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One Last Thing

New Vision of Engineering Education

Pilot first-year course aims to help students become "renaissance engineers"

By Kevin Craig

Why is there such lack of interest in engineering on the part of high school students in the United States? Are engineering schools meeting the needs of today’s young women and men not just to study engineering, but to become engineers? Are students being prepared for a process of lifelong learning for the technical leadership necessary to face an unpredictable future? These questions are being asked nationwide by students and parents, university faculty, government administrators, and business and industry executives.

The U.S. is in a competitiveness-and-innovation struggle with the rest of the world, primarily India, China, and Japan. There has been a 37 percent decline in engineering interest by college-bound high school students over the past 12 years. The U.S. now ranks 17th among nations surveyed in the share of its 18-to-24-year-olds who earn natural science and engineering degrees. In 1975, it was third. Who then will take us into the future? Science and engineering together are the engines for economic growth and national security.

Rensselaer has been acclaimed over the past decade for its innovation in engineering education. We must now engage and energize a new generation of students, with diverse backgrounds, interests, skills, and needs, about the engineering profession and better prepare them, in both technical and non-technical areas, to creatively advance technology and solve emerging and evolving problems. In fact, we need renaissance engineers, men and women who are knowledgeable about and involved in public policy, who work cooperatively to seek solutions, and who strive to improve the quality of life for people around the globe. To create them requires a new approach to engineering education.

The freshman year is critical for keeping promising students on the engineering track. A first-year engineering curriculum is a bridge between high school and the in-depth study of the engineering disciplines. This bridge, at most universities, is rickety and many students fall off and into other fields of study. Those who do cross the bridge sometimes struggle to see the links among all the areas of science, mathematics, and social science they have been required to study and how they impact the practice of engineering. Students must also choose their career path from a wide variety of engineering disciplines; often they must do so without sufficient academic or practical knowledge of those fields.

Rensselaer is responding to these challenges with curricular innovation. This fall we are launching Engineering Discovery, a four-credit freshman-engineering pilot course, that explores the fundamental concepts and principles of engineering through a series of hands-on, minds-on exercises on actual engineering products and systems, such as an ink-jet printer, a wind turbine, a fuel-cell system, or the household electric toaster. Students will discover the engineering system investigation process, as well as the relevance of science, mathematics, and social science to the practice of engineering. A careful investigation of the toaster reveals applications of heat transfer, mechanics, materials selection, and electronics, as well as the integration of several subsystems to accomplish the toasting process. Engineering problem solving, measurement, computing, and technical communication skills are all integrated and developed throughout the course.

Engineering Discovery was offered to all undeclared-major engineering freshmen of the Class of 2008 (approximately 250 of the 700 freshman-engineering students); 110 students accepted the invitation. Thirty students will take the course this fall, while the remaining 80 will take the course in the spring. Extensive assessment of our current freshman-engineering program and this pilot course will be conducted throughout the 2004-05 academic year.

Fifteen years ago I chose to come to Rensselaer because I felt a sense of community here; we all could be successful together through hard work and mutual support. As a young faculty member, I had several senior faculty mentor me through the early stages of my career — an essential element to my success at Rensselaer. Mentoring is more than advising — it involves supporting, encouraging, and nurturing. Mentoring is an essential element of our freshman-engineering program — mentoring of our students, as well as mentoring of the junior faculty who will help teach them. Visit any major-league baseball spring-training camp and you will see hall-of-fame former players spending time with the coaches and players, mentoring them and helping them keep things in perspective. These former players are treasures and show mentoring at its best. We have our own trio of hall-of-fame engineer-scientists, all RPI graduates and current faculty members, playing integral roles in the development of our “Engineering Renaissance” program — Hank Sneck ’51, Phil Casabella ’54, and Don Bunk ’55. Their knowledge and experience are indispensable to the transformation of the engineering program.

You, too, can be a part of this “Engineering Renaissance” and help Rensselaer lead the world in engineering education. We need you — your ideas, your experience, and your guidance — as you too are treasures to be valued by faculty and students. This is a unique opportunity for you to have an impact on the next generation Rensselaer engineers. I look forward to hearing from you.

Kevin Craig is professor of mechanical engineering and the director of core engineering at Rensselaer. He can be reached at craigk@rpi.edu and (518) 276-6626.

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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in March, June, September, and December by the Office of Communications.

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