Panel discusses engineering education for the 21st century

Panelists lined up for group portrait.

Panelists included NYU Tandon Dean Jelena Kovačević (third from right) and was moderated by professor Kurt Becker (far right).

On September 14, 2022, the German Science Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft or DFG) invited four distinguished speakers — Professor Julika Griem (a cultural scientist and philologist who serves as Vice President of the DFG), Professor Pamela Smith (a historian of science from Columbia University), Jelena Kovačević (the Dean of the NYU Tandon School of Engineering), and Professor Myles Jackson (a historian of science at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton) — for a discussion of engineering education for the 21st century, with a particular emphasis on the role and importance that the Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) play in a 21st-century engineering curriculum. The panel was moderated by Professor Kurt Becker (the Vice Dean for Research, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship at NYU Tandon).

In the past 20 years or so, as Becker explains, engineering education and engineering curricula have been challenged more than the curricula in any other discipline. This phenomenon is driven, to a large extent, by a world around us in which technology plays an ever-increasing role and impacts essentially every aspect of our life, from the ways we communicate and how we care for an aging population to how we face rapid urbanization and ensure the planet’s sustainability. At the same time, the toolbox that engineers can call upon in solving pressing societal problems is continuously expanding. In the globalized world of the 21st century, however, solving problems in isolation is no longer sufficient. Cultural and intercultural competencies are being added to the profile of the successful engineer. 

And that’s not to mention the requirement — mandated by state education departments and ABET, the Engineering Accrediting Agency — that a certain number of credits be allocated to HSS.  All these demands have to be somehow balanced and squeezed into the fixed number of academic credits in an engineering curriculum.  

The standard, rigidly discipline-focused engineering curricula of the 20th century does not adequately address the 21st-century challenges of complex, intertwined social-economic-technical-environmental systems; those require a new paradigm. The challenge is to incorporate a myriad of additional components into existing engineering curricula, including teamwork, experiential learning, project-based learning, innovative and entrepreneurial thinking, and cross disciplinary senior design and capstone projects, to name just a few, and to balance those with the needed disciplinary rigor and mandated HSS credits   

HSS courses offered to engineering students at most universities are exactly the same as those in the standard HSS curriculum, and it is unsurprising that many engineering students consider them a distraction to be dealt with rather than a valuable learning opportunity. So how can these courses be modified to appeal to engineering students and add value to their educational experience?  The wide-ranging panel discussion addressed the question of what non-technical components should be integrated into a modern engineering education and how to prioritize and balance those against existing demands.  

While we are spending a lot of time discussing the role of HSS courses in engineering curricula, should we not also talk about how to integrate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics into HSS, as one audience member suggested. Don’t HSS students deserve exposure to the technologies that shape so many facets of their everyday life? 

That was, all panelists agreed, food for thought for a future discussion.

“As a dean, I’m always thinking of ways to better prepare our students for the professional world they will be facing once they graduate,” said Kovačević. “I applaud the DFG for convening this panel to shed light on a few facets of this complex challenge. We only scratched the surface and many more discussions with my colleagues in both the STEM disciplines and in HSS are needed as we seek to prepare graduates that can succeed in the workforce of the 21st century.”