4.1 Disciplinary ‘technical’ content

A question: What does every engineer need to know?

Curriculum: A group of related courses, often in a special field of study: ‘the engineering curriculum‘. In UK terminology, the modules which make up a degree programme.
Syllabus: The subjects or topics studied for a particular module (USA: class): a document which lists these subjects and states how the module will be assessed.

I cannot tell you anything about the important technical curriculum content in your programme. If you are working in an ‘established’ discipline such as mechanical or civil engineering you are probably aware of conventional topics which your community would expect to be covered. The programmes you offer will have programme-level learning outcomes, carefully constructed to reflect the expectations of your professional accrediting body, and aligned (in the UK) to the relevant QAA benchmark statement [QAA, 2010] or (in the USA) to ABET‘s criteria (e.g. 2009). If your discipline is younger, or you work in an interdisciplinary area, you may be more focused on content with topical excitement or immediate societal need, and you may feel less tied to conventional topics.

You may, in either case, have consulted potential employers of your graduates and you are probably aware of the curriculum, and possibly syllabi, offered by your competitor institutions, domestically or world-wide. However I am prepared to bet that, when you have consulted externally and among the staff who will be teaching the programme, you will have more suggested material than a student will readily be able to assimilate in the 3 or 4 years of the degree programme. Your problem is thus what to exclude, rather than what to include.

A question: What does each specific type of engineer (mechanical, electronic, chemical …) need to know? You might ask yourself what you don’t know in your own subject domain, and whether it makes you less of an engineer.

What follows has to be my opinion, rather than evidence-based advice – so please comment if you agree or disagree with any point. I would bear in mind three factors when designing the curriculum:

1. That most apparently urgent concerns of society tend to have a lifetime of about ten years. This is not to say that they are then ‘solved’ but that a different concern has dominated the headlines. For instance global warming is undoubtedly the preoccupation of the first decade of the 21st century, but this does not mean that population growth and feeding the world population do not remain hugely important issues. Attempts to align the whole of an engineering curriculum with current societal concerns are unlikely to be successful and are certain to be short-lived. However current concerns make a good basis for projects and design-build exercises.

On the other hand the laws of macroscopic physics are most unlikely to change in our students’ working lifetimes (which may be in excess of 50 years), so they should form a large part of the learning which will provide the basis of their life-long development.

2. It is almost impossible to provide, within an engineering programme in a university, a comprehensive introduction to the business of business. Most advice from employers is not to try and do this. We need to help our students to work together in teams, and to develop some of the attributes which will make them readily employable, but these do not need to include how to read a balance sheet or how to negotiate with trade unions or how to sell the product. I find it hard to argue that non-engineering content – within the assessed curriculum – should exceed about 10% of the programme. Of course dynamic and entrepreneurial students might wish to engage in extra-curricular activities which will involve business issues, but so too they might wish to sing in a choir or train racing pigeons in their spare time.

3.  If you agree with me that an engineering education should fit a graduate for a lifetime of work and/or interest in engineering, then it follows that she must understand the fundamentals at an early stage. It seems to me hugely preferable that the graduate has a secure grasp of a few principles than a sketchy passing knowledge of a broad range of topics. However the latter outcome is favoured by the widespread use of a 40% or 50% ‘pass-mark‘ which reveals far more about what the student does not understand than what she does. I would use this perception to pare down to a minimum the core content of any module and any programme. Fundamental concepts must be understood, and therefore tested with an implicit pass mark of 95%. There are ways of doing this, while preserving the need to excite and extend the high-flying student with additional subject matter. For instance in an examination it would be possible to have a mandatory first question (worth say 40% of the marks) for which the pass mark was 95%, within a paper containing further questions to test extended knowledge and understanding. The overall pass mark for the paper could still be maintained at 40% or 50%, but competence in the core material could not be avoided.

All three of these points imply that the engineering curriculum should contain relatively little material, but that this should be chosen to provide the most fundamental insights into the discipline. It is easy to say this, and I do realise that there remains a need to excite and motivate all the students in the short term, because the essence of my suggestion is that degree education (not training) is for the long term. The best way of doing this, it seems to me, is to make learning as active as possible, so that every student is engaged fully in learning.

Read on …  (but first please add a comment)

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