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US offers models for innovative engineering education

A visit to state-of-the-art engineering schools in the United States confirmed that we really need to find change agents to make the dream of an innovative engineering school here come true.

Perhaps it is just a small, fresh and creative adjustment in teaching approach that the Office of Higher Education Commission (OHEC) should consider when attempting to improve curricula.

Recent major curriculum changes have not really delivered desirable results. New problems, after all, have arisen. The following cases illustrate the lessons I learned from visiting several universities in the US.

At Franklin W Olin College of Engineering, the mission of engineering students is "to become exemplary engineering innovators who recognise needs, design solutions and engage in creative enterprises for the good of the world".

Apart from an academic focus, it is a must for students' technological projects to be engaged with nearby communities.

Importantly, the curriculum itself has been designed to integrate the engineering content with a design perspective that performs a community service.

Also, "Olin College seeks to redefine engineering as a profession of innovation encompassing: the consideration of human and societal needs; the creative design of engineering systems; and the creation of value through entrepreneurial effort and philanthropy."

Olin College was started from scratch without any legacy systems.

Therefore, it is easy to define the direction for its engineering programme. The creation of innovative curricula benefits from the best practices of various engineering schools, educational consultants and students.

The curricula combine a hard core in science and mathematics and integrate engineering knowledge into a project-based design component. Moreover, the syllabus has a firm grounding in the fundamentals of business and entrepreneurship.

Another lesson learned was inspired by Purdue University, which has a much older engineering school than Olin College.

It expects engineering students to work with people of many different backgrounds to identify and achieve project goals.

So, it has created a community service programme, "EPICS - Engineering Projects in Community Service". EPICS aims to achieve a win-win outcome among students and the community - "Teams of undergraduates are designing, building and deploying real systems to solve engineering-based problems for local community service and education organisations."

Such community services need teamwork and advice from "Purdue faculty, staff and engineers from local industry, along with graduate teaching assistants."

The leader of EPICS said: "Students gain long-term define-design-build-test-deploy-support experience, communication skills, experience on multi-disciplinary teams, and leadership and project management skills."

This programme affirms that "students gain an awareness of professional ethics, the role of the customer in engineering design, and the role that engineering can play in the community".

Indeed, this community service is similar to King Mongkut's University of Technology Thonburi (KMUTT)'s outreach programme, in which community partners share their experiences and expertise with students. Meanwhile, students work on projects to return their knowledge to communities.

We visited Olin College and Purdue University with a yearning to deploy those inspirations in our new KMUTT engineering curriculum.

We wish we could discover our own way to develop engineering education for Thai students.

Apart from the traditional path, we also plan to set up an integrated curriculum across the departments. This might be an alternative solution to design a flourishing programme that gives new students the opportunity and resources to choose their own track to become world-class engineers.

Though we previously required our students to work on field-based learning and industry internships, combinations of these and others, we have never measured the resulting outcomes and experience that students connect to their engineering courses.

Students never connect their basic knowledge in mathematics, science and general education to their engineering projects. Their knowledge remains very fragmented.

Soft skills are another issue. We should embed skills like communication, teamwork and negotiation into course activity. Students may incrementally learn to embrace these skills when working on their projects.

For us, an outstanding issue is finding a basic method for assessment both of students and curricula. We still have no idea how to deal with it efficiently - for example, how to assess students' abilities or the materials, outcomes, methods and processes used in classes - as this new programme is quite innovative and a challenging one.

Ultimately, we would like to design an effective programme that not only enriches the engineering profession, but also includes the humanities and civic education.

In fact, we need a new mindset for engineering education that takes inspiration from both the Olin College and Purdue University models.

By whatever means, this would be a dream curriculum for us!

Yet, at KMUTT, we have seen that some courses already proceed along similar lines. We set out a project-based learning course and use the same educational process as at Olin - so-called engineering practice: discovery, invention, development and testing.

On the contrary, we differ from Olin and Purdue, because we never spell out step-by-step our pedagogical principles, curriculum structure and educational processes.

We have a long way to go to become an innovative engineering school. But it is not too late to start an effective engineering programme and create change agents. Someday we will have an excel engineer!

Indeed, we need to design the change agents, which are the curriculum itself, student properties and the physical environment of learning.



PRIYAKORN PUSAWIRO

Learning scientist, Computer Engineering Department

King Mongkut's University of Technology Thonburi

pusawiro@cpe.kmutt.ac.th




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