U.S. Engineering Education in Transition

President Charles M. Vest's address to the annual meeting of the National Academy of Engineering, September 28, 1995.
This address has been published in the Winter 1995 issue of the NAE journal The Bridge (Vol.25, No.4) and is published here with permission.
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A Time of Change and a Time for Change

As engineers, who we are, what we do, where we do it, and how we do it are changing very rapidly. Last year, 45 percent of the companies recruiting at MIT's career planning office were not from the manufacturing sector but from the service sector, many in financial services. Around one-third of the students who come to us as freshmen grew up in homes where two languages are spoken, and 42 percent of them are women. U.S. corporations are increasingly purchasing goods and services from sources anywhere in the world based on quality and cost. If you want to get promoted today in American industry, you'd better gain substantial overseas experience. At MIT and elsewhere, books are being published and courses taught on the World Wide Web.

It is a time of change and indeed it is a time for change. The accessible base of science is expanding, bringing new possibilities, flexibilities, and techniques to engineering. Just scan this September's issue of Scientific American, which is devoted to key technologies for the twenty-first century. You'll find things like wireless networks, all-optical networks, intelligent software, high-speed rail, new spacecraft concepts, gene therapy, artificial organs, self assembling materials, microscopic machinery, high-temperature superconductivity, industrial ecology, sustainable agriculture, and the information economy. We really are in for a very exciting time.

But this is not the whole story. We inhabit a world with a rapidly expanding population, an increasingly globally integrated economy, disparate cultural values, and one that faces varied environmental threats. Context and broader considerations are becoming increasingly important. Most of the frontiers of both engineering practice and research involve complex systems, often of a very large scale. Most cutting-edge activities have moved far beyond traditional disciplinary compartmentalization. Today, we are more likely to be motivated to design for low-cost, high-quality manufacturability, rapid time to market, environmental friendliness, and ease of use than we are for power and sophistication. We have to compete in all dimensions against every nation and every company in the world, not only with our products but for our materials, our labor, our manufacturing, and, increasingly, engineering.

Corporations are continually merging and dividing, employment is in flux, disciplines are increasingly irrelevant, projects are electronically integrated on a worldwide basis, and time frames are reduced. We succeed by our wits rather than by our power and resources. Social, political, economic, and environmental factors appear likely to dominate over technical matters, as we have traditionally defined them. So, how should engineering education respond? In my view, I'm sorry to say, there is no formulaic response, there is no magic bullet. Rather, we need to redefine our missions--school by school, department by department, university by university. We need to continuously and rapidly evolve our curricula, our research, and our partnerships with private industry and the federal government.

It is a time that calls for experimentation. Experimentation in curricula, in teaching format, in degree structure, and certainly in the uses of new information technologies. It's a time in which we must have a much more systemic, national view of engineering education. We must have better communication among engineering schools and other stakeholders in the engineering enterprise.

The Forces Driving Change

We might begin by identifying the important external forces that are driving change in engineering and education. First of all, and I know everybody's tired of hearing about it, but it can't be said enough in my view, the end of the Cold War is having a stunning effect. It is affecting what motivates technology development in the United States, it's affecting the very engineering mentality and ethos, and it's certainly affecting public policy.

International competition, in all dimensions, is changing the economy and reshaping American industry. And while I do not fully understand all the ramifications myself, the rapid trend toward international outsourcing of practice, materials, goods, and so forth certainly has a great impact.

Information technology is changing the way everybody works. It's changing increasingly the way we educate students.

The demography of the United States is changing much more rapidly than I think most of us understand. We went through a little more than 20 years of declining numbers of 18- and 19-year-olds in this country. At the time, there were dire predictions about what would happen to American higher education if the demand dropped. The demand never dropped; however, the nature of the students who come to our institutions has changed. Now, we've bottomed out, and we look ahead to a couple of decades in which the number of college-age students in America is going to increase. What will the influence of that be? It is going to be a very diverse group, racially and culturally, compared with the population with which most of us grew up.

We must also consider the domestic change that has occurred over 30 years in the ratio of workers to retirees. And, of course, the population is increasing around the world, particularly in less-industrialized nations. As these nations industrialize, this will have enormous impact on the demand for energy and, as a result, on the environment. All these things have implications for the way we prepare young people for the practice of engineering.

Let me turn now to what underlies much of the discussion at this symposium: the financial and policy environment in which this change is going to take place. It's a very daunting picture. There are some very serious issues that the federal government places before us in this post-Cold War era.

First of all, we are all very worried about funding levels. If Congress sticks with the budget as currently mapped out, over the next 7 years, we will see a decrease of 30 to 35 percent in real support in almost every agency that funds research and development, particularly civilian R&D (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1995). Even if one looks at the fine print of the administration's budget in the out-years, the picture is quite bleak. Whether or not we will stick with these budgets remains to be seen, but all of us must be clear on the ramifications of disinvesting in America's future, its young people, and its knowledge base in this time of change.

