Julia Zarina: Is an engineering education disconnected from reality?

By Julia Zarina, Columnist
Published November 17, 2013

On a recent night in the library, a former computer science student, Claire, who asked to have her name changed for publication due to concerns about her academic career here, shared a story with me that hit close to home.

“(Majoring in) engineering was a very negative experience for me,” she disclosed. “From the very beginning, I felt completely overwhelmed, like I didn’t have the skills or the support to succeed.”

She described her inability to reconcile what she had always heard about college — that it was supposed to be the best four years of a person’s life — with her own experiences, which seemed to be polar opposite from that expectation: “The environment was beyond stressful. I felt that I worked literally all the time for very little outcome. It seemed like everyone around me was unhappy and worried about failing.”

And when it comes to the rigor of the curriculum, Claire said the attitude among some of the professors was, “ ‘Well, we did it this way when we were in school, so you should have to as well.’ ”

“I was miserable.”

Claire has since switched her degree program and although her story is just one of many, statistics indicate that her experiences may unfortunately not be unique or even uncommon. At the University, 20 percent of the entering class of engineers will transfer or not complete their degree — a number that, while much lower than the national average, is still 10-percent higher than the drop-out rate of the University as a whole. Nationally, fewer than half of students who enter science, technology, engineering and math fields complete their degrees within six years.

These statistics enforce the idea that many elements of our current standard of engineering education are outdated and in need of overhaul.

It’s no secret that engineering is difficult. Recent studies have shown that engineering majors study on average 19 hours per week compared to the 14 hours per week put in by their peers in business and social science programs. Although this workload might be necessary for students to master some of the complex subjects they study, it contributes to the idea that engineering is an inaccessible field.

Social standards within the field, and perceptions of engineering on the outside, often reinforce this idea. More than 85 percent of the schools in the Princeton Review’s 2012 ranking of schools with the “least happy students” are engineering colleges.

The stereotype of the ruthless professor who designs their curriculum as a kind of trial by fire to weed out those who do not spend every waking moment studying is commonly addressed both in popular culture and by students. Last year, a screenshot of an e-mail sent out by the professor of an upper-level computer-programming class here at the University was widely circulated on Facebook.

“Don’t plan to have a social life or engage in extracurricular activities until you’ve completed the first project,” the e-mail read. “Until then you won’t really know how much time this course requires of you.”

Fortunately, e-mails like that are not the norm, but many students, and nearly 40 percent of those from minority backgrounds across the United States, report feeling unsupported in STEM programs and discouraged from pursuing them. Besides being socially outdated, the current perceptions in engineering are holding the field back in many other ways as well.

In a 2009 report commissioned by the University analyzing trends in engineering education, professors and faculty argued a point that appears to be a serious issue for STEM fields: The foundation of engineering instruction is tailored to meet the needs of a “post-World War II industrial manufacturing economy.”

The obvious problem with this standard in the United States is that we no longer have an economy reliant on industrial manufacturing. Economists and educators describe our engineering focus as shifting correspondingly: We have gone from building infrastructure to building industries to building information systems and social improvements.

The needs of both students and companies have changed drastically in the past few decades. Today’s engineering students have never lived in a world without Internet access or cell phones; today’s employers value diverse backgrounds, global perspectives and socially conscious, engaged employees nearly as much as they value technical skills.

Currently, there is still a degree of mismatch at the education level engaging students in this reality. A system that largely measures performance based on a few individually taken exams each year might be a good indicator of how well students can memorize information, but large lecture halls alone do not foster the kinds of creative environments that will develop the skills today’s engineering students need and demand.

Many top-ranking schools like the University recognize this fact and actively support programs that are interdisciplinary, modular and global, and they value entrepreneurism and collaboration. This needs to be the standard across the board, however. There are still far too many departments and institutions that are teaching to the needs of a bygone era, and although they may have long track records of success, it is not enough to rest on past or current accomplishments.

We as an engineering community will continue to succeed — to attract the best, brightest and most unconventional thinkers — only if we can adapt. Technology is both self-destructive and self-perpetuating. It’s a cycle of evolution; the products and systems that we create demand better and more efficient creators, users and developers. Why should we waste any time in creating an education system to match those needs?

Julia Zarina can be reached at jumilton@umich.edu.