Educating Engineers for the 21<sup>st</sup> Century

Charles M. Vest and Norman L. Fortenberry

In 2008, the National Academy of Engineering unveiled fourteen Grand Challenges for Engineering. These challenges were established by a committee of highly innovative and accomplished engineers and scientists, intended to be a set of important challenges that if met would improve the quality of life on earth. Indeed, some of these challenges must be met if human life is to survive. Furthermore, the committee believes that these challenges can actually be met on a time scale of a few decades if we set our minds and resources to the task. Broadly grouped, these Grand Challenges are to:

  1. Address key elements of energy, global climate change,and sustainability;
  2. Apply engineering and informatics advances to improve medicine and healthcare delivery;
  3. Reduce our vulnerability to human and natural threats; and
  4. Expand Human Capability and Understanding.

Addressing these challenges will require a scientifically and technologically educated citizenry as well as a dedicated workforce of engineering professionals with not only exemplary technical skills, but the intellectual agility to cope with uncertainty and integrate disciplines, cultures, and evolving technologies. Addressing many of these challenges requires serious educational and research integration among engineering and the life, physical, and information sciences. We have barely started down that path in education, although it is increasingly the norm in forefront research.

The Grand Challenges for Engineering have been articulated and presented in a variety of ways, with emphasis on attracting young men and women to pursue relevant studies. In this vein, a NAE Grand Challenges Summit held last March at Duke University attracted almost 1000 faculty, students, and representatives of industry and government (see These challenges appear to strike a resonant chord with the pragmatic idealism of this generation of young people. The National Academy of Engineering working in conjunction with professional film makers is producing a modular video titled "Imagine It: Grand Challenges for a New Generation" that conveys the message of engineering challenge and service to human kind in a dramatic and appealing manner. A sample of this video, still being developed, is found at

What must universities do to prepare engineering students to address these challenges, and to perform well in many domains that engage the power of science and engineering to build strong economies and keep us healthy and secure? In 2004 and 2005, the National Academy of Engineering released two reports [1–2] that (a) identified the professional and technological as well as the global and professional contexts for engineers in the year 2020, (b) identified the desired attributes of professionals best positioned to operate within those contexts, and (c) gave suggestions for how to best prepare future professionals to acquire the desired attributes through formal education and lifelong learning. One key lesson is the need to move from "cycles of reform to "continuous improvement" in engineering education. In essence this is a call to apply the engineering cycle of research, development, and innovation to the process of engineering education. Much of this will build on the foundation of discipline-based education research pioneered within the physics community.

Most are now familiar with the elegance and significance of the force concept inventory developed by Hestenes and his associates [3–4] as well as other seminal work in the physics education research community [5]. Some in engineering have built upon this base in order to develop concept inventories in a wide array of engineering-related topics including computer science, strength of materials, heat transfer, dynamics, and waves [6].

Our next step is to engage in the process of knowledge transfer from research to practice. We’re familiar with doing this in traditional research domains, but less so in the area of education.

Here is a short list of things that we think engineering graduates should experience or know. They should:

  • Be excited by their freshman year experience
  • Have an understanding of what engineers actually do
  • Write and communicate well
  • Appreciate and draw upon the richness of American and global diversity
  • Think clearly about ethics and social responsibility
  • Be adept at product development and high-quality manufacturing
  • Know how to merge the physical, life, and information sciences while working at the micro- and nanoscales
  • Know how to conceive, design, and operate engineering systems of great scale and complexity
  • Work within a framework of sustainable development
  • Be creative and innovative
  • Understand business and organizations
  • And … Be prepared to live and work as world citizens.

This is a tall order, so faculty must properly devote much thought to what their curriculum should be, and what pedagogical styles they will develop and employ.

But having said this, our philosophy of Engineering Education is simple:

Making universities and engineering schools exciting, creative, adventurous, rigorous, demanding, and empowering environments is more important than specifying curricular details.

This means that students should be engaged in the full range of their institution’s intellectual life—engaged as partners in research, design, projects, and industry interaction as well as in formal classroom settings. A key question is how do we transfer the findings of education research in order to achieve the desired outcome. This is an area where engineers and physicists can work together to our mutual benefit.


1. NAE (2004), The Engineer of 2020: Visions of Engineering in the New Century, Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.
2. NAE (2005), Educating the Engineer of 2020: Adapting Engineering Education to the New Century, Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.
3. Hestenes, D., Wells, M. & Swackhamer, G. (1992). Force Concept Inventory. The Physics Teacher, 30 (3), 141-151.
4. David Hestenes & Ibrahim Halloun (1995). Interpreting the Force Concept Inventory. The Physics Teacher, 33 (8), 502-506.
5. McDermott, L.C. and Redish, E.F. (1999), "Resource letter on Physics Education Research," Am. J. Phys. 67 (9), 755-767.
6. Reed-Rhodes, T. (2008), "Concept Inventories in Engineering Education," commissioned paper for workshop on "Linking Evidence and Promising Practices in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Undergraduate Education," held October 13-14, 2008 in Washington, DC by the NRC Board on Science Education

Charles M. Vest is President Emeritus and Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Norman L. Fortenberry is Director of the Center for the Advancement of Scholarship on Engineering Education of the National Academy of Engineering.

Disclaimer - The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of APS.