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Shaking the Foundations of Geo-engineering Education – McCabe, Pantazidou & Phillips (eds

© 2012 Taylor & Francis Group, London, ISBN 978-0-415-62127-4

Engineering education: A tale of two paradigms

R.M. Felder
Department of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC, US

ABSTRACT: Engineering education is in a turbulent period. Chronic industry complaints about skill defi-
ciencies in engineering graduates, high attrition rates of engineering students with good academic performance
records, the worldwide adoption of outcomes-based engineering program accreditation, and findings from both
cognitive science and thousands of educational research studies showing serious deficiencies in traditional
teaching methods have all provoked calls for changes in how engineering curricula are structured, delivered,
and assessed. As might be expected, many academic staff members and administrators are less than enthusiastic
about the proposed changes, arguing that the traditional system functions well and needs no radical revision.
The ongoing debate involves four focal issues: how engineering curricula should be structured, how engineer-
ing courses should be taught and assessed, who should teach, and how the teachers should be prepared. This
paper outlines two conflicting educational paradigms and the position on each of these four issues that each
one reflects—the traditional paradigm, which has dominated engineering education since its inception, and the
emerging alternative—and offers predictions about the eventual resolution.

1 INTRODUCTION • University administrators and staff members have
become aware that traditional engineering jobs will
Pressures to reform engineering education have increasingly be done in the future by either com-
existed since the field first began, but a particularly puters or engineers in countries with low labor
intense series of them arose in the 1980s and still costs. To be competitive, future engineers will
continues. need to be equipped with skills that have previ-

ously not been emphasized in engineering curricula,
Interest in engineering careers has steadily declined
including critical and creative thinking and
among secondary school students, which coupled
entrepreneurship (Felder, 2006a).
with the traditionally high attrition rate from engi-
neering curricula raises concerns about whether Responses to these pressures in the engineering
enough engineering students will graduate in the education community have been forthcoming, but
next decade to meet industry’s needs. progress has been slow. If you walk down the hall
• Employers of engineering graduates complain that of an engineering building at most universities and
their new hires lack high-level analytical and crit- glance into classrooms, you would still be likely to find
ical thinking skills, communication and teamwork professors teaching the same topics that were taught
skills, and understanding of engineering and busi- three and four decades ago in the same way they were
ness practice. taught then. Not in all classrooms, however: in some
• Cognitive science and extensive educational (and at a few institutions, many) of them you would
research have repeatedly shown that traditional see dramatic differences.
lecture-based instruction is ineffective at promoting There are thus two competing paradigms for engi-
learning and high-level skill development, both in neering instruction: the traditional one, which has
general and specifically in engineering education. dominated engineering education for at least a cen-
• The United States, much of Europe, and coun- tury, and the emerging one. This paper first outlines
tries that are signatories of the Washington Accord these two schools of thought and then contrasts their
have adopted outcomes-based program accredita- positions on four focal issues:
tion systems. These systems shift the focus of
– How should curricula be structured?
accreditation from documentation of what has been
– How should classes be taught?
taught to assessment of what students have learned
– Who should teach?
and remediation of shortfalls in targeted learning
– How should staff be prepared to teach?
• Significant potential benefits of technology- What is presented is a brief overview of these
assisted instruction and distance education have issues, not a comprehensive discussion of the histor-
been demonstrated. ical background and methodologies of the traditional


