Volume: 135(9) - September, 2013
It is clear that in the United States, our current students will face a different set of challenges in their careers than faced by earlier generations. Some trends are clear – while Moore’s Law holds, computing will become more ubiquitous and less expensive. For design engineers this may well have two consequences: (1) complex engineered systems must be developed and deployed more rapidly with sustainability becoming increasingly important and (2) the availability of computational power will make the “process of design” faster and easier with an increasing emphasis on problem identification, formulation and team work. I suggest that the realization of complex engineered systems necessitates the management of dilemmas in integrating sustainability and social justice with technical efficiency. Design engineers will increasingly be called on to serve different segments of the global product value chain associated with the realization of complex systems. Hence, in this editorial I focus on the education of Strategic Design Engineers – engineers who are adept at conceiving and realizing engineered complex systems and balancing technical realization with sustainability and social responsibility.
Complex systems embody systemic features (emergent properties) that cannot be predicted or deduced. Hence, Strategic Design Engineers need to know how to account for emergent properties associated with the realization of a complex system. I suggest that the key emergent properties are complexity and uncertainty. It therefore follows that a Strategic Design Engineer needs to know how to identify and manage complexity and to identify and manage uncertainty. Contemporary engineers will not only be faced with new challenges; they will doubtlessly have to utilize new tools to address these challenges. We are already living in an age where American engineers can access almost any information at any time, and ideas can be rapidly disseminated through mediums that never existed before. The computing revolution continues to make processing cheaper and faster. Going forward, we have no idea what tools will be available, apart from knowing that technological advancement will continue. Hence, the question: What additional career-sustaining competencies do Strategic Design Engineers need to learn in order have successful careers in realizing sustainable complex systems in a wireless, interconnected and democratized world? I offer the following meta-competencies for your consideration:
• We need Strategic Design Engineers to be able to speculate about the future and tie the make-believe world of the future to the current world of reality.
• We need Strategic Design Engineers to be able to continue to learn and be able to manage, organize and learn from huge amounts of information. I suggest that an important component of this is providing students with an understanding of how humans learn (for example, Bloom’s taxonomy), how to self-monitor their learning (for example, Senge’s learning organization construct) and, how to create and attain learning goals for themselves throughout their professional careers.
• We need Strategic Design Engineers who are able to recognize, understand and manage emergent properties embodied in engineered complex systems. Specifically, they need to know how to manage dilemmas associated with the need for technological development, sustainability and social responsibility.
To educate Strategic Design Engineers, we need to modify how we facilitate and assess learning. In my opinion, we need to explore, develop, test and adopt learner-centric paradigms that are sensitive to different learning styles. Our goal should be to educate engineers who are little more than computational human-computer cyborgs content to solve interesting and complicated technical problems. They should be provided the opportunity to learn how to think through soft, subjective issues such as politics, political economy and philosophy. They should also be able to speculate about the future. And in addition to learning how to absorb technical content, we must remember that our ultimate goal is to educate (not train) Strategic Design Engineers to identify and think through problems using the best tools at the time. I suggest that it is far more important to empower students in strategic design engineering education programs to learn how to adapt than it is to teach them, as we do now in a typical undergraduate engineering program. This preceding change in focus necessitates a change in what we assess and how we do it. Some challenges include how faculty assess the meta-competencies of learning how to learn, speculate about the future, and address learning by an individual in a group setting.
Finally, I contend that we in academia need to encourage more of our best and brightest students to pursue careers in academia. This does not happen by chance. I suggest that faculty need to show by example that being a professor is the best job in the world!
Let the dialog begin.
For additional information please refer to: Mistree, F., Panchal, J. H., Schaefer, D., Allen, J. K., Haroon, S., and Siddique, Z. (2013). Personalized engineering education for the 21st century: A competency based approach. In M. Gosper & D. Ifenthaler (Eds.), Curriculum models for the 21st century. Using learning technologies in higher education. New York: Springer.
L.A. Comp Professor
School of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering
University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma 73013