I am fortunate to work with a national group of engineering deans who care deeply about the quality and preparedness of engineering students. As I come to the end of my term as chair of the Engineering Deans Council of the American Society for Engineering Education, I want to share with you some of the contemporary issues that engineering deans face. The topics discussed and discussed again include accreditation, diversity and retention, involvement in K–12 education, and research collaboration with industry.
Great organizations constantly assess the current environment and forecast the future to ensure they remain relevant. The accreditation infrastructure maintained by ABET is important for ensuring quality and continuous improvement in engineering education. Engineering deans are concerned with how accreditation policies and processes evolve as engineering education changes. And engineering education and engineering practice are changing. New specialties evolve and new knowledge demands are placed on our students and faculty. As a private institution, we have special obligations to our students, parents, university leadership and Board of Trust. But as engineers, we also must serve business, industry and the public at large. Related to changes in engineering curriculum and educational practices is the evolving licensure process for engineers, which leads to the P.E. designation. This is a topic that generates lively discussion among engineering deans as well as many of our engineering graduates.
Issues of diversity and retention are of great concern to engineering deans. We worry about how to be more inclusive of underrepresented groups in the engineering work force, and deans are concerned with how to increase participation and retention of these students who, by some calculations, will make up more than 70 percent of the U.S. workforce by 2050.
The questions surrounding how to best partner with K–12 school systems are points of contention and deliberation. Should some engineering principles be taught at the kindergarten through 12th grade levels? Who should set the standards for engineering education in K–12 schools? According to a September 2009 report titled Engineering in K–12 Education, the National Academy of Engineering and the National Research Council concludes that the introduction of K–12 engineering education has the potential to increase awareness about what engineers do and engineering as a potential career, and to boost students’ technological literacy. Deans all agree that young students need a better understanding of what engineers do.
Research drives invention, design, analysis and innovation for faculty and graduate students at U.S. engineering schools. Many of us think that industry–university partnerships are critical to maintaining and strengthening our country’s economy. The technology transfer role that U.S. academic researchers are expected to play in economic development, what specific roles they can play in industrial innovations, and how they might go about collaborating with private industry are complicated by several factors. These include 1) declining federal R&D support, which threatens the vitality of the academic research enterprise, and 2) the impact of close university–industry cooperation on the freedom to pursue longer-term, more fundamental research not tied to a particular product or process. Determining the boundaries of university–industry collaboration is a balancing act between competing concerns. And these partnerships are complicated further when issues of intellectual property, open publication and indemnification become contractual items for negotiation.
These issues are not new. Many of you have discussed them and thought about them. The goal is clear and one that we all embrace. We must continuously improve the state of engineering education for future generations of engineers. This is critical for our country.
On a different and important note, the 2011–2012 academic year will mark the 125th anniversary of the establishment of the Vanderbilt University School of Engineering by vote of the Board of Trust in 1886. We are planning a yearlong, quasquicentennial celebration with special commemorative events and Vanderbilt Engineering magazine stories on the School of Engineering through the years. I hope you will join us in celebrating this important milestone in our history.