CEE New Millennium Colloquium
March 20-21, 2000
Wong Auditorium, Tang Center, MIT Building E51
Random Thoughts on Engineering Education:
A Selection from Writings in the MIT CEE Newsletter
RAFAEL L. BRAS
Head, MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
1. Newsletter 8(3) Spring 94; 9(1), Autumn 94
Over the past few years the debate has been over the engineering science emphasis of the last decades. Have we gone too far? Is the educational model still applicable? I have no doubt that engineering education and practice have improved enormously over the empirical, trial-and-error ways that prevailed until the Second World War. It would be a terrible error to underestimate the need for solid scientific fundamentals in engineering practice. I also have no doubt that the large majority of our work is motivated and develops in the context of societal problems, i.e., engineering problems.
We do not live in isolation and certainly not in an ivory tower. By the same token, I do feel that engineering education many times fails to challenge the imagination of our students. Many fail to experience the uncertainties and vagaries of problem solving in a world with no one answer, where everything comes in shades of gray and not in black and white. The debate, I feel, should not be over engineering versus science or over more or less engineering science, but over challenging education where students are forced to broaden their perspectives, to integrate knowledge, to accept uncertainty, to live with compromise and, yes, to fail to get the right answer once in awhile. We must strike a balance between fundamental science and "real world" problem solving in order to empower the best engineers. Frankly, I do not think we have done badly. I am sure we can do better.
2. Newsletter 11:4 Summer 1997
Last night, October 16, 1997, I was reminded why I always wanted to be a civil engineer. The quintessential engineer-architect, Santiago Calatrava, dazzled myself and 450 others in a first of a series of lectures.
In an amazing display, Calatrava used slides and real time drawing to show how good architecture is inseparable from good engineering. Materials, form, and function must be in harmony and express feelings and messages. Inspiration is everywhere around us, in nature and in people. Every detail is important. Good engineering is not easy, but successful products look simple and express their functionality and message subtlety, almost transparent to the user.
Calatrava reminded me that I wanted to be a Civil Engineer because of my desire to create, to leave behind solutions that are functional and beautiful. To leave behind works that would be remembered. I suspect all Civil Engineers, and almost all children, have the same dream.
Unfortunately our educational system has conspired to dampen those dreams. We are educated more like technologists. The ideal of the architect-engineer is lost. Creativity is buried under equations or hampered by the walls of specialties.
Not everybody can be Santiago Calatrava. Not everybody is blessed with the artistry and talent he has. Nevertheless every civil engineer can be far more creative. Every architect can be more imaginative and aware of functionality and the interplay with mechanics. We must find the way to promote creativity among engineers and to encourage, not dampen, our childhood dreams. If we did, the professional would be far more exciting, well respected, and popular.
3. Newsletter 13(1) Autumn 98
"en-gi-neer-ing, n. the planning, designing, construction, or management of machinery, roads, bridges, etc." (Compact Desk Edition, Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language, The World Publishing Company, 1963).
Why have I spent a good portion of my career participating in and listening to arguments about the definition of engineering and particularly engineering education, when it seems that Webster had it right as I entered high school? Let's explore some of the problems and vagueness of the definition.
Indeed engineering (read Civil), and certainly engineering education and research, encompasses planning, designing, construction and management. Notice, though, that I use the conjunction "and" not "or" as Webster utilizes. Although the practice of individual engineers could be limited to one or more of the above four activities, I would argue that engineering education requires a proper balance of all activities.
In and out of MIT individuals take, in my opinion, extreme positions and argue that engineering education and research could be, say, all design and no management or all management and no design. Any of those approaches, couched on arguments for niche and impact, are, I believe, wrong. They short-change the recipient of the knowledge by providing a biased and one-sided view of the professions.
The use of the "etc." at the end of Webster's definition adds vagueness to a very important statement of the context in which engineers operate. Engineering practice and education are by necessity context rich. Engineers are specialists. Their expertise, their technical expertise, is what gives them uniqueness. Engineers cannot become generalists and particularly generalists in the practice of management. The minute engineering education falls in that trap, our output will be nothing more than a poor man's business degree. MBA's are trained to be generalists, but engineers need a context in which they can specialize, a context that calls for planning, design construction, and management.
Clearly many of us do operate successfully in the business world as managers and generalists. This is a common evolution of many technical and science professionals. Our education should be helpful in making that transition from specialists-engineers to generalists-managers. Nevertheless, most of us went into engineering because we liked to be the planners, builders, and operators of engineering facilities or devices. We made a choice of which most of us are proud and satisfied. I think we should enhance this pride on engineering and certainly improve the value of engineering education. The last thing we want to do is diminish or devalue its uniqueness.
4. Newsletter 13:3 Spring 99
Analysis Versus Synthesis
The engineering science paradigm that developed during and after World War II has served us well. Nevertheless, many believe that our education and hence our students have lost the ability to synthesize, which is the essence of the engineer.
Engineering is the conceptualization, design, construction, and administration of projects and products. Whatever the field or application, the engineer solves problems with imagination, creativity and synthesis of various sources of knowledge. Engineers must create, not only understand.
