Engineer curriculum to see major changes

By Peter Kim

Engineers aren’t good at everything. However, the members of iFoundry hope to improve engineering programs so that the engineer of the future might be the closest thing.

A movement within the College of Engineering, iFoundry, is redrawing the engineering curriculum to eliminate typical weaknesses of engineers, such as poor communication skills and lackluster creativity. The program hopes to transform engineering education to help students speak with the directness of a business major, create technology with the eye of a design major and still be able to do the math.

“Right now, we’re creating little robots that do math and science problems,” said David Goldberg, professor of entrepreneurial engineering and co-founder of iFoundry. “We want engineers to have a broader (skill-set).”

The problem is that the engineering industry has evolved, but the education has not, Goldberg said. In the Cold War era, engineers were primarily technology enhancers. They took technology and enhanced or added on to it. The new engineer, however, must be a technology creator. For example, a modern engineer working in communications should not be asking, “How can I make a better cell phone?” He or she should be asking, “Can I make a new device better than the cell phone?”

“In the 1950s, a lot of design (classes) were taken out of the engineering curriculums, and a lot of math and science was put in,” Goldberg said.

This was partly due to the misconception that “science won the war” with the invention of the atomic bomb and radar. However, what many people misunderstand is that pure engineering, which is more than just math and science, also helped win the war.

“Math and science is important, but we want to make sure engineers have the attitude of thinking about how (a technology) will impact society,” Goldberg said. “What is the next thing people want to see?”

The sun never sets on an engineering project. Often, a single engineering project is passed around the world 24 hours a day.

“This is very different from engineering in the (early 1900s),” said Andreas Cangellaris, professor of electrical and computer engineering and co-founder of iFoundry. “It’s not just an engineer in a room working alone. Engineers are interacting with many different departments – (sometimes globally). We don’t want global competition. We want global collaboration.”

Engineers should be able to effectively impart their ideas to other people across different departments and cultures.

The current plan for iFoundry involves injecting three different programs into the engineering curriculum: 3SpaceStudios, HAPI themes and Operation Fresh.

3SpaceStudios is a library of YouTube videos about topics that are important to engineers but are commonly left out of the engineering curriculum, such as patent law, ethics and the history of technology.

“Since the new generation is into digital media, we’ve made YouTube videos,” Goldberg said. “They could also be used as reference material for classes.”

Another reform that will be made is the institution of HAPI themes. In place of general education and elective requirements, students will have the option of taking a cohesive grouping of classes that hone specific skills needed by engineers, such as communications or business. iFoundry put the program forth to prevent students from taking a mishmash of general education classes that do not build to a productive skill. iFoundry plans do not only arrange existing classes into themes but will also create entirely new courses to supplement them.

“Students will be given the opportunity to group electives in ways that allow them to develop (important) skills,” Goldberg said. “(Some examples include) philosophy of business or philosophy of technology.”

Finally, iFoundry plans to initiate a series brainstorming sessions, called Operation Fresh, with students, faculty, alumni and corporate members about how to improve the freshman-year experience.

The iFoundry program will be open to all incoming engineering students starting in the fall of 2009. Although the programs are designed for freshmen as full four-year programs, Goldberg said current engineering students will also be able to integrate into the program as much as possible.

“Engineers are changing the world,” Goldberg said. “We’re just filling holes in engineering curriculum.”