Engineering Education – Past and Present

Engineering has no doubt, progressed in the last 150 years. The commercial airplane, personal automobile, and the computer are some of the marvels that engineers have produced. Engineering pedagogy and curriculum have unquestionably changed as well. I recently skimmed through a book written in 1918 by Charles Riborg Mann on the subject of engineering education, highlighting the present conditions, current problems, and suggested solutions for engineering education. Among the problems, Mann lists admission, time constraints, course content, testing and grading, and shop work as main sections for discussion. As we enter 2015, we continue to see the same repeated discussions as 100 years prior. [1]

In the compilation, Educating the Engineer of 2020: Adapting Engineering Education to the New Century published by the National Academy of Engineering, a discussion ensues about the outlook of engineering education. In a section entitled, “Pursue Student-Centered Education,” it is stated that “one should address how students learn as well as what they learn in order to ensure that student learning outcomes focus on the performance characteristics needed in future engineers. Two major tasks define this focus: (1) better alignment of engineering curricula and tpic_engineering_degreehe nature of academic experiences with the challenges and opportunities graduates will face in the workplace and (2) better alignment of faculty skill sets with those needed to deliver the desired curriculum in light of the different learning styles of students.” [2]

It is a continual struggle to define what the “best” approach to educating engineers is. Will that come with improved curriculum? Better grading? Or does the key lie in how we assist students in drawing meaning and significance from their work thus motivating them to continue to pursue engineering with excellence? We believe that reflection plays a vital role in helping students to draw significance and understanding from their rigorous studies.

Even as we continually make strides towards improving engineering education, we will still ask similar questions as Professor Mann in 1919, “Do we need fewer or more schools? Is the curriculum too long or too short? Should the engineering school be made a graduate professional school? What are the present demands of science, of industry, and of education? How well are the schools meeting these demands? What changes, if any, seem desirable?” [1]

Lauren Sepp is a graduate student in the department of Human Centered Design and Engineering at the University of Washington. She is also a  research assistant for CPREE. (
[1] Mann, Charles Riborg. “A study of engineering education.” Bulletin 11 (1918).
[2] Phase, I. I. Educating the Engineer of 2020:: Adapting Engineering Education to the New Century. National Academies Press, 2005.