Engineering education, as I have experienced it, has a singular obsession with theory. This obsession brings irreparable change to a student’s mentality and, inevitably, the industry they enter. I make the presumption throughout this column that engineering students enter college with a desire to create or change things for the better in some way. This fundamental desire is not catered to when students enter the classroom; it is even discouraged. This is not to say that all ability to achieve great things is completely limited by years of classroom experience. The point is to highlight how engineering education falls short of the inspiring experience it could be.

A staunch focus on theory without an application element divorces theory and application. If the purpose of coming to school is to ultimately create or change one’s environment, from the beginning, school and the purpose have been separated. The mentality is then created and widely accepted that the classroom is for learning theory, and external projects, teams or jobs exist for learning the application of those theories.

This likely sounds acceptable at first, but invaluable first-hand experience that would solidify and bring meaning to the theory in one’s mind at the time of learning is lost. Learning in the classroom is vitally important, but its own singular focus on theory prevents it from getting through to students and giving them the information they need to succeed.

I, and surely many others, feel as though they are trudging through the school portion of their day to go work on a project team, personal project or something of the like. This mentality is awful for thoroughly learning material instead of trying to improve relentlessly — the student just tires to get through. By trying to drill the theory into students’ minds with lectures and homework that simply reinforce the theory, the opposite effect is achieved by misplacing students’ motivation. Class treats itself as a bother to be quickly worked through and brushed aside instead of a skill to be fleshed out and thoroughly learned.

Over time, treating classroom learning as something that must be gotten through simply to get a degree to get a job takes a toll on students. What was once seen as a real chance to change things for the better becomes something they do just to get by. The original passion for their subject of study is lost in the push to meet one deadline. The loss of passion reduces the quality of engineering work put out into society and, as a result, the main objective of learning in the classroom has, instead of improving society, done it a disservice. Obviously, the loss of passion does not occur in all cases, but it does occur in a significant number. Many people I know, including myself, have fallen victim to this effect and it is simply depressing to watch such potential be squandered.

In a more ideal system, colleges would remove the current degree of separation and marry their discussion of theory with first-hand construction and demonstration. Students would not learn the theory by spending unnecessary hours being lectured and completing arbitrary problems to demonstrate their knowledge. Instead, the students would be required to design and/or build a single device by the end of college encompassing all knowledge attained. Design based on the theories covered in class would be the primary focus instead of constant problems. This should both engrain the ideas in students’ minds and show them how they may be used. Something like this already happens in introductory level and some higher-level engineering classes but gaining first-hand experience in only a small portion of classes is not enough to counteract the effects of the remainder of classes described above.

Obviously, reconciling this ideal with the current system would be impossible in any short period of time. However, this system where engineering students work on a project that encompasses everything they have learned may be implemented alongside the current system relatively easily.

The approach to this project could not be one similar to the introductory engineering classes where the performance of the project is irrelevant; this practically defeats the purpose of the project in students’ minds and makes it a time-consuming chore. Instead, the students should use the concepts they have learned to make a well-functioning device of their choosing over their time in college. Whatever they have made or designed could also be shown to employers and serve as a relatively tangible display of design and/or construction capability. With this, perhaps a realignment of motivations will be brought back to engineering education and give the education itself some meaning.

Miles McGruder can be reached at mmcgrude@umich.edu.

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