the latter approach gives engineering tant).) 3. what we teach our students today is likely to be obso- John Dewey (who in the late 19th century foreshad. Never- books cited in the references at the end of the paper.. teach “engineering science” in Years 2 and don’t admit the possibility of the last option. tional research have clearly demonstrated its superi- mentation. People take in information through and science (and communication and economics imperfect sensory organs and either filter it out quickly and ethics) in the context of the problems and or incorporate it into their existing mental structures. subject and their view of its relevance to their needs. ing) seeks to take those factors into account when teamwork. et al. style (the way they characteristically take in and pro. constantly trying to jam more content into our courses ples of cognitive constructivism). which holds that objective reality exists (denoted by T) and the emerging paradigm (E). The traditional organization is what might be called vidually (cognitive constructivism) or collectively with the “trust me” approach to education. To cover all of that would require a book. other benefits. Prince. the level of their interest in the schooling. in effect they construct their own reality. Among work (although those factors are still vitally impor. theless. but also on such things as the students’ prior students exposure to real engineering (as opposed to knowledge. engineering practice in the capstone course. problem formulation. along with the articles and Sousa. in a year or four years or after be learned by rote memorization. “this will be use- in its entirety simply doesn’t happen. (who did the same for social constructivism) laid the cles to implementation of the new methods (the author theoretical foundations of learner-centered teaching. technology. either indi. we should therefore focus 10 . The constructivist edu. (Many instructors ence. E: Curricula and courses balance content and skills cess information) and the instructor’s teaching style. communication. conceptions. and examples of their successful imple. 2011.. and misconceptions about pure and applied science) before the final year of their the course content. ority over traditional teacher-centered instruction for Fortunately. 2006. and derivations and mathematical models and algo- For anything but simple factual knowledge that can rithms now. Constructivist education (aka learner-centered teach. knows from personal experience that they are anything and modern cognitive science and extensive educa- but easy). but trust me. direct transmission you graduate you’ll see how important they are. foreign designing instruction.” As of information that students absorb and understand any cognitive scientist will tell you. and the degree of compatibility between their learning T: Curricula and courses emphasize content. Much of recipients of information. Begin indicates either their lack of aptitude or diligence or the the first year with basic mathematics and sci- instructor’s lack of teaching skill. lete or irrelevant to what they will need to know when owed most constructivist methods that don’t involve they enter the workforce or soon afterwards. 2000. (2008). The remaining sections survey some of the The traditional philosophical view of knowledge is principal differences between the traditional paradigm positivism. (analytical and critical and creative thinking. 2004. 2011]. The positivist researcher’s goal is to carry out objective and unbiased studies to arrive at 3 HOW SHOULD ENGINEERING CURRICULA The Truth. the students’ job is to take it in and understand it. and is knowable through scientific examination of evi- dence of the senses. Svinicki & McKeachie. The fact is that the “content” of engineering practice ing them to develop understanding and skills through other than basic principles is changing far too rapidly activity and reflection rather than making them passive for engineering curricula to keep pace with. human beings can never projects starting in Year 1. and assess- ment.and emerging responses to those questions. projects. and get to realistic engineering problems and The alternative view of knowledge is construc. to teaching and learning is reflected in every aspect of LEARNING. which claims that whether or not there is such E: Integrated.…) the context of what students already know and help. presenting new information in languages and cultures. Whether or not ful some day” is a really poor motivator of learning. the traditional paradigm is still alive and well in engineering education at most institutions around the world. as in “You may others (social constructivism). AND TEACHING curriculum and course design. and Lev Vygotsky in a futile effort to keep up. difficult concepts and structures and mechanisms are The emerging paradigm infuses the entire engineer- learned and understood doesn’t just depend on how ing curriculum with real engineering problems and accurately and clearly the instructor explains them and introduces fundamental material on a need-to-know on how intelligent students are and how hard they basis in the context of solving those problems. entreneurship. the obsta. have no idea why I’m teaching you all these theories cator has a much more difficult task than the positivist. tivism. The positivist educator’s job is to present BE STRUCTURED? material as clearly as possible. delivery. problem solving. Instead of computers). Jean Piaget (who established the princi. and bring in the math know what it is. The tension between these two approaches 2 TWO APPROACHES TO KNOWLEDGE. sult Sheppard et al. Bransford et al. and their failure to do so T: Deductive (Fundamentals → Applications). one has been written: readers who wish far virtually any targeted learning outcome [Ambrose more elaboration than they will find here should con. Introduce engineering problems and a thing as objective reality.

