How and Why We Should Change College Engineering: A Conversation With David Goldberg

Editor-in-Chief, Carnegie Communications

David Goldberg likes to talk about spinach and chocolate. (And who doesn’t?!) Of course, he’s using them as metaphors when talking about engineering education. The “spinach” refers to the cut-and-dry and often difficult required classes in collegiate engineering education like math, physics, and chemistry. The “chocolate” is the fun stuff, the reasons many people chose engineering in the first place, like experimentation, design, and building things.

In short, Goldberg thinks there should be more “chocolate” to balance out the “spinach.” (I can get on board with that.) He argues that much of our current engineering education doesn’t meet the needs of the modern world we live in, and it’s turning off students who would otherwise make great, contributive engineers in the process. As a college professor and education reform advocate, Goldberg has been working toward changing engineering education for many years now, and he cofounded a nonprofit (Big Beacon) and wrote a book (A Whole New Engineer) with that goal in mind.

So whether you’re a high school student thinking about becoming an engineer or you’re already up to your eyeballs in college problem sets, keep reading to learn more about his not-so-radical ideas for owning your engineering education.

The “dirty little secret” of engineering

From the outside engineering can seem like a calculus-fueled, soulless machine. “That's sort of the dirty little secret of the whole thing,” Goldberg says. “It's not soulless. I mean, once you get out into practice, it's awesomely cool.” But students get disillusioned about engineering in college when they’re bombarded by the heavy duty, nitty-gritty math and science classes and see no sign of the incredible projects that piqued their interest to begin with, such as designing and implementing engineering solutions for problems large and small.

“We start with the hardest of the hardest stuff to master and say, well, okay, if you guys go and jump through these hoops we'll actually tell you about the cool parts. It's like we make kids eat spinach for [16 years in high school and college] and then at the very end we say, ‘Oh, by the way, this is a very cool thing to do with you life.” It gives the impression that engineers are more robotic than the machines they create. What happened to the intriguing, engaging, experimental aspects of engineering, like the robotics clubs and chemistry experiments from high school?

College engineering is “survival of the fittest,” a system that’s 99.9% challenge, and if you beat that challenge, “you're allowed to become an engineer,” Goldberg says. “These are all kids who passed the STEM test in K-12, and yet we throw out half to two-thirds of them." Goldberg wants to change that and help students get involved in changing it too. "We think there are lots of cultural indicators that [the engineering education revolution] is coming,” he says. What Goldberg doesn’t understand is why it’s taken this long for such an inherently creative profession to shed its steely exterior.

“They've got this kind of legacy system that hasn’t figured out that modern companies are operating under a new operating system,” Goldberg says. “Engineering education flows out of military training in the 1700 and 1800s. First of all, that's a very male thing. Second of all, it's kind of an old thing, and can't we do any better than that?”

Goldberg thinks students that would otherwise make great engineers get weeded out by these tough “spinach” classes—but they shouldn’t be. “Don't be scared off,” he says. Specifically, don’t be scared by courses like calculus, physics, and chemistry, even if your grades aren’t quite where you want them to be. “Don't worry about that. Don’t freak out. That doesn't mean that you're a bad person or that you don't belong,” Goldberg says. "When you're feeling bad that you got that C on that physics exam, [remember] it wasn't fatal. You passed the course,” and you still belong in engineering. The key is perseverance, knowing that one class won’t actually impact your career. "Stick with it, connect with others, get involved, and get trying to change things.”

A brand-new engineering education . . .

So what does this reformed version of engineering education look like? Goldberg says is starts with just telling the truth about what engineering is, then asking students two things: what are their motivations for studying engineering and what would they like to study?

"What's the purpose of engineering from a societal level?" Goldberg asks. “What are the different purposes of this class? Why does an electrical engineer need to learn digital circuits? Then why does society care?” Finally, why do you care? After you’ve determined your purpose, your education becomes much more meaningful.

