Future engineers take many pathways through the educational system, said Elliot Douglas, program director in the Division of Engineering Education and Centers at the National Science Foundation. They are subject to many influences and bring their own characteristics and educational trajectories to their undergraduate experiences. For these reasons, thinking of engineering education as a leaky pipeline can be misleading. A better metaphor, he said, is that of a much larger ecosystem—of which engineering education is a part—characterized by myriad proximal and distal interactions among a large number of actors and influences.
Professional societies are a prominent part of this ecosystem. Their influence on students is often indirect, observed Douglas, although in some cases they work directly with students. But they influence many other parts of the system, and these other parts can influence undergraduate engineering education.
Because the influence of engineering societies is often indirect, NSF has not previously focused directly on their role in undergraduate engineering education, Douglas noted. However, the development of a new NSF initiative called the Professional Formation of Engineers has expanded the
foundation’s interests from engineering education narrowly defined to the formation of an engineering identity, which has in turn increased attention on professional societies.
The professional formation of engineers encompasses the formal and informal processes and value systems by which people become engineers, Douglas explained. Elements include:
- introduction to the profession at any age
- acquisition of deep technical and professional skills, knowledge, and abilities in both formal and informal settings and domains
- development of outlooks, perspectives, and ways of thinking, knowing, and doing
- development of identity as an engineer and its intersection with other identities
- acculturation to the profession, its standards, and its norms.
Professional societies are involved in all these elements, Douglas observed. As one example, he pointed to recent discussion of the “T-shaped” engineer who combines both breadth of knowledge and depth of expertise (or the ability to apply knowledge across situations as well as functional/disciplinary skills).
To develop breadth, students need an understanding of how their field interfaces with other fields. They also need skills such as communication, critical thinking, metacognition, and leadership, Douglas said. Students with these abilities have the potential to become adaptive experts, able to restructure knowledge depending on the situation. Professional societies can help establish the norms and expectations that build such expertise.
Societies also influence thinking about diversity, including not just the representation and presence of diverse people but the inclusion of diverse perspectives, knowledge of different social identity groups, and considerations of social justice (including power, privilege, and oppression). Douglas characterized engineering as a sociotechnical profession, not just a technical profession, involving noncognitive factors, such as motivation and self-regulation, as well as cognitive factors. Educational success often depends on social connections with communities, families, and social groups. (Lack of social capital is also why first-generation college students can face higher
barriers to success, Douglas noted.) These are all factors in the broad ecosystem of engineering education.
The traditional way of doing engineering has been to solve specific problems. This approach to engineering may be why longitudinal studies have found that belief in the importance of engineering’s impact on society gradually diminishes among engineering students.
Some educational programs are countering this approach and trend by focusing on the humanitarian and social justice aspects of engineering. Furthermore, many opportunities for broader access exist, for example through online education and the inclusion of engineering in the Next Generation Science Standards.
“Again, professional societies are part of [all these opportunities] because you have the ability to impact the field broadly, not just within a single institution or a single classroom,” said Douglas.
Scalability cannot be ignored, Douglas said. The traditional funding model has been to support principal investigators in developing innovations for their classrooms. And the traditional dissemination strategy has been to publish in peer-reviewed journals, create websites, and give workshops at meetings such as those of the American Society for Engineering Education.
The new funding model supports large integrated efforts such as NSF’s REvolutionizing engineering and computer science Departments (RED) program and the Improving Undergraduate STEM Education Framework. A new dissemination strategy is to consider models of change and the creation of national cohorts of exemplars. “You don’t start from ‘I want to do this activity,’” said Douglas. “You start from ‘I want to make this cultural change.’ That’s a very different way of thinking.”
A goal of the workshop was to inculcate this different way of thinking, Douglas concluded. “Let’s think about how to not just cross-fertilize but cross-collaborate and create these larger partnerships that can work more broadly and at a larger scale to impact the engineering education field. What we want is broad, radical change in engineering education.”