Indeed I feel we have lost much of the creativity. Engineers must strive to bring back some of the art into the science. Engineering education must seek a new balance between analysis and synthesis and find ways to promote creativity and risk taking.
Reductionism and Systems
The debate of science versus synthesis is related to the contrast between reductionist or system approaches. Science and engineering science emphasize basic knowledge and processes. The engineer, though, must deal with increasingly complex systems that can only be understood by an integrating look at the parts. The capacity to understand complex systems develops with maturity and a good grasp of fundamentals. Nevertheless, it seems appropriate to begin early to create an appreciation of the complexities of the real world and to teach our students that most civil and environmental engineering problems necessarily involve the study of complex systems. Our challenge lies in determining the proper educational balance between in-depth fundamentals and integrative approaches, skills and experiences.
Relationship with Industry
Today, competitive advantage comes from knowledge and access to knowledge. The successful firm or country provides a healthy environment for its employees to evolve. The employees of the successful firm must be flexible, nimble, and quick at learning new technologies and constantly changing processes. Industry and academia must work closely together to make sure that the education is relevant and that industry stays competitive and in the forefront. We need a new model of collaboration which creates partnerships in developing human capital for the benefit of all involved. Just as we have moved away from the concept of design separated from construction, operation and ownership, we must also move away from the idea of educating engineers who are then "thrown over the fence" to practice. This partnership will require an investment of time and money from all involved, but it will ultimately pay. It seems to me that Civil and Environmental Engineers lag behind some other engineering fields, as innovation and wealth is being more effectively and collaboratively produced in fields like computer science, biotechnology, and manufacturing.
Themes of the Future
In my opinion, the next century will be dominated by molecular biology, information and communication technology, and environmental issues. All educated individuals including the future Civil and Environmental Engineer will need knowledge of those areas.
Modern biology will allow us to predict the impact of processes and chemicals in human health and environmental health. It will allow us to manage the relationship between the built and natural environment in unimaginable ways.
Any industry that decides to act irresponsibly in its stewardship of the environment will not be competitive. Such industries and firms will not attract employees and will not find clients in an increasingly environmentally conscious society that will not tolerate damage to its air, water, and soil. Environmental damage is almost always the result of process inefficiency and waste. Simply put, preservation of the environment is a bottom line concern very much related to efficiency and competitiveness.
The Information Revolution is already here. I am not talking of faster and cheaper computers, but of communication technology and unlimited access to all types of information. The impact of the Internet will be like that of the telephone, only much larger. The engineer of the future will have to operate in a world where physical distances are irrelevant, where information replaces or makes obsolete some basic knowledge, and where members of working teams could be separated in time and space.
In many ways we do not know where we are leading. Should we continue to teach basic concepts of calculus, physics, mechanics in traditional ways, or should we make better use of computer tools to bypass repetitive tasks? How will long distance education complement or even replace residential colleges? How does excellence come through technology which in many ways is the great equalizer?
5. Newsletter, 13:4 Summer 99
The Master's as a First Professional Engineering Degree
In October 1998 ASCE adopted a policy statement that said: "The ASCE supports the concept of the master's degree as the First Professional Degree for the practice of Civil Engineering at the professional level."
This statement has sparked lively debate in publications and meetings. In fact our Strategic Plan of 1993 adopted the principle that our students should see the bachelor's degree as a solid liberal science and engineering education. We actively promote the master's as a First Professional Degree. The arguments for adopting that policy are:
Most of our graduates already attend graduate school in engineering or other professions.
Employers of our students, particularly those looking for professional leaders, already require the master's degree and pay premium salaries for individuals with that degree.
Future engineering practice will require a knowledge base of technical and non-technical subjects that are difficult to offer in just four years.
The civil engineer of the future will be a master integrator managing technology and the infrastructure in a societal context like no other engineer. The ability to perform in that context requires a maturity of thought and a broad education that is best achieved over a longer period of time.
Engineering is being devalued in all developed countries. Many times we are perceived as technologists offering cheap and routine service, a commodity. This perception is encouraged by the narrowness of many engineering programs and by our competitive disadvantages vis a vis sister professions (i.e., medicine, law, and business) that require broad undergraduate education followed by postgraduate work.
The arguments against the move are numerous and varied. Many people point out their success with a bachelor's degree or even less education. They argue that additional studies would have been an unnecessary obstacle. I am sure there are many such examples, as whatever system is in place extraordinary individuals will succeed on his or her own. In a rapidly changing world of increasing demands we should do our best to offer all capable students the best education possible and maximize their probability of success as a professional.
Another argument is that students have it easier these days, and if we were to increase the units to previous levels a professional education would be possible in four years. Adding units does not guarantee more knowledge; it may just result in longer student careers (because of failures) and terrible learning experiences. A more valid argument is that engineering education could be delivered more efficiently. Indeed I believe students now come to college better prepared (at least they should be) than any previous generation, and that new technology (i.e., software for symbolic mathematics) combined with the maturity of some subjects (CAD and computer-friendly tools for structural analysis) should allow us to repackage engineering offerings and save a lot of time. On the other hand, the knowledge base required of our students has increased faster than any possible savings on present curricular context.
