Changing Paradigms of Engineering Education

Sneha Biswas
Sneha Biswas

“Scientists study the world as it is; engineers create the world that has never been.”

If you look up from this magazine and quickly take a look around, you’ll see the marvels of engineering all around you. From the chair you are sitting on to the air-conditioner in your room and even the pen you write with!

Can you imagine a world without engineering? This is a tougher question than we may think, we do not even realise the extent to which we rely on engineers for our world to function and the amount of collective work that has gone into it by all the different types of engineers.

The discipline of engineering is one of the oldest in the world, perhaps as old as civilization itself. The very first engineers were those who developed the lever, pulley and inclined plane. Egyptian engineers designed and built the Pyramids and Roman engineers conceptualised the famous aqueducts. Today, engineering covers a broad range of disciplines that keep the ‘engine’ of our modern civilization running.

Therefore it only makes sense to discuss and debate the future of our engineering institutions—the world can only go as far as its engineers do.

The paramount importance of engineers being established, it is our responsibility then to make sure engineers receive world class training and education. That’s precisely where the lacuna lies and that is precisely where I want to draw your attention and focus to.

Everyone who has been educated in engineering up till the 2000’s (myself being one of them) would agree that the paradigm of engineering education is mostly based on John Locke’s assumption that the untrained student mind is like a blank sheet of paper waiting for the teacher to write on it.

A student’s mind, an object of fascination, is viewed as an empty vessel into which teachers pour their wisdom. So education mostly involved gaining technical knowledge through lectures and memorising content. It was more academic and theoretical than ‘real-world’ and practical. Naturally, just like a fish cannot see the water it lives in, students and faculty often have difficulty seeing the context they live in. This, I’m sure you’ll agree, is nothing short of dangerous.

Let’s take the case of a fledgling. When the baby bird develops feathers and grows strong enough, the parent birds train them to fly. Often-times, learning to fly means falling from the nest and making a long trip back to it. Eventually, the fledglings come to realise that falling from the nest is a bit easier if they spread their wings.

Once they learn to spread their wings, flapping them is the next step and soon flapping becomes a full-fledged flight.

With time all of this becomes natural. Now imagine – what if bird parents never let the fledgling out but instead sit them down to first memorise how to fly? Funny, right? What I’m trying to say here is—students in any discipline learn best by doing. The world has been warming up to this concept and so, the paradigms of engineering education are changing.

Engineering education has in fact undergone great changes in recent years reflecting the rapidly evolving demands of the global workforce and the swiftly unfolding technological advancements of this century. The paradigms of engineering are seeing a radical shift towards a far more experiential and project-based approach.

Even then, there still is a long way for us to go. Employers of engineering graduates complain that their new hires lack high-level analytical and critical thinking skills, communication and teamwork skills, and understanding of the conjunction of engineering and business practices.

The world is changing at a faster pace than ever before and this change is driven by technological advancement. By the time an engineering student comes out of college, which is at the end of four years, the world changes completely from what it was when he/she entered college. To keep up with this, the paradigms of engineering education must shift further.

In this world of Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and cutting-edge technology, traditional jobs are undergoing massive changes and most of them are becoming redundant. Who knows, AI might take over the tasks of a traditional engineer soon! The need then arises for learning what’s relevant in the real world.

Another much needed shift in engineering education that is direly needed but is yet to happen, is the integration of disciplines such as humanities, social sciences and management, into the curriculum. It helps to-be engineers have a broader understanding of how their work impacts society and the environment. It is also very crucial for engineers of today to also develop the very essential skills of the 21st century – Critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity.

I’ll leave you with a quote which I think makes even more sense in this context:

“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”
Benjamin Franklin

About the Author 

Sneha Biswas is the founder and CEO of Early Steps Academy, a global education venture that provides a Harvard-like case-based learning program for 21st-century subjects and skills to children across 45+ countries.

Sneha is an IIT Kharagpur and Harvard Business School alumni. She graduated with the distinction of being among the top 10% of the class at Harvard. Prior to starting Early Steps Academy, Sneha worked in large global organizations such as Schlumberger, Teach for India, and Bain & Company in senior leadership positions across USA, Africa, India, and London.

Through her work at Early Steps Academy, Sneha focuses on ‘upskilling school children’ by exposing them to relevant modern essential subjects such as Entrepreneurship, Climate change, Space tech, Applied Mathematics and Finance, with a focus on structured thinking and communication skills, thereby making school children 10X confident in the real world.

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