We also see that research missions and goals are changing. In Congress over the last two years, we have heard arguments about basic research versus strategic research versus applied research--terms that are not particularly helpful, by the way, to understanding what's going on and what we need to do. I'm very concerned about R&D funding by the mission agencies, where there is great turbulence and great instability. Around 70 percent of the federal support of engineering research in U.S. universities comes from the mission agencies such as DOD, DOE, and NASA.

But the point I particularly want to make is that it is not only the magnitude of dollars that the federal government invests in research and development that is important, but also the policy environment in which these funds are expended. I believe that there are two paths that we can take. The first is a flexible path that reduces the load of regulations on institutions such as universities, that does away with academic earmarking, and that stops micromanagement through various types of spending caps. The other path is the one that we seem to be on at the moment, which is one of increasing regulation and micromanagement. The consequences of following these two different policy pathways in my view are very important, and which path we choose to follow will have a profound effect on the future of the leading public and private engineering schools in America.

It is not only federal policy that is important. We must also consider industry's view toward research and development and toward new partnerships. I know that this is a very simplistic picture, but I believe it contains an important kernel of truth. The danger we are facing right now is that we may retreat into a state in which universities continue to be relatively strong in fundamental research activities and industry continues to focus increasingly narrowly and on very short time-scale activities, and the connection disappears.

I do not denigrate the many changes that have recently occurred in R&D and American industry. Some very creative and important things have been brought about. Indeed, from a corporate perspective, there has been a dramatic increase in the "efficiency" of R&D. But I fear that we may leave out the huge and very important middle range of research, which crosses from long-term fundamental to short-term commercially focused, that is the source of much of the innovation and creativity in American industry. There also is a clear danger that the industrial research contributions to the basis of shared knowledge will decay. Somehow, we have to fill these gaps, perhaps through new partnerships between industry and engineering schools around the country.

Identifying the Key Elements

In my view, there are several necessary or desirable characteristics that engineering education should have as we move ahead. We must begin with the sine qua non that we are going to retain the rigor and the scientific basis that underlies engineering education and practice. Having said this, I believe it is time that we anchor ourselves somewhat more firmly with industry. I'm not sure that anchor is the right term, because we are hooking onto something that is moving in new directions very rapidly. Still, we do need to maintain much closer contact with industry as it is evolving.

I think we have to de-emphasize narrow disciplinary approaches, particularly in our curricula and in the way we teach students to think. We need to pay more attention to the context in which engineering is practiced, for all the reasons that I outlined earlier. This sounds simple, but we're finding it, at least at my institution, very challenging. We need to educate students to work better in groups. Do not misunderstand: Ultimately, the most important strength we have is individuals and their capacity for innovation. However, every organization that I know about accomplishes most of its work in groups because of the complexity of the tasks that engineers and their colleagues deal with today. We also need to give students more hands-on engineering experience, or "design-build-operate," as we like to call it.

Virtually everybody here today who works in industry knows that globalization is not something that's coming, it's something that's already happened. Educational institutions are behind the curve somewhat in terms of figuring out how best to prepare students for this international environment. My guess is that the key is going to be engagement--engagement by U.S. universities with organizations, governments, and industries operating in other countries. We tend to work best and learn the most when we're actively engaged in partnerships of one sort or another.

We have to continue tracking and utilizing information technologies in education, no matter how rapidly they advance. I continue to believe that we've just scratched the surface of what the new technologies make available to us in education and learning. Again, this is a time for experimenting. It is a time for networking among U.S. engineering schools to learn which new approaches to teaching are working well and which are not.

Reforming Undergraduate Engineering

In the last few years, a number of groups have taken a look at undergraduate engineering education. Industry, academia, and government have been represented or consulted on each of these studies, and a generally consistent view seems to have evolved. A report issued this year by the American Society for Engineering Education (1994) asserted that engineering education should be relevant, attractive, and connected--relevant to the lives and careers of students, preparing them for a broad range of careers as well as for lifelong learning involving both formal programs and hands-on experience; attractive so that the excitement and intellectual content of engineering will attract highly talented students with wider backgrounds and career interests; connected to the issues of the broader community through integrated activities with other parts of the educational system, industry, and government.

Similarly, the National Research Council's Board on Engineering Education (1995) believes that it is necessary to view engineering education as a national system. According to the board, the system must be highly adaptable and flexible. Curricula should integrate fundamentals with early exposure to engineering practice and design. There should be a variety of pathways at the bachelors, masters, and doctoral levels, providing students different types of knowledge and combinations of experiences. The system should also offer a wide variety of opportunities and incentives for effective continuous education. According to the board, we must have mechanisms to assure not only diversity of students and faculty, but also an educational experience that is rich and is delivered with maximum productivity and cost effectiveness. Finally, the system should offer a diversity of educational approaches across different institutions: Different schools should be able to focus their efforts differently.