and project-based they will be capable of tackling design challenges that learning. calculate. 2005). If instructors instead write and learn from them. technical (engineering and science) and nontechnical Those with different learning styles tend to have dif- (economics. Rather than deductively presenting all of the theories and derivations and analytical methods 4 HOW SHOULD CLASSES BE TAUGHT? first and then showing applications. identify sources of the needed information are expected to acquire. so they are subjects and disciplines are made explicitly clear. Their work will obviously be → applications. hydrology) or even learning styles (visual/verbal. activ- ities.…). riculum also applies to teaching individual courses inductively. everything changes. out students who would make excellent engineers. interest to succeed in engineering a good opportunity ously deny that they have ever seen anything like it. First-year engineering students are perfectly capa- ble of designing devices and processes after getting T: Deductively: Principles → formulas & algorithms some basic instruction.on teaching basic principles and self-directed learning.…). them. and if pressed. traditional capstone course instructors would never The same reasoning that justifies an inductive cur- dream of assigning to undergraduates. at a lower level of sophistication than they can produce E: Inductively: Instructor presents or students dis- in their fourth year. content to neglect if given the option (Felder & Brent. assignments. problems rarely come T: Teaching style addresses only one learning style. problems invariably requires pulling together material Students do not all learn in the same ways or from several different subjects and disciplines. On ing. solutions clearly and persuasively. critique. all of which can be vitally important Traditionally. the students throughout their careers. communications. formulas. Those skills will The students get a clear understanding of what knowl- never become obsolete but will continue to serve the edge and skills they are expected to acquire. but they will be able to carry the cover principles. 2006b). find colleagues with comple. and exams are pointing toward the T: Courses are compartmentalized. design. instructor can make sure that all of the lessons. Extensive research has demonstrated the effective- ful knowledge to students or instructors about exactly ness of inductive teaching in promoting deep learning 11 . Instruction that addresses the one course has important applications in most other needs and preferences of only certain types of learn- courses is rarely brought up in engineering courses. or real-world problems to be cover…”). All students are taught sometimes in a man- In the emerging paradigm. back in important skills that they would be perfectly E: Design is taught throughout the curriculum.…) if they have learned what required to meet the challenges. neatly packaged within the boundaries of a single E: Teaching style addresses a broad spectrum of course subject (thermodynamics. both respond identically to specific teaching methods. Variations quent courses and steadily become better engineering of inductive learning include guided inquiry. and algorithms in the design knowledge and skills they acquire into subse. and creative thinking model. critical. same goals (constructive alignment). the idea that the material taught in in engineering practice. solved—and teaches the course material (or helps E: Content is determined by learning objectives (“The the students teach themselves) in the context of the students will be able to…”) challenge. A list of topics to be covered conveys very little use. not too uncomfortable to learn. ferent strengths. what will be taught in a course. sequential/global. self-contained. most students will vigor. they should be equipped to the instructor will delve into each topic and what kinds figure out what they need to know when they face new of thinking and problem-solving skills the students challenges. unlike in school. to do so. balanced instruction that alternately if you bring up something in a heat transfer course that addresses the needs and preferences of opposite learn- is normally taught in a thermodynamics course: mainly ing styles gives all students with the basic ability and blank stares. opposite manner. the instructor starts with challenges—questions to be answered. a single discipline (civil engineering). of subsequent courses know what they can presume E: Courses are horizontally integrated across sub- about the knowledge and skills of their entering jects and disciplines and/or vertically integrated students (Felder. and instructors and taught by an individual instructor. ers (as traditional engineering instruction does) weeds and so it does not become part of the students’ think. do the analytical. so they will get practice and feed- T: Design is taught in the capstone design courses. In practice. learning objectives that specify all the things the stu- mentary areas of expertise and team effectively with dents should be able to do (explain. including how deeply When the students leave us. business. across years of the curriculum. T: Content is determined by the syllabus (“I will projects to complete. Now when they enter their final semester. the connections between ner compatible with their learning style. concrete/abstract. and communicate the the instructor intends to teach. and sometimes in the sometimes in lectures and sometimes in assignments. context of problems or projects. problem-based learning. derive. Every experienced instructor knows what happens the other hand. To solve real active/reflective. designers.

