systems and merge human nature with seemingly limitless technology.
Engineering is the artful maneuvering whereby society alters its environment and reorganizes its natural resources, devising systems to procure food and develop energy sources, as well as to preserve public and environmental health. The ways we go about these tasks define our society.
Quickened by the pace of new technology, the practice of engineering is rapidly changing, and engineering education must keep stride. At UGA, engineering takes its place among other professional instruction - law, business, journalism, pharmacy - as a necessary ingredient in the land-grant mission. In a world increasingly influenced by technology, educating engineers in the liberal arts environment of UGA brings context to design while presenting design in context.
This new direction, a re-engineering of engineering education, can be seen up close in new degree programs at UGA, but also in the overall fabric of a major research university with engineering as one of its core components. Interdisciplinary engineering brings together a diversity of expertise while re-enforcing the concepts of lifelong learning, collaborative group projects and globalization.
The emergence of issues in which technology, politics and economics are intertwined ensures that the exchange between engineering and the arts and humanities is crucial in both directions. One of the leading national proponents of this vision for the future of engineering education, William Wulf, immediate past-president of the National Academy of Engineering, will visit UGA on Sept. 12 to give the 2007 Distinguished Lecture in Engineering.
Wulf, who returned to his faculty position at the University of Virginia after ten years at the NAE, challenges his colleagues across the spectrum of disciplines in higher education to envision a system that enriches the faculty with a complementary set of experiences and talents, thereby enriching the education of our students.
Engineering solutions will progressively depend upon the integration of a liberal education with technological competence. In Wulf's words, "It is critical that we understand the larger processes by which we transform nature, create what can be and shape a better, richer life. Whether the issue is storage of nuclear waste, environmental remediation, or privacy of information on the Internet, informed decisions require a level of technological literacy to flesh out the policy questions whose answers will define our society in the 21st century."