Category: history

Practical or Scientific Engineering at our (U.S.) Universities

Recently I’ve been reading about the history of engineering education. There has been quite a transition from teaching practical engineering (more of an apprenticeship model) to teaching engineering science (theory and research focused).  Courses went from practical and hands-on (surveying, drafting, shop, etc.) to theoretically based courses (reading and more cognitive in nature).   All of these ideas can be credited to Bruce Seely in his publication The Other Re-engineering of Engineering Education, 1900-1965.  There are a few main causes for this and my goal for this post is to give you a brief overview of my understanding of these causes.

International Influence:
As internationally trained engineering professionals and academics moved to the United States, they noticed a dramatic difference between their engineering science education and the practical-based engineering education of the U.S.  Change in our educational curriculum started to take place as our international friends became major players in the engineering landscape.

Defense/Military Support:
World War II also played a key role in the transition of our engineering education. The U.S. defense and military institutions realized that developing key defense knowledge and technology could not be done only during war-time. If we waited until wartime we were too late and proper implementation was too difficult. This lead to the defense industry pushing for change in our science and engineering educational system. Funding became available for research in engineering science… a lot of funding. Before, industry would supply a small/moderate amount of funding, but that paled in comparison compared to defense/military funding.

Our engineering education currently finds itself in an awkward position.  Many companies (not all but many) need practical engineers that can complete tasks as engineers.  They prefer engineering students who come out with an ability to determine how things work.  The majority of the funding for our programs comes from entities that want our engineers to think about why things work.  So how are we to prepare our engineers of tomorrow?  How…or Why…or Both?  Personally I think we need to do both.  Students need both experience and knowledge in the how and why.  This makes them both functional and adaptable.  Functional because they understand the how of engineering and apply that to our world today.  Adaptable because they understand and can study the why, when they need to change and create the world of the future.

As educators it is our responsibility to determine the best way to educate, train, mentor, and develop the engineers of our future.  Let the conversation begin.

(Again… all information except my personal opinion at the end is credited to Seely.  My goal is to start the conversation.)

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