Industry News

Engineering higher education increasingly will be remote, interdisciplinary and practical

Collegiate engineering programs are adopting new teaching methods, as well as complementary disciplines of study, to better prepare students for changing work -- and study -- environments. 

Driving the changes are employer demands for field-ready hires, the maturation of certain technologies, marketplace influences such as climate change and, not least, the coronavirus pandemic. While students are expected to return to classrooms in the fall, remote learning is likely to continue in some form.

The allure of remote

“The days of conventional lectures are slowly fading away,” said Burton Dicht, director of student and academic education programs for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ Educational Activities. “Professors will gather students to talk about the high level aspects and the concepts, the application. But the online learning -- that’s where the students are getting the basics.”

Even application lessons may increasingly be remote, as evidenced last week at IEEE’s flagship education conference EDUCON. Held remotely from Austria, the massive event included several sessions on remote teaching tools. One technology featured repeatedly was the remote laboratory which is a physical lab accessible via an internet connection.

“There are many reasons for using a remote lab. Organization, economics, didactics. During the pandemic time, the remote labs grew a lot,” said Javier Garcia-Zubia, a faculty member at  the University of Deusto in Spain. He is the author of a new book entitled Remote Laboratories: Empowering STEM Education with Technology. “You do not need to be in front of the lab. What you need is a web browser, the web page and the interface. Your hands will be the mouse and your eyes will be the webcam.”

Autonomous and virtual reality programs are also proving popular tools, as are gaming systems, designed primarily to aid students’ independent study. EDUCON conference organizers say that “game-based learning is set to grow rapidly in the near future. Its wide range of engineering applications includes automotive, aerospace and systems engineering, medicine, banking and management.” 

Ethics and critical thinking 

The successful adoption of remote learning processes during the pandemic, and continued post-pandemic by choice, may strengthen the argument that a traditional four-year university degree is no longer relevant, or at least less so. Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is just the latest high profile executive to say a degree is not necessary to work for them. Dicht counters that Musk isn’t hiring for just core knowledge. He wants to see evidence of critical thinking, which Dicht says benefits from instruction. 

“What companies are looking for is someone who can come out and get a project and figure out how to solve that. It's not so much doing an exercise in the textbook any more. How do you go about solving a problem?” Dicht said. 

There’s more than one way to teach budding engineers problem solving. The first challenge may be recognizing there is one, which is why ethics are increasingly discussed as a new core engineering requirement. 

“Ethics has always been important, but now as technology has enabled things to happen, you have to think about what are the ethics of what I'm working on?” Dicht said. 

That can mean approaching projects more holistically. For example, data-driven concepts such as autonomous vehicles and their incorporation into existing transport systems come with difficult questions that, if left unanswered, will mean the initiatives fail. Even more traditional projects require new approaches that take environmental and societal impacts into consideration. 

“The curriculum for educating engineers has to an extent been stuck in the 1970s or 1980s, … even though the world has changed dramatically since then. We’ve had the digital revolution. We’ve had greater understanding of our global challenges,” said Emma Crichton, engineering head of Engineers Without Borders, which works with more than 40 universities to help prepare students for modern engineering challenges.

Cross-disciplinary instruction

Numerous university programs are emerging that reflect a growing appreciation for the cross-disciplinary collaboration demanded by real-world projects. At the University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez, most engineering courses now include cross-disciplinary ways to make infrastructure stronger against the type of hurricanes that have decimated Puerto Rico in recent years. A new minor in Sustainable and Resilient Infrastructure will have its first graduates this year. A University of Wisconsin–Madison master’s degree launched in 2019 in Design + Innovation crosses five disciplines and emphasizes team-based interaction. University Chancellor Rebecca Blank says, “The interdisciplinary nature of the program promotes creative thinking and an ability to solve complex problems.” 

Adding non-engineering coursework such as environmental, data or computer sciences is another way engineering students can gain new perspectives increasingly valued in the field. However the ability to work as part of a cross-disciplinary team may be just as important. 

“This is about our profession at large responding to the need to do engineering differently and the different mindsets and skill sets that will be required to do that,” Crichton said.