Engineering schools return to basics

April 08, 1994|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Sun Staff Writer

Sonya Talton invented a self-