MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XX No. 5
May / June 2008
Financing Undergraduate Education
MIT Faculty Survey: It's About Time
Berwick, Lee, and Orlin Elected to
FNL Editorial Board
Reconsidering the Value of Service to MIT
Confidentiality in Recruitment, Promotion, and Tenure Reviews
Provost Announces Faculty Renewal Program
Endowment Spending Policy at MIT
A New Approach to MIT's Financial Planning
A Primer on Indirect Costs
Changes in Engineering Education
Anthropologists Express Concern Over Government Plan to Support Military-Related Research in Universities
Reflections on Nominations and Elections for Faculty Officers and Commmittees at MIT
Initiative on Faculty Race and Diversity: Research Team and Effort Launched
The Man I Killed; Lise
Creating a Culture of Communication: Assessing the Implementation of the Undergraduate Communication Requirement
The Vision Thing
Lerman Now Dean for Graduate Education
The Spellings Commission Backs Off
Who Should Be Allowed to Speak
at Faculty Meetings?
from the 2008 Faculty Survey: Reasonableness of Workload
from the 2008 Faculty Survey:
Satisfaction with . . .
from the 2008 Faculty Survey:
Sources of Stress
Printable Version

Changes in Engineering Education

Ernst Frankel

Engineering education in America has changed dramatically during recent years. Not only has the number of graduates in traditional engineering disciplines such as mechanical, civil, electrical, chemical, and aeronautical engineering declined, but in most of the premier American universities engineering curricula now concentrate on and encourage largely the study of engineering science. As a result, there are declining offerings in engineering subjects dealing with infrastructure, the environment, and related issues, and greater concentration on high technology subjects, largely supporting increasingly complex scientific developments. While the latter is important, it should not be at the expense of more traditional engineering.

Rapidly developing economies such as China and India, as well as other industrial countries in Europe and Asia, continue to encourage and advance the teaching of engineering. Both China and India, respectively, graduate six and eight times as many traditional engineers as does the United States. Other industrial countries at minimum maintain their output, while America suffers an increasingly serious decline in the number of engineering graduates and a lack of well-educated engineers.

While until quite recently American engineering firms dominated in global infrastructure projects and the development of new design and engineering solutions, they are now becoming minor participants and are quite often not even invited to propose and bid for important projects.

Earlier last century we built structures such as the Empire State Building in fewer than 18 months, a feat which could not possibly be repeated today. American engineering used to be the global gold standard in infrastructure engineering and construction, while now the premier examples of major engineering projects are primarily developed abroad.

America increasingly lags not only in engineering research, development, and design, but also in methods of survey, construction materials handling, materials fabrication, site development, and more, again particularly in infrastructure engineering.

The results have caused American roads, rail networks, electric power, ports, airports, and other essential infrastructure to not only remain in ill-maintained states, but also to be quite often badly designed and constructed. There are many examples which parallel the shameful so-called Big Dig project in Boston, and there are now few major U.S. engineering projects that measure up to world standards, something that not only adversely affects our economy, but also our standing in the world. For example, much of the Katrina and similar disasters could have been prevented by more competent engineering. For too long, we have somehow failed to give the proper respect, recognition, and resources to engineering education, and now suffer the consequences which may affect not only our reputation but ultimately our economy and standard of living.

Engineering is the most essential of human disciplines. From early on it was the way humankind lifted themselves up from other creatures. It provides the wherewithal for all human physical advances and is as much – if not more – of an intellectual challenge as the sciences and other subjects that advance human standards. History has many examples where the decline of civilizations paralleled the lack of importance given to engineering. The Greeks, Romans, Chinese, and others built their civilizations largely on the foundations of engineering competence and advances. Their power, status, and standards of living rapidly declined as soon as they failed to maintain their superior engineering competence and developments. I would hope that we are able to learn from history, and not repeat it.

Engineering education should teach the effective application and use of scientific principles to the solution of real-world problems and the development of materials, tools, facilities, appliances, shelters, foods, and services to meet human needs and advance human living conditions, opportunities, and standards. It should probably be broadened to include engineering and project management, in addition to wider, more comprehensive courses in the application of science and technology to the solution to real-world problems – so as to assure that graduates hit the ground running, particularly after completing graduate studies. MIT has for long been the world leader in the application of engineering education, and should follow its success by furthering its study in this direction.

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