The symposium’s third panel session featured presentations from three speakers. Richard Miller, president of the Olin College of Engineering, discussed the innovations in engineering education that his institution has been developing. Katherine Banks, vice president and dean of engineering at Texas A&M University, discussed a new approach to doctoral education. Andreas Cangellaris, dean of engineering at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, identified some of the trends that are shaping undergraduate education. An open discussion moderated by David Walt followed the three presentations.
For more than 500 years, said Richard Miller, an unquestioned assumption has been that the more a person knows, the better that person’s life will be. Today, this assumption plays itself out in getting students prepared to participate fully in the knowledge economy, and in practice this means that educators have been intent with filling students with content. However, there is a problem with this approach. “It is called Google,” said Miller, which means that the value of knowing things is decreasing, while the value of using knowledge is increasing. As a result, the knowledge economy is transitioning to a maker economy, one that places value on what someone can do rather than on what they know. Engineering education is adapting to this new world, said Miller, by creating classes that are collaborative, focus on experiential learning, and have students making something. At the same time, teachers are becoming coaches rather than instructors. At his institution, for example, students will have completed some 25 projects by the time they graduate and can present prospective employers with portfolios with photographs and videos of things they have built. Employers report that Olin graduates appear to have the equivalent of a couple of years of experience, which for all intents and purposes they do, because of the emphasis on experiential learning.
Miller predicted, however, that there will soon be another workplace transition that will create what he called the innovation economy. In the innovation economy, the key attribute students will need is the ability to conceive of original ideas and generate insights. He admitted that he has no clear idea how this innovation economy will be organized or even how to best prepare students to thrive in an innovation economy. The best approach at the moment, he said, is to create an environment in which peers and mentors will have a big influence on students—on the assumption that creativity has less to do with an individual’s innate skills and talents and more to do with the environment in which they can use those capabilities. “Our best shot is to nurture a student’s intrinsic motivation and cultivate design thinking,” said Miller.
Design thinking, he explained, is currently embodied by programs such as the Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation, but he offered that design should be the domain of the engineering field. “Applied science is about answering questions about why something happened, but engineering is about envisioning what has never been and doing whatever it takes to make it happen,” said Miller. “That is design.” Design, he explained, is different than project-based learning, which he likened to learning to paint by numbers, whereas design is painting on a blank canvas. Design is first identifying the problem, conceiving of a solution, and determining what it should look like. “That creativity exercises a different
part of the brain,” said Miller. Quoting the poet William Butler Yeats, Miller said, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” According to the placement officers he has spoken to, companies are still hiring students who know things, just as they have since the 1950s. However, the highest salaries are going to students who can do things with that knowledge and who can generate new ideas.
Education must change, said Miller, not only for the practical reason of meeting the demands of employers in a maker or innovation economy, but for the bigger reason of addressing the 14 grand challenges the NAE has identified. These are not merely engineering and scientific challenges, these are human challenges, said Miller. Tackling these problems—some of which he blamed on engineering and scientific solutions to problems of the 20th century that were implemented without much societal input—will require more than just engineers and scientists contributing to the new solutions. What is needed, said Miller, is a new kind of engineering innovator, one who can conceive of new ideas that so profoundly change the way people live that they cannot remember the way life was before innovation occurred.
Miller’s fear is that the traditional approach to education—one that puts engineering in one place, business and economics in another, and psychology, the arts, and humanities in a third place—may be inhibiting innovation. Each of these areas asks different questions that all must be answered to produce something that is truly innovative. Engineering and science worry about feasibility, business and economics tackle viability, and the arts and humanities ask questions about desirability—all key aspects of true innovation. From that perspective, said Miller, “no amount of doubling down on hard science courses will produce the innovators we need.”
Going forward, education needs to cultivate attitudes, behaviors, and motivations among students to enable them to become innovators. These attributes, which Miller said are being embraced by a growing number of companies, includes an entrepreneurial mindset, ethical behavior, teamwork and leadership, a global perspective, interdisciplinary thinking, creativity and design, empathy and social responsibility, and employability skills. He recommended the book Creating Innovators by Tony Wagner, which talks about helping students learn to improvise. Miller also suggested that the nation should create a national laboratory for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education innovation.
As a final comment, Miller said that the science and engineering communities talk about research as if it was the highest calling. “Research is important, but creating new prototypes, new models, is also important so that we will have something to research,” said Miller. As an example, he referred to the Wright brothers, who invented aviation. “It was later that we discovered the field of aeronautics,” said Miller. He closed with his favorite quotation, from Charles Vest, former president of the NAE, who said, “Making universities and engineering schools exciting, creative, adventurous, rigorous, demanding, and empowering milieus is more important than specifying curricular details.”
