The UNESCO Task Force on Education for the Twenty-first Century concluded in its reports in 1996 and 1998 that ‘education throughout life is based upon four pillars: learning to know, learning to do, learning to live together and learning to be.’ This analysis has been reiterated by such writers as Sir Graham Hills in the 1999 (UK) Foresight report ‘The Future of the University’. Clearly this analysis is intended to apply to all education but it gives engineering educators plenty of material for thought. The first three pillars are, I would argue, essential components of a decent engineering education. Engineers have to understand how to educate themselves throughout their lifetime, they have to be comfortable doing things (not just thinking or writing about them) and their work is largely focused on society learning to live together (otherwise why would we bother about transport, energy conversion or high-speed communications?). ‘Learning to be’ is at first sight less relevant, but in the words of the UNESCO report, engineers should surely benefit from ‘an education that equips them to develop their own independent, critical way of thinking and judgement so that they can make up their own minds on the best courses of action in the different circumstances in their lives’. [http://www.unesco.org/delors/fourpil.htm]
CDIO and similar movements
During the early years of the 21st Century the CDIO movement emerged from three Swedish universities and MIT in the USA. CDIO is a rather clumsy acronym for Conceive, Design, Implement and Operate. It is intended to emphasize the full range of any engineering discipline and was coined in response to a perception that engineering education had been developing into the teaching of engineering science only, in a contextual vacuum. CDIO adopters agree to set their education in the context of the whole continuum of engineering, recognizing that professional engineers are involved in identifying societal needs, in conceiving products and systems to address these needs, in manufacturing, operating, maintaining and properly disposing of their products as well as the ‘core’ disciplinary topics of design (in all its various forms). Adoption of CDIO as your context also implies that employers (industry and government) will be involved in the development, and possibly delivery, of your programmes.
At the time of writing, the CDIO movement has attracted more than 100 members across every continent except Antarctica, and the CDIO context has been adopted for programmes in many engineering sub-disciplines, including aerospace, mechanical, civil, computer, materials, electronic and also architecture. [Crawley et al (2014) and www.cdio.org ]
VaNTH and How People Learn
A group of engineers at Vanderbilt, Northwestern, Texas and Harvard Universities (including MIT) restructured their engineering programmes from about 2000 along lines suggested in the book How People Learn [Bransford et al 1999]. This involved what they call Challenge Based Instruction, which we can consider to be similar to Problem Based Learning. Note the American use of the word Instruction, which you almost never see in UK literature where the use of Learning has become dominant. (Does this indicate a difference of approach on the two sides of the Atlantic? I don’t think so.)
A key set of ideas in the VaNTH approach is that instruction (or learning) has to be knowledge centred (you need some facts); student centred (it has to start from where the students are); assessment centred (everyone needs feedback on how they are progressing), and; community centred (learners need to feel that they are entering a community of practitioners – Chemical Engineers or whatever). A paper by Cordray et al  summarises the effect of this approach in Bioengineering.
Read on ... (but first leave a comment)