Re-Thinking Engineering Education

Our Engineering Education System was designed over four hundred years ago. The world has changed a lot since then –  We have an infinite source of knowledge at our fingertips, thanks to Google and Wikipedia. We have access to the experts for every topic and can reach out to them with a simple tweet. We can learn from the world class educators on a wide range of topics, thanks to Coursera, Udacity, and EdX. I expect, every subject sooner or later will be available to learn online, so where does that leave the brick and mortar engineering institutes? More importantly, if we had all the powerful tools at our disposal that we do now, how would we re-design the engineering education?

Let’s start from the objective of an engineering institute. The final product of an engineering institute is its engineering graduate. An engineer by definition is someone who can devise and build new things. He should be able to turn an idea or a concept into a finished product. Last year 140,000 students graduated with engineering degrees. How many of these engineers are capable of building new products? To be fair, creating and building new things is not an easy task. Firstly, there is a lot of concepts to cover, and the students interest may vary across different industries and products. Secondly, the instructor teaching time is a finite resource. The good news is that both of these constraints can be beautifully addressed with the dawn of internet. Let’s take an example – a mechanical engineering graduate may end up working for automotive, mining, oil exploration, consumer device manufacturer, and so on in a wide variety of functional roles. Therefore, the curriculum had to cover all potential subjects such as fluid dynamics, heat and mass transfer, operations research. The graduate may never use any of these concepts all his life, but some one in the class might need them.There was no better solution, and we had to deal with this inefficiency. But not anymore, the internet can help us deliver customized education – perfectly suited to the student’s need and interest. The instructors don’t have to regurgitate the same content year in and year out. They can capture all necessary concepts in streams of 10-minute videos similar to Khan Academy. The students can then create a learning trail based on what they need to build a product.

Here’s how I envision engineering education system evolving:

Emphasis on The Product Portfolio
The engineering graduate would be measured by the variety and quality of products he created during his education. The evaluation system based on written exams would give way to evaluation based on products or projects finished by the Student. There’s a merit in having a simple quantified GPA system, but it would be based on what the Student was able to build, and not what he could memorize for exams. This has already started to happen in the software world, where employers are paying increased attention to your GitHub portfolio. I expect to see other engineering disciplines follow this trend.

Product Development Plan
The students would be required to provide details on five products they want to create during their education. The details would include the pain point they want to address, the product specifications, and the motivation behind creating this specific product. Such a plan would be required in an early phase of their education and may even be part of the admission process. This would force the students to really think about what they want to do, and the skills they need to get there.

From Concept To Production
The students would be required to take at-least one idea from concept phase to production ready state. This would enhance their real world engineering skills, and ability to be productive right away in the Industry.

Knowledge on Demand
In future we would look back and feel amused about times, when an instructor had to teach the same subject every year and go through the same motions. Multiply that  effort across different engineering institutes, each having their own instructors for delivering same concepts, and we have the making of an incredibly inefficient system. It is hard to imagine a better course for introduction in Java than this one taught at Stanford by Mehran Sahami , or a better course for Introduction to Circuits & Electronics than this one taught at MIT by Anant Agarwal. Now imagine a future, where every subject is available to learn via online video segments by a word class instructor. The students will be able to learn when they need to during product creation process. This will give them the added motivation and the context for learning. We will still need physical class rooms, and we will still need educators in each of these rooms to clarify concepts, advise students and create a learning environment where students feel inspired and empowered to create products.

Multidisciplinary Skills
In today’s world very few products fall in to the realm of neatly categorized engineering domains like mechanical, electrical, software. If you want to create any useful device (just look around the house) , chances are it will have require skills from multiple disciplines. In future, the engineering students would be able to learn any subject across disciplines as needed via the online videos. There would be no such thing as department core and elective courses. Since, the students would be evaluated on the products they create, they would feel empowered to create their own learning path.

Instructors as Practitioners, Advisors and Enablers
If the goal is for the students to create and build new things, the in-room class instructors would need to play a key role. They would be able to reverse engineer existing products like a telephone, washer and dryer, stereo system, and show them why they are built the way they are. Deconstructing an existing product, understanding the subsystems and component design, and reconstructing it is an essential step towards becoming a good engineer. By doing so, the instructors would be able to raise the students’ curiosity levels manifolds, and inspire them to innovate further.

You could argue that not everyone who studies engineering may want to build new products. Engineering graduates go into a wide variety of non-engineering roles in diverse industries. Such candidates may still choose to go in different directions, but after a rigorous education in building things, and turning ideas into real products, at-least they would gain a better understanding of engineering world. It may have taken us a few centuries to get to this point, but now we have the wind of internet behind our back, a mobile computer in everybody’s hand, and social networks powering the distribution system. I expect, it won’t be too long before the education system is transformed. Cheers to the next generation of educators, creators, and innovators!