To begin her presentation, Katherine Banks said that everything Miller spoke about with regard to undergraduate education should also occur at the graduate level. She also noted that in her opinion, the ERCs have been tremendous examples of use-inspired and curiosity-inspired research centers that have benefited the entire nation. In fact, she said, ERC-developed research and educational models that stimulate out-of-the-box and multidisciplinary thinking have often initiated change at the nation’s universities, particularly in undergraduate education.
However, she continued, the general model for doctoral education has stayed the same for decades, if not centuries. In this model, an individual student works independently in the laboratory, writes a traditional dissertation, and then presents it to a committee for approval. “Certainly, this model works extremely well, so the challenge is to enhance that model to allow students to experience different types of programs outside of traditional dissertation-focused research,” said Banks.
Noting that there are discussions ongoing among faculty at institutions across the nation about the role of the graduate student, Banks said there are a number of questions that these discussions are trying to answer. “How do we define the work environment for these students? How do we define the tasks they must complete for research projects that fund these students? Are they employees or students?” she asked. “What is the workforce driver for these students? Is it the marketplace or is it our own laboratories?” In her opinion, the difficult conversations needed to answer these questions should occur before transformational change can occur in graduate education, adding that faculty become quite concerned by any type of model that would decrease its responsibilities as major professors for graduate students. As an example, her institution recently held discussions about developing new programs for graduate students, an idea strongly supported by faculty members. However, when asked if they would release their students so they could participate in a summer program outside of their laboratories, there was “quite a bit of reluctance to take that step,” said Banks.
One question that her institution has been asking lately is why doctoral education focuses on turning out academicians when the majority of its Ph.D. students get jobs in industry or at the national laboratories. “We know that 92 to 93 percent of our Ph.D. students move into industry or the national laboratories, yet they have received no training or opportunity for training in business, in communication, or in working in large teams,” said Banks. An approach her institution has implemented to address this problem has been to allow engineering Ph.D. students to compile a portfolio of projects, papers, and disclosures as proof they have mastered their subject rather than writing the traditional dissertation.
Another problem with graduate education, said Banks, is that students, by and large, have no opportunity to make connections with the national laboratories or industry. Her institution is trying to include industry internships as part of the Ph.D. program. Texas A&M has also developed a strong professor of practice program in which individuals with significant levels of industry experience come to the university as full-time employees, not adjunct professors. The university currently has some 60 professors of practice and is aiming to have 100 in the engineering college. One benefit of this program has been an increased appreciation among faculty for the high-caliber fundamental research taking place in industry. Another benefit has been to bring an industry perspective to both the classroom and the laboratory. There is currently ongoing debate about whether these professors of practice should serve as major professors for doctoral students and whether there should be a co-advisor from among the tenure-track faculty.
As a final thought, Banks reiterated Miller’s call to increase the focus on entrepreneurship in graduate engineering education, to allow students to focus on creation rather than just directed research on a specific topic. This idea is quite popular with graduate students at Texas A&M, she said, with the extra unintended benefit of increasing interactions between graduate students and engineering undergraduates. She did note that one challenge will be changing the perspective of international graduate students, who come into Ph.D. programs with a certain expectation of following the traditional model.
One topic discussed in depth at the most recent World Economic Forum, held January 20-23, 2016, in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, said Andreas Cangellaris, was the coming of the fourth industrial revolution. This revolution, which builds on the digitally based third industrial revolution and is being driven by emerging advances in nanotechnology, materials science, energy storage, additive manufacturing, robotics, artificial intelligence, biology, and the Internet of Things, will disrupt every industry and has the potential to improve quality of life at a global scale. At the same time the forum was being held, a book titled The Rise and Fall of American Growth was published, and its author, Robert Gordon from Northwestern University, argued that the great days of American innovation are past, and unless the nation can begin innovating at a much faster pace than ever before, the nation’s future will be difficult. While these two messages may seem contradictory, said Cangellaris, they are both saying that innovation will be key if the nation is serious about taking advantage of new opportunities.
