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Engineering Education for the 21st Century

There is no more important mission for an engineering school than the preparation of its undergraduates for their careers. In today’s rapidly evolving engineering landscape, we have an increased obligation to transform the undergraduate educational experience from the traditional pedantic curriculum in explicit disciplines to a broader foundational experience for life-long success.

Engineering, by its very nature, requires its practitioners to continue learning new things long after their formal education ends. This has never been more true than today, when we can see an accelerated pace of engineering innovation continuing for decades. Engineers need to evolve, and so do engineering schools.

At the College of Engineering, we’re taking on that challenge by broadening the education of our students. While mastery of the technical aspects of engineering must remain at the curriculum’s core, we need to add new dimensions that will better prepare students for the world of today and tomorrow.

We want to provide an undergraduate education that ensures our graduates can be creators – the artists, if you will – of the scientific and quantitative spheres. They need to understand how technology works so they can be effective as innovators. They also need “soft” skills, such as the ability to communicate their technical ideas and concepts, and galvanize a wide array of people, including those without technological backgrounds and people from other cultures. Combine these skills with the ability to be life-long learners, and our graduates have the potential to make real impacts that can better our quality of life for generations to come.

The first thing we need to do is capture the imaginations of freshmen as soon as they arrive on campus. The traditional first-year courses focus on math, science, physics and computing are designed to build the fundamental technical skills, and are necessary. They are also difficult and unless students see how this material relates to the extraordinary innovation potential of their chosen major, we run the risk of turning them off to engineering right away. Also, a first year course explicitly dedicated to introducing students to areas in which engineering advances society could help freshmen see the forest while they climb the trees.

We offer an array of enrichment experiences that need to be expanded so more students can take advantage of them. For example, the study abroad program we began in 2001 in Dresden, Germany was immediately popular. Students crave the international experience, and a program that enables engineering sophomores to fulfill their course requirements overseas – and thus not delay their graduation – has great appeal. We’ve added similar programs in other countries, but there remains more we can do.

We also are rapidly expanding the opportunities our students have to work in faculty research labs. This has emerged as another popular endeavor for our students and one where they are enjoying great success. We offer a great number of internship and coop placements for our undergraduates and these are heavily utilized.

The College expanded community service opportunities by establishing a chapter of Engineers Without Borders. Our EWB students scouted a project that aimed to bring electricity to a remote Peruvian village. More of the opportunities are needed at the global, national and local community levels.

But we can also do more to broaden our students’ horizons right here on campus. We have begun to explore joint courses with other schools and colleges at BU that have special applications for engineers. Among them is a potential business-to-innovation program with the School of Management, and a new program in materials science and engineering that engages faculty and courses from engineering and other departments like physics and chemistry and which will support a minor available to all of our engineering students.

Being an engineering leader this century requires a broad education that goes beyond the classroom and the laboratory. The engineering profession is poised to make its most significant impact on human history in the coming century, and Boston University graduates should be on the crest of that wave.

This essay originally appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of The Engineer.