Blog Menu

Engineering Theory Versus Practice

March 28, 2009

Filed under: education — Terry Wohlers @ 11:11

The National Science Foundation and the National Academy of Engineering have stated for more than 20 years that American engineering education is too theoretical and not practical enough, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. These warnings have been reinforced by a new report from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. It suggests that too much theory and not enough hands-on experience results in graduates that are unable to tackle real-world problems.

Purdue University’s College of Engineering agrees. It is altering its engineering program to address this problem. The new model, which it is sharing with others, emphasizes problem-solving and teamwork. Last fall, it took first-year students out of massive lectures halls and put them in labs that taught them how to solve problems, from concept to completion.

The biomedical engineering program at Georgia Tech is also using a problem-based approach that is serving to attract many types of students, including women. Historically, few women have enrolled in engineering programs, so the new format is helping to improve the balance.

I understand and appreciate the need for textbook learning and the many lessons and theories that it provides. When crossing a bridge or moving at a high speed in a plane or automobile, I trust the people that designed and tested them had a strong grasp of mathematics, chemistry, and physics. At the same time, I have long been a supporter of applied sciences. I believe it creates a well-rounded individual that can address a range of issues and problems and can work with others. What we really need is a balance of both and it looks like our system of higher education in the U.S. is moving in that direction.