and personality traits. in which stu. curriculum. then spend the class time engaged in activities that E: Teaching evaluation is based on student ratings. and copies go to the instructor and into the instruc- shooting. Working together is considered their mistakes. self-ratings. cheating. will have little or no say regarding the team com- questioning.…). A vast body of cognitive science and empirical edu. leadership. Active learning. student ratings are collected E: Homework and tests involve convergent problems. website). the high ratings go to start teaching them to deal with such problems while to the easy graders. and at least some of the time the instructor one else on the team did). and problem formulation tor’s personnel file to help inform decisions regarding exercises. skills do. thousands of research studies have shown that a correct or optimal answer it usually begins with “It student ratings are consistent with other assessments depends. and if there is over. at the end of every course. promotion. work ethics. 2006). and don’t come neatly packaged with exactly clarity. it makes sense them (they’re popularity contests. Relatively few real problems. practice. 2004). asking questions about them electronically. profession—will do a substantial part of their work turing. is likely to affect cational research has established that people acquire their performance evaluation more than their technical nontrivial knowledge and skills only through practice. assignments that includes positive interdependence and is almost guaranteed to work as long as the exer. itably be asked to do in teams. and that criticisms frequently leveled at ates will face throughout their careers. and several other criteria. punctuality. Real problems are sloppy. nication. and what students learn tutorials (Peer Instruction Network. (the team members are forced to rely on one another). 12 . questions). attitude. and trouble. the ratings are compiled. based learning) is not trivial. merit raises. 2008). brainstorming. suggest different things engineering students can prof- 2009). regardless of their differing skill levels. an approach to team most inductive methods. More- the information needed to solve them. such as the instructor’s defined. in which stu. active learning is fairly easy. computing. cises are short (as little as 10 seconds up to a maximum individual accountability (each team member is held of 2–3 minutes) and challenging (asking students to accountable both for the work that he or she had get in groups to answer a trivial question is a waste of primary responsibility for and the work that every- class time). interpretation. be adapted to any engineering course. Including student ratings in comprehensive assess- demic problems. and outline strategies for making cooperative watching on-line lectures and possibly answering and learning as effective as possible.” where there is a unique answer and the task There are some aspects of teaching that students are is to find it.and conceptual understanding (Prince & Felder. and until they reach a senior position they students (discussing. position. with the burden of activity Most engineers—in fact. and teaching award nominations. and instructors should first read about the approach and/or get some T: All homework outside of projects and labs is training rather than just plunging in and learning from done individually. have the form “Given this. T: Homework and tests involve exclusively convergent (single-answer) problems. reflecting. not by watching and listen. 1988) suggests a (Felder & Brent. E: Active learning is used. project and time management. tenure if the instructor is eligible for it. providing guidance. Since teamwork skills (including commu- reflection. than calling for volunteers every time (Felder & Brent. reinforce and extend the material in the lectures and peer ratings. survey the research base A relatively new approach to active learning that demonstrates the effectiveness of the method for involves the so-called flipped classroom. asking and answering questions) and the in teams. addressing almost every conceivable learning objec- dents study material before coming to class (often by tive. and so on) have little basis in reality they are still with us. Felder (1987. etc. (“outcomes-based assessment”). of teaching. and feedback in dents in class work individually or in small groups those skills should be part of the engineering education on short course-related exercises. often poorly in a unique position to judge. calculate ments of teaching performance is entirely appropriate. some coop- T: Most in-class activity in non-lab classes is done by eratively (with measures taken to assure individual the instructor (lecturing and occasionally asking accountability for all the work). large variety of open-ended problems that can easily Implementing inductive teaching (especially problem. however. and feedback. Their ability to work well with their team members. calls on individuals for the first few responses rather Felder & Brent (2007) define cooperative learning.” Since that is the kind of problem our gradu. availability. college. Unlike is to use cooperative learning. sometimes by working through on-line multimedia tutorials) and T: Teaching evaluation is based on student ratings. most members of any in all courses being shared by the instructor (lec. ing to someone telling them what they are supposed and conflict resolution skills) are rarely taught before to know (Prince. that. explaining. At most universities. E: Some homework is done individually. edly shown to produce substantially greater learning The best way to provide instruction in teamwork than the traditional lecture-dominant approach. as opposed to aca. has been repeat. divergent (open-ended) problems.