Evolving New Degree Programs

I suspect that graduate engineering education is going to be the key issue over the next few years. Most of the studies to date have concentrated on issues in the undergraduate world. Let me at least make a couple of very brief observations in this regard. First, I think there will be a rather dramatic change in the role of masters-level engineering education--how it is delivered, its objectives, and who the students are. I predict that we are going to see a much greater emphasis on masters- as opposed to Ph.D.-level education. A number of schools, including MIT, have already begun to offer new integrated bachelors-masters programs. For example, in electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, we have a new 5-year program that provides students with a Master of Engineering (M.Eng.) degree, rather than our traditional Master of Science in Engineering (MSE) degree. The program has more of a practice than a research orientation. This is now the preferred route for most students. This doesn't sound like a huge change, but if you look at the statistics, you'll see that it has effectively reduced the time to a masters degree at the Institute by about a year and a half.

New degree structures are going to evolve, particularly those combining engineering and management. At MIT, for instance, we have now graduated five classes of our Leaders for Manufacturing Program, which is a partnership among our engineering school, the Sloan School of Management, and 13 U.S. corporations. This year, we are initiating a System Design and Management program, which places a heavy emphasis on engineering but still will have a substantial management component. The program targets individuals who have been out in the world of work for 4 or 5 years, who have been identified as up-and-coming leaders, and who have to manage large, complicated, technical systems. We are doing this in partnership with the sponsoring industries. This is a new form of education and is typical of the experimentation that I hope will catch on around the country.

At the Ph.D. level, we have to expand the horizons of our students so that they have a better sense of the variety of careers out there and the many ways in which they may serve the greater good, beyond being a faculty member or working at the most advanced levels in a research organization.

The nature of many engineering theses, I think, will change as industry becomes increasingly dynamic. We will see, at least for some of our students, that the thesis is oriented more toward industrial practice, and this is going to require changes in the type of faculty that we hire. At MIT, we already have brought in a few nontraditional tenured senior faculty who have not traveled the typical academic route. We don't need a revolution, but we do need some other folks on our faculties.

Time to degree needs to be held down. It has expanded far too much, and many schools have begun to trim it back. Of course, time to degree is intimately tied to flexibility and funding. This must be addressed by both federal and industrial sponsors of university research.

Lifelong Learning

Finally, there is lifelong learning, a topic that--like the weather--everybody talks about but nobody knows exactly what to do about. Clearly, new models have to evolve. The primary providers may not necessarily be universities, although we certainly have a role to play through the development of new initiatives, such as the System Design and Management program I mentioned earlier. But I think our compass is just not set. As a nation, we have not come to grips with what lifelong learning should mean for engineers. Corporate needs are changing dramatically in this regard, in part because firms are becoming much more focused. I think the days of large, general continuing education programs are probably gone. We're going to find ourselves working in partnership with corporations to provide more targeted and up-to-date learning, much of it using information technologies for distance learning.

What do all of these changes imply about the nature of universities and engineering schools in the future? I certainly think that we are going to see new providers of education in lifelong learning and perhaps also in the degree domain. Information technology will play a major role in this transition. Still, the campus experience, in my opinion, will remain absolutely critical for the vast majority of our young men and women. There is no substitute for the intimate setting of campus-based learning or for being exposed to great minds who think in a very disciplined and analytical way. We cannot do it all on video cassettes.

University research agendas are of course going to change with the times, and I think this does not need to be spelled out or dictated. It will come about through policy and, much more importantly, through the intellectual entrepreneurship of individual faculty members. We do have to become more efficient and more cost effective. Most of us in academia are working very hard at this. At MIT, we are one year into a very substantial effort to reengineer all of our administrative, service, and operations activities with a goal of cutting $40 million from our operating budget. We have swallowed our traditional academic pride and sought help in this endeavor from the private sector. I think that in about two years, we'll have a highly restructured organization supporting the educational mission. I believe that we will have to do the same thing in the academic arena, but it will be done in a different and slightly more traditional way.


Let me reiterate what I believe to be the primary directions for engineering education: retain the rigor and the science base but advance with the times; return to connectivity with industry; de-emphasize narrow, disciplinary approaches; increase the contextual and integrative aspect of engineering; give students experience in both group work and hands-on "design-build-operate" projects; and continue to integrate real design and process understanding into the educational system.

Institutions must focus on what they do best. They must be nimble. They must be intellectually entrepreneurial, and they must strive to improve their cost effectiveness. We must develop new forms of partnership, particularly with industry and perhaps with the federal government. We must communicate with each other, and we simply must learn how to deal better with internationalization and the new information technologies. But above all, we must remain dedicated to providing a rich experience for our students--challenging them, teaching them to think, to create, and to understand excellence.


American Association for the Advancement of Science. 1995. Projected Effects of Concurrent Budget Resolution (H. Con. Res. 67) on Nondefense R&D. Washington, D.C.: American Association for the Advancement of Science. July (unpublished).

American Society for Engineering Education. 1994. Engineering Education for a Changing World. A joint project by the Engineering Deans Council and the Corporate Roundtable of the ASEE. Washington, D.C.: ASEE.

National Research Council. 1995. Engineering Education: Designing an Adaptive System. Board on Engineering Education. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

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