In a recent paper James Yao and Loren Lutes of Texas A&M, "On Professional Degree Requirement For Civil Engineering Practice", presented in the ASEE Conference on Education, Charlotte, North Carolina, June 1999) summarized many other concerns:
A series of concerns all relate to accreditation issues:
In summary the debate on the First Professional Degree should not be framed within existing standards of accreditation or practice. Our deliberations must be framed within the intellectual rigor and knowledge that will be required from future civil and environmental engineers. We cannot let the debate be dominated by implementation details, no matter how difficult they may be.
6. Newsletter, 14:1 Autumn 99
We are just at the beginning of the information era. It is important to understand that computers are just the tools and vehicles that propel this era, but information and its new uses define it. It is also important to realize that the phenomenon is ubiquitous and affects all aspects of society, hence many of my thoughts can be generalized. The subject is so large that I can only hope to touch on a few points.
Let me first talk about impacts on education. How should we be teaching fundamental math, science, structural design? I would pose that a student is better served being taught how to formulate the differential equation describing a phenomenon and developing physical intuition about it, than learning the mechanics of how to solve it which they can, and should, do faster and more accurately using computer applications that symbolic mathematics. Needless to say, they can always fall back on numerical approximations, also codified. I would also argue that courses like structural design should focus on developing intuition and imaginative thinking, while relying on computer applications to handle even the simplest calculations. Before I burn at the stake, let me make it clear that I champion learning fundamentals, but I advocate developing physical intuition, understanding the "why" and "how" of things, the nature of solutions, rather than the mechanics of solutions.
Information technology impacts our education in even more fundamental ways. For example, the explosion of Internet based information provides the opportunity to challenge the student with a plethora of "real life" cases and situations. There is now little need to make up examples to bypass the difficulties of data acquisition.
As the quintessential information delivery system, the Internet challenges the lecture as the mainstay of classroom teaching. Students can get a multimedia presentation by the professor at their time and place of choice, including laboratory simulations and supplementary material. The professor and contact time could be used to expand, develop intuition, perform hands-on activities, answer questions, and yes, learn from the experiences of a real, hopefully inspiring, person. War stories are important.
This brings me to long distance education, possibly the single biggest challenge to present-day residential colleges. If we can deliver content via the internet, we can deliver it anywhere: in real time or offline. In fact, we already teach several sources that are piped in real time, across the country and across oceans. The technology exists and is constantly improving getting closer to reproducing the classroom experience. Is this the end of residential colleges?
Most of us will answer no. There is value added in the personal interactions between faculty and students and in the life experiences of residential colleges, particularly at the undergraduate level. But it would be a mistake to ignore the inevitable: efficiencies of delivery of education via the internet will pose a serious challenge to many colleges and universities and force places like MIT to re-adjust its product and clientele. I believe that we offer education to an elite group of individuals, the best and the brightest of the US and a limited number of the rest of the world. There will always be a place for that type of quality residential college at the undergraduate and research graduate levels. But MIT, and this Department, must become a world university and has responsibility and opportunity to educate more of the millions of the world elite. How can distance education help us do that? Can a new model with mixed residential and distance education be developed?
Distance education is already having a direct impact on continuing education and non-research professional post-graduate programs. In a recent wonderful trip to the Southeast Asia (Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan) our alumni/ae expressed the desire to have more access to the MIT faculty, their ideas, and the education. This theme arose in a recent retreat of the Department Heads and Center Directors of the School of Engineering. We discussed concepts like life-long education where the MIT students essentially get, as part of their education, life-long access to the Institute via distance education. Naturally, the fee structure would have to be completely redesigned.
Let me touch on the impact of information and communication technologies on the practice of civil and Environmental Engineering. Large civil engineering firms already work around the clock, with design and engineering teams distributed around the world and material handed off, via the internet, at the end of every shift. Even a one-person engineering firm has instant access to the best concepts and designs worldwide. Good ideas should move and spread fast.
Building large infrastructure projects is largely the management of goods and information. Construction is the ultimate business-to-business market with big projects involving hundreds of sub-contractors, supplies, and need of "just in time" inventories. This is the obvious e-commerce application.
Change orders contractual disagreements involve innumerable documentation and is ripe of misunderstanding and conflict. A system that makes sure everybody has the same and correct information is crucial for conflict resolution. The same applies to problems of environmental compliance, or resource management, like water in the Middle East. The ability to meet in cyber-space, to address problems with all information at hand will go a long way in streamlining our business.
Ultimately, we should have I-City, a concept being developed by several of our faculty. The modern city should be monitored, managed, and operated much like a futuristic space station. We should be able to use real time observations to simulate the model and predict behavior producing condition assessments, forecasting failures, scheduling maintenance, or respond to incidents from traffic congestion, to environmental incidents, to disasters like earthquakes.
The impact of information technology is almost limitless. We must take
the opportunity and redefine our profession and ideas of education and practice
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