In his opinion, a foundation of the American research university can be summarized in one sentence: “We prosper through discovery and innovation; and through education we put prosperity to good use.” Cangellaris also believes that the grand challenges laid out by the NAE will not only produce important breakthroughs, but also inspire students, faculty, and parents. “This is something that we cannot forget as we think about the future of education,” said Cangellaris. “These challenges are so inspirational, and it is not only the United States that is thinking about them, the rest of the world is, too.” His institution, as is true for many other leading U.S. universities, is partnering with institutions around the world to provide solutions will need to reflect the local economic and geopolitical situations.
Referring to the Google effect that Miller noted, Cangellaris said it is real and has had a powerful effect on how faculty interacts with students by creating time for faculty to engage with students rather than merely providing them with information. Knowledge is accessible in ways it never was before that go beyond just looking up facts using Google. As an example, he cited a NASA website where students can play with the Mars lander Curiosity and learn what it is like to operate a robot remotely.
Today, said Cangellaris, there has never been a better opportunity for higher education to capitalize on the fact that education, training, and research have to come together to prepare students for the maker and innovator economy. He noted how faculty are finding creative ways of ensuring that undergraduates have the opportunity to be exposed to research, both for the benefit of the student and faculty. “Who does not want more creative, curious minds contributing to finding answers to difficult problems?” asked Cangellaris. In addition, research and internship experiences make students feel comfortable with the truth that science and engineering do not have all of the answers.
Cangellaris also reiterated Banks’s comment that education today might actually be suffocating creativity and stifling the ability to think about “weird things.” What is needed, he said, is a system that encourages students to think about doing the impossible and to do the impossible in areas that matter to people who come from different backgrounds and geographic regions. As an example, he cited the Illinois Cancer Scholars program, which takes freshman engineering students who say they want to be engineers to cure cancer, assembles them into a cohort, and from the beginning of their time at the University of Illinois, gives them the opportunity to immerse themselves in oncology as well as their specific engineering disciplines. The students, he said, are passionate about this immersion experience, and the sense among faculty is that this program goes a long way toward turning some of these curious and passionate students into amazing and passionate innovators.
As is true at other universities, the University of Illinois has created a design school that aims to prepare innovators across disciplines. “These design centers can energize the campus, bringing the entire university community together in a way that has not happened before and that eliminates the silos that get in the way of innovation,” said Cangellaris, who believes design centers are one of the most exciting opportunities for changing undergraduate education. He also noted that there is still much to learn about how to develop design centers.
Cangellaris concluded the panel presentations by saying that he is a firm believer that it is the role of U.S. universities to educate as many innovators as possible, regardless of where they come from or even where they live. “The United States has always been a driver of new ways of thinking about higher education,” said Cangellaris.
A symposium participant agreed that practical experience was important, but so too is mastering fundamentals and subject matter. As an example, he said musicians need to master the fundamental of music before they can be truly innovative. Miller agreed but noted that if musicians were trained in the same way engineers are, they would first learn about the theory of vibration and sound and about note shapes and the natural frequencies of strings and columns of air. They then would learn music theory and orchestration, and finally, in their final year of school they would be given an instrument and taught to play scales. “Musicians learn music by playing it, every day, and building up a repertoire,” said Miller. “I
think engineering is also a performing art in which you build up a repertoire in the same way. Musicians do learn theory along the way but not at the expense of playing music.” He also cited Harvard Medical School’s New Pathways Program that merges learning and experience as one model for engineering education. Students in this program get 1 hour of lecture a day and then they work on real case studies. Banks agreed that it is not necessary for a student to have all of the fundamentals before they are allowed to explore applications.
Dean Chang, from the University of Maryland, asked how universities can afford these more resource-intensive programs that require teaching teams and how faculty can get their instructional credits when they are team teaching. Miller responded that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has data showing that while there is an initial investment in teaching faculty to work in this mode, these programs are then cost-neutral. Banks added that the professor of practice program has been beneficial in contributing to the development of these programs.
Another participant asked if these new models of education will mean the end of tenure, to which Banks replied that the tenure process works well and is not being questioned at Texas A&M. What is important, however, is increasing the diversity of expertise at the institutions. Miller added that while his institution does not offer tenure, it does have renewable contracts with secure terms. In his mind, getting rid of disciplinary departments is more important to creating a collaborative, innovative culture than doing away with tenure. Cangellaris noted that NSF has been very supportive of efforts to rethink innovation in education and how to reward that in new ways. Miller added that the infusion of design into engineering will require new metrics for evaluating both faculty and student performance. At his institution, faculty voted unanimously to revamp the reward system by doing away with the three traditional distinct performance areas—teaching, research, and service—and creating new categories that better reflect the overlap between building student success, building the institution, and producing nationally visible achievement.