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Education as Engineering: The Benefits of Combining Education with Engineering

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Mark Guzdial

Georgia Institute of Technology professor Mark Guzdial

 Last week, I got the opportunity to visit the Center for Engineering Education and Outreach (CEEO) at Tufts University.  I met with faculty and graduate students from Engineering, Computer Science, and Education, who were working together to improve learning.  They were interested in improving learning about engineering (and especially, to provide opportunities to learn about engineering in primary and secondary schools), but also in using an engineering perspective to improve education.  I enjoyed my visit.  I've never before seen such a multidisciplinary collaboration, integrating engineering and education perspectives.

At Georgia Tech, we have a program called "Tech to Teaching" that provides a path for Georgia Tech students to pursue a career in teaching in primary, secondary, or post-secondary schools.  The funding for the program ends at the end of 2013, so the question of institutionalizing the program is coming up, which has raised all kinds of larger and broader questions about the relationship between Engineering and Education.  Is study of Education compatible with the study of Engineering?  Is it valuable to have students studying Education along with Engineering?

Having Engineering students pursue careers in Education helps to address an enormous problem in education today, the lack of well-prepared teachers in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) disciplines.  We have far too few STEM teachers worldwide to meet the needs of an increasingly technologically complex world.  The 100Kin10 project aims to increase the number of STEM teachers in the United States by 100,000 in the next 10 years in order to address this shortcoming.  Engineering students have the necessary background to teach STEM well.  The Technion is engaged in a new project to recruit some of their graduates back, to prepare them to be secondary school teachers.  The need for STEM teachers is enormous, and Engineering graduates can help address the need.  Having more STEM-informed students would lead to more students ready to study Engineering at Universities, while also leading to more citizens who better understand their world.

The question of whether Education is "compatible" with Engineering is an odd one from the Education perspective.  When I was a graduate student, we read papers by Robert Glaser who argued that education was a form of engineering. That perspective was not an invention by Glaser.  John Dewey wrote an essay in 1922, "Education as Engineering."  My first program officer at the National Science Foundation, Andrew Molnar, was an advocate of this definition.  He said that it wasn't a challenge to get students to learn -- everybody learned all the time.  The challenge in any education project was to get students to learn what you wanted them to learn, what the curriculum and society decided was important for well-educated graduates and citizens to know.  That process of improving students' knowledge and skills from where they are, to where they need to be, via interventions and activities, is inherently an Engineering process.  We don't always know how to get students to where they need to be, reliably and efficiently, so there's also a lot of basic Learning Sciences work needed to provide more Education-as-Engineering methods.

Does a focus on Education help Engineering?   One possible outcome of the relationship is that Education research and perspectives might us help improve Engineering Education. The American Society for Engineering Education explicitly seeks to use Education research and methods to improve Engineering.  The work that I did under Andrew Molnar's oversight was in Engineering Education.  He once asked me, "Does Engineering Education actually educate students, or does it merely filter out the students who can't figure out engineering on their own?" A focus on Education means that Engineering teachers are measuring what students are learning and using methods that improve that learning, so that the answer to the question is the former, not the latter.  

Because in the end, we need more STEM teachers, but we also need more well-educated Engineers.  Combining Education and Engineering helps with both.



Has anyone really successfully answered the question "Does Engineering Education actually educate students, or does it merely filter out the students who can't figure out engineering on their own?"

The anecdotal evidence I've seen has suggested more a filtering role than teaching role, at least for computer science.

Mark Guzdial

It's a great question. Based on the work that I read in the Journal of Engineering Education, we certainly do know HOW to educate and not filter. I don't know of any large-scale (e.g., nationwide) studies that have tried to figure out how much of engineering education follows best practices.

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