Chad Jackson

Engineering Education’s Weed Out Approach and the STEM Shortfall

March 25, 2019

Should engineering education change in the context of the STEM shortfall? Specifically, I want to talk about weed-out classes. I remember when I attended the University of Kentucky back in the early 90s. There was a physics 231/232 class that was standard Newtonian physics for mechanical engineers.

Engineering Education’s Weed Out Approach and the STEM Shortfall

Should engineering education change in the context of the STEM shortfall? Specifically, I want to talk about weed-out classes. I remember when I attended the University of Kentucky back in the early 90s. There was a physics 231/232 class that was standard Newtonian physics for mechanical engineers.

At the beginning, it was a classroom of 500 people. By the end, only about 50 or 60, 70 at most, went on to continue in the engineering program. The reason I bring this up is because that culture and that approach is still being used today. Of course, it’s not just the University of Kentucky. You see it in many different schools across the U.S., and the STEM shortfall may be justification enough to change the way this is done.

Across the United States, we’re looking at a shortage of hundreds of thousands of engineers that are needed in a variety of different positions across several different engineering disciplines. I think in the context of this issue, we need to be encouraging more engineers and finding ways to help them through engineering programs and education programs that are out there today.

I think back in the 90s and maybe the early 2000s, we were in an age when there was a lot of individual accountability for engineers. There were a lot of ethics questions. Engineers have been designing and continue to design products that have a lot of safety factors involved for the public.

When there was a failure, you could go back to the engineering drawing and you could see which engineer’s name was on it. You could go and talk to them about it, and there was a lot more individual accountability. Your reputation could be ruined if you were not careful, and a lot of people could get hurt. I think a lot of that has changed now.

If you look across several engineering organizations today, there’s a lot of groupthink. Almost every design is thoroughly reviewed in project management as well as in design review meetings. It’s shifted from individual accountability to organizational accountability where there’s always a lot of feedback.

In these design review meetings, engineers will come to conclusions as a group. Because of this, I think the need for these extreme weed-out classes has fallen. The safety issues are still there, but the responsibility has shifted. I do think it needs to change, and it needs to enable more engineers to get through education programs. That’s my take on the issue.

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