Alan Suemori

Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

Editor’s note: The arrival of a new year always inspires new outlooks on life and the future of society. Some lose their luster after a few months — others have the potential of being more long term and life-changing . . . such as the thoughts engineering educators Mark Somerville (Olin College) and David Goldberg (University of Illinois) present in their new book, “A Whole New Engineer.”

In the middle of their new book, “A Whole New Engineer,” authors Mark Somerville and David Goldberg recount an important moment in their research that emerged out of a freshman talk at the University of Illinois. Cory Levy, a teenaged entrepreneurial wunderkind, asked his audience of 73 first-year engineering students to take out a sheet of paper and list all of their failures — and the lessons they learned from each misstep. Levy concluded his lecture by saying, “If you’re not failing enough, you’re not taking chances, and you’re not learning.”

It is this simple, but powerful theme of courage and risk-taking that resonates repeatedly throughout “A Whole New Engineer,” Somerville’s and Goldberg’s provocative call for engineering education reform. Surprisingly human and emotional, the book interweaves gentle yet compelling stories taken from their research into Olin College and the University of Illinois’ iFoundry program with their insights into how engineering schools must change if the profession is to thrive in the 21st century. Not surprisingly, their suggestions resonate far beyond engineering and into the broader fields of education, business and society as a whole.

The authors make the case that the engineering profession is one of the cornerstones of 20th century progress, giving us such transformative inventions as the airplane, the automobile, the telephone and the radio, as evidence of its importance. By the ’50s, however, Somerville and Goldberg believe engineering schools had lost their way, producing students who valued obedience, conformity and the status quo above creativity, innovation and originality.

While obedience and conformity may have been valuable traits in the past, they are crippling qualities in a world that has been awash in three powerful social, economic and technological revolutions that are still altering our lives today. The authors state that engineering schools have been the last institutions to recognize these remarkable upheavals, let alone reflect these changes in what they do.

The end result has been a decline in the prestige of the profession and a growing disenchantment by the best and the brightest students to become engineers. Today, 50 percent of engineering students, worldwide, drop out of their programs before graduation, matriculating into business, law and medicine as more rewarding paths to success. If this tailspin is to be stopped, Somerville and Goldberg argue that engineering schools must change in a profound way that goes far beyond mere tweaks in content, pedagogy and curriculum.

“A Whole New Engineer” proposes that in order for real change to occur, the entire culture of engineering education must evolve in five primary ways:

First, a sense of authentic joy must be at the core of all work and learning in the classroom. Somerville and Goldberg describe a letter written in 1951 by Soichiro Honda, founder of the Honda Motor Company, to his employees. In it, Honda explained that the secret to company success was the innate joy people felt in solving the complex problems of designing and manufacturing cars and motorcycles, as well as serving customers well. Honda believed that his employees were not simply cogs in some faceless machine, but stakeholders who could create a better world if they were motivated by the right intrinsic values.

Secondly, a climate of trust between administrators, teachers and students must be nurtured throughout the school community. Students must be encouraged to make mistakes and fail in order to develop the courage to learn and grow. Without a secure environment to take chances and challenge the status quo, young engineers would never ask the tough questions that invariably lead to the breakthroughs that change the world. Students must be seen as partners, collaborators and even leaders in their education, rather than as mere receptacles of technical content delivered by their professors. That would mean that teachers must evolve from playing the central role in the classroom to becoming active facilitators who shepherd the learning through open-ended questions and observations. It would also mean allowing students to work on actual engineering projects from the very start of their education rather than only at the end.

Third, learning that truly adheres must be tied to intrinsic motivation, such as personal interests and internal values rather than only extrinsic incentives such as grades and test scores. Consequently, the authors call for engineering schools to emphasize teaching that mobilizes student passions and connects them to the real world beyond their campuses. Unless young people today can see the application of their education to the problems and challenges that are looming right outside their door, the classroom becomes a place for busywork rather than authentic growth. The authors point to a moment in the development of the University of Illinois’ iFoundry program when Jaime Kelleher, a material sciences and engineering student, said at a student-faculty symposium, “We weren’t sure you were serious about us doing what we wanted to do, and then we realized that you were, and it was really cool.” Ultimately, in order for education to be authentic and transformative, it must be personal and emotional, as well as technical and fundamental. Otherwise, it remains meaningless for today’s young people.

Fourth, engineering schools need to create a campus where asking open-ended questions, listening to a diversity of interpretations and questioning the status quo is commonplace. Somerville and Goldberg recount the often-told story of Albert Einstein’s hapless elementary school career, where the Nobel Prize winner often appeared at the bottom of the class. The authors suggest that Einstein’s failures were more a result of his irrepressible need to question his teachers and challenge accepted knowledge rather than his lack of ability. Schools built only on predetermined, single-answer questions and rote memorization of traditional explanations are busily producing the perfect student for the wrong century.

Lastly, engineering schools must begin to nurture the broader palette of intelligences that American developmental psychologist and Harvard professor Howard Gardner identified as the key to understanding human learning. The authors suggest it is not enough to produce engineers today who are technical marvels, but little else. In a world that rewards creativity, collaboration, cooperation and teamwork, developing the whole person is a requirement — not a choice going forward.

Ultimately, the problems that challenge all schools in preparing the next generation to face the challenges of the 21st century are all rooted in the same soil: How do we educate young people to enter a world that is profoundly different from the previous era? Somerville and Goldberg do not claim to have all the answers, but they believe the place to start is with schools that emphasize flexibility, adaptability and openness as their core values. The most enduring solutions, they suggest, must come from a deeper conversation that brings to the table the entire education community of students, teachers, employers and parents from around the globe. Without that equal and inclusive discussion, schools will continue to prepare young people to work in a world that no longer exists.

Alan Suemori teaches Asian American history at ‘Iolani School. He is a former Hawai‘i Herald staff writer.


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