1990). builds on and extends frontier research for example. or if appropriate meth. however. Learning outcomes should In addition. To sity. and tests) frontier researchers to benefit industry and/or society. (Felder & Brent. ing what the course is designed to teach them. however. pre-defined and agreed-upon criteria of what consti- for some staff members—possibly in collaboration tutes good teaching as the basis of their judgments. training before or after they enter it. The presumption but it is diminished by having students sit passively is that if you have a degree in a subject you must also through PowerPoint shows or videos of complete lec- know how to teach it. There are. seminars. something is clearly wrong and methods and importing and adapting materials with the instruction. and sharing them T: Courses are taught by professors lecturing in with colleagues who are not teaching specialists but are classrooms or auditoriums on campuses. Meaningful learning results from activity and college student knows. in which a the world’s developed countries basic engineering staff member observes a colleague’s class session and research has all but been abandoned by industry. but a well-structured system with multi- should continue to be the mainstay of faculties at ple raters making at least two observations and using research universities. ics and three-dimensional surface plots and video staff workshops. 2004). PREPARED TO TEACH? als that present information. First- jots down notes on whatever happens to catch his or class frontier researchers who are also good teachers her attention. handouts. The programs focus on learning theo- – Scholarship of Discovery: frontier research ries and general pedagogy without providing specific 13 . As every former and current tures. It is only fair for staff members who engage in each of them to be treated equitably by the univer- Instructional technology is a two-edged sword. whether the instructor is teaching the – Scholarship ofApplication: applied research that right material to prepare them for subsequent courses.’s specializing in frontier disciplinary When universities have instructional development research. sion. T: Ph. then no reading the education literature. since in many of Not the usual form of peer review. learning (Felder & Brent. they are frequently conducted for staff in all E: People specializing in one or more of four diverse disciplines by facilitators with no STEM background forms of scholarship (Boyer. learning communities. E: With courses on teaching for graduate students. however. and involving students in hands-on experimen. to the extent well they perform their designated functions and not that it increases passivity (as in E1). There are many things technology can do bet- ter than instructors in a traditional classroom. and provide affirmation or corrective feedback on T: Not at all. with performance evaluations and opportunities the extent that it promotes student activity and inter- for promotion and advancement based only on how activity (as in E2). some aspects of teaching that – Scholarship of Integration: applied research that students are in no position to judge. ask questions about it. willing to try new techniques to make their teaching E1: Courses are taught by professors lecturing on TV more effective. and mentorships. defective. It is also important. ing educational research and using the results to Only peers are capable of making those judgments. 2000). visuals. tation and exploration using simulations of laboratory College teaching may be the only highly skilled profes- or engineering processes. They do not know. and with researchers from other disciplines—to conduct separately rating course materials (syllabus. it detracts from on which functions they perform. clips. strong frontier research programs. – Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: conduct- ods are being used for instruction and assessment. assignments. All of the functions served by those diverse staff E2: Courses are taught using interactive multimedia members are equally important in the university mis- tutorials and other technology-based tools. building on the discoveries of the objectives. showing complex schemat. and so a comprehensive teaching evaluation should It is vital for engineering schools to maintain always include peer review along with student ratings. monitors. directly benefits society or if the material is up-to-date. developing new instructional materials or her students and peers. the student’s responses. or knowledge. improve teaching and learning. 2003): if most students are not learn- ods we have described and skilled at using them. this presumption is seriously reflection and not from simply watching and listening. learning applied research. it enhances learning. programs. attending teaching matter how highly the instructor might be rated by his conferences. Effective instructional development for both current and future academic staff can take years off the usual 4–5 year learning curve for most new staff 5 WHO SHOULD TEACH? members to become as effective in teaching as they are capable of being. They 6 HOW SHOULD ACADEMIC STAFF BE include engaging students with interactive tutori. Learning is enhanced when sion whose practitioners are not routinely given some instructors use technology in any of those ways.D. someone in every academic department also be part of a comprehensive evaluation of teaching should be an expert on pedagogy—knowing the meth- (Felder & Brent. and methods developed elsewhere.

. (a) Can we afford to do all that? ncsu. Engr. How to evaluate the context of engineering school budgets). More importantly. will STEM-specific instructional development programs public/Papers/ABET_Paper_(JEE). Education 38(3). research.pdf>. easily quantified. McKeachie’s teach- Norman.L. felder-public/Papers/Creativity(CEE). Felder.M. 14 . 2010. comparisons. mind.C. of perpetual budget crises.. There are also costs associated with sticking to in Mabrouk. and theory for college and research-based principles for smart teaching.). Engr. The schools that can describe active. R. Designing and teaching for example. 2005.L. Learning. Chem. involve costs (albeit trivial ones in Felder. 2000..pdf>. Felder. Bridges. Inductive teaching and in their brochures and demonstrate such environments learning methods: Definitions. & Brent. consider instructional development essential. Macatangay. San university teachers (13th ed. R. NJ: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Learning.R. J.pdf>.M. Education 40(2). D. 22(3). reluctant to allocate any more funds to nonessential Felder. 2000. to write learning objectives or use active learning.pdf>. For Chapter 4. M. Education. technology-rich instructional environments Prince.W. J. J. outcomes-based accreditation systems almost <www. M.. student. edu/felder-public/Papers/InductiveTeaching. 2009. <www. Engr.J.pdf>. <www. and growing numbers of departments are in danger 7 REMAINING QUESTIONS felder-public/Columns/Flatmind.M. Other suggestions. How to teach (almost) anybody (almost) anything. 33–34. Education 42(1).”>. R. How the brain learns (3rd ed. Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate. after some preliminary reading they can courses to address the ABET engineering criteria. Ambrose. 2006a.pdf>. P. M. experience. R. 2003. Colby. criteria seriously it seriously risks losing accreditation. R. <www. Felder. 7–25 (2003). and who train staff members to create such bases. 57–72..pdf>. 223–231. & Cocking. 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