Engineering education: Creating engineers for today and the future

March 29, 2021 5:15 AM

Knowledge, skills and mindsets—the charter of universities of the future

Imparting knowledge and skills, namely providing technical competence, is a necessary and perhaps the most important ingredient for all our engineering students.Imparting knowledge and skills, namely providing technical competence, is a necessary and perhaps the most important ingredient for all our engineering students.

By BL Ramakrishna & Yannis Yortsos

The situation in which mankind finds itself is not comparable to anything in the past and makes the adoption of revolutionary measures a compelling necessity. It is impossible, therefore, to apply methods and measures which at an earlier age might have been sufficient. We must revolutionize our thinking and revolutionize our action.
—From Albert Einstein ‘A Message to Intellectuals’ 1948

In this poignant message, Einstein urged the world’s intellectuals to work towards promoting peace and prosperity, as he recognised the great benefits that science and technology can bring to the world, but also the associated risks and unintended consequences if technology is used for destructive purposes. While unintended consequences have always been part of the development of technology, with the extraordinary power of technology today, due to its exponential growth, one needs to pay particular attention. Ensuring that technology is used for truly useful purposes that follow ethical decision making, requires also introducing additional mindsets, purpose and character in the education of our engineering students. More significantly, reimagining education may be just right, as the unprecedented Covid-19 shock to the world revealed the indispensable role that science and engineering play in making our world better, while also led us to fundamentally re-examine the way we live and work.

Today, Covid-19 notwithstanding, we are in the midst of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The previous three Industrial Revolutions liberated humankind from using animals for the generation of power, made mass production possible, and brought digital capabilities to billions of people, respectively. The current Fourth Industrial Revolution is again fundamentally different, characterised by a range of technologies that are fusing the physical, digital and biological worlds, impacting all disciplines, economies and industries, even challenging us about what it means to be human.

“We stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another. The response to it must be integrated and comprehensive, involving all stakeholders of the global polity, from the public and private sectors to academia and civil society”: Klaus Schwab, World Economic Forum 2016.

The exponential growth of knowledge and innovation in science, engineering and technology, coupled with the convergence of disciplines, automation and globalisation, which characterise this era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, demand reimagining how we educate our students. In our increasing complex and interconnected world, the success of our graduates will be driven not only by what they know, but by how they make wise decisions on the use of powerful engineering technologies. We not only have to prepare them with the competence required to participate and grow our technologies of the future, but also how they could contribute meaningfully to the societal good.

Imparting knowledge and skills, namely providing technical competence, is a necessary and perhaps the most important ingredient for all our engineering students. However, in today’s world where most, if not all, issues are an increasingly complex combination of technical, social, cultural, economic and ethical considerations, it is imperative that we also equip our students with the cultivation of mindsets, which will help thrive in a complex world of constant change. ‘Knowledge, skills and mindsets’ should be the combination of attributes higher education should strive to provide to their students. This means attributes additional to strict technical competence, from purpose to character and to ethical decision-making to complement technical knowledge and skills.

The Grand Challenges Scholars Program, in which we are both involved, is an excellent example of such a paradigm shift. Co-created in 2009 by Duke University, Olin College and the University of Southern California, it has been designed to prepare engineering students to solve the ‘grand challenges’ of our time, as articulated in 2008 by the US National Academy of Engineering. The programme, now spread over almost 100 engineering schools globally, consists of such a combination of ‘knowledge, skills and mindsets’. It encompasses five elements: exceptional technical skills and knowledge; interdisciplinary skills and mindsets to address the convergence of disciplines, tools and modes of thinking driven by common goals in the Fourth Industrial Revolution; entrepreneurial and innovation skills and mindsets; understanding cultures and the human element through global and multicultural mindsets; and the understanding of the impact of technology to society and the importance of technology ethics. In many ways, at the end this prescription creates trustworthy engineers, those who will have both technical competence and character.

Similar educational paradigms can be designed around different goals, such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Regardless, such a blend of ‘knowledge, skills and mindsets’ will help address the challenge for institutions to strike the proper balance of seemingly competing competencies such as technical depth and the development of the human spirit for the creation of the engineer for today’s times.

(This is the third and final article in the series ‘We need a new kind of engineer’.)

Prof Ramakrishna is chief academic advisor at the upcoming Plaksha University, and former director, US NAE Grand Challenges Scholars Program; Prof Yortsos is dean of Viterbi School of Engineering, University of Southern California, and on the Academic Advisory Board of Plaksha

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