Goldberg asserts that it’s not about stripping away the hard stuff, the fundamentals of engineering like math formulas and physics theories. Rather, it's about sequencing. Students get to make some choices about their education, which is where things get . . . interesting. It’s an “alternative education,” which in the context of engineering gets some people worrying that students will graduate without knowing the foundations of their field, producing engineers who don't know how to do calculations and design bridges that fall down. "Nothing could be further from the truth," Goldberg says. They get the “spinach,” just in a different, chocolate-coated way.

“Alternative education is not formless," he says. Students could opt in, for example, to programs with more or less structure. Students would then get to choose how they master their subjects from a few different options, depending on how they learn best. There are different ways to demonstrate mastery and reasonable choices that can be made available to students that increase their motivation to succeed.

He cites Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, where they have the traditional math and science classes, but before they hit the kids with all of that, they take courses that motivate. Students get to design things and experiment. They get to ask “Why?” They are inspired to learn and create, with a much better sense of what they want to learn and what they need to learn it. "[Students] understand why a class in calculus or physics or something will help them,” Goldberg says. “That's why it's so important. This is straight out of 21st century motivation theory."

Much of Goldberg’s outlook is colored by his experience with iFoundry, a program he co-founded at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Illinois in 2007. It’s a cross-disciplinary engineering curriculum grounded in these “chocolaty” principles. “We said, ‘Okay, why do you want to be an engineer?’” Goldberg recounts. Some of the students said they wanted to be the next Max Levchin, an Illinois graduate and Silicon Valley legend who founded PayPal. Others wanted to save the world, doing work like Engineers Without Borders, helping people in underdeveloped countries with infrastructure and technological needs. Others still simply wanted to create cool stuff using cool tech. “And we said, ‘Well, we love all of those motivations. Let's start with the motivation for why you want to be an engineer, not with getting 99.9% right on a bunch of math and science problems.”

Goldberg praises the developments happening in K-12 engineering education, citing clubs and projects that introduce children and teens to engineering like Project Lead the Way, First Robotics, and Engineering is Elementary. “There are terrific organizations out there trying to make it interesting for kids,” but then those kids graduate from high school into the same collegiate engineering programs as 1955, he says. It pulls the rug out from underneath these students who were so excited about the experiences they had thus far, as they face two and half to three years of cut-and-dry fundamental math and science courses before engineering gets “cool” again.

Goldberg says Millennials have picked up on the disconnect between the engineering they’re introduced to as youngsters and the engineering curriculum they’re presented with in college. And they’re taking matters into their own hands, he says, starting their own engineering education reform movements and questioning why things are they way they are.

“Students don't think of themselves as powerful, but if they stood up and got together with other students . . . a dean can hear from you or your department head can hear from you. Your faculty members can hear from you. Your professors can hear from you,” Goldberg says. "Get together with other students and realize that you're not in this alone.”

Students can work with faculty and administrators to introduce new projects and enterprises into the engineering education at their schools to reenergize the program—if not turn it on its head. “iFoundry was a couple of faculty members inspired by some students who thought that it could be different,” Goldberg says. “You don't need permission from the top to take initiative.”

Goldberg’s book, consulting company, and nonprofit are devoted to this reimagined engineering education. He sees them both as ways to help “shine a light” and “connect the dots” on what’s already happening. "It's not about having a hierarchical organization that sort of creates another command and control system," he says. “We're saying, ‘Let's come together, let's talk to each other, and let's learn from each other.” The engineering schools of the past competed with each other; today’s innovations are to share.

. . . creates a brand-new engineer

Goldberg says this shift in engineering education will create not just more engineers but more well-rounded engineers too. Traditional engineering programs often produce one-dimensional professionals: they can handle the math and the science part of their work but not necessarily the people side. These engineers certainly find jobs and do well, but after a while, many choose to earn supplemental degrees (like an M.B.A.) or certificates to learn a qualitative approach to working with others. Retooling engineering education would teach students more of those “sharp” soft skills up front—and they’re skills employers want, like communication, team-readiness, and social awareness. Students who can hit the ground running in project teams right away will be better served in their job search and throughout their professional careers.

It’s an education that is more than mastery of rote knowledge and facts. “If we get this right, then engineering isn't this sort of prescribed path through some rigid hierarchy and organization,” Goldberg says. “It’s just another way to live your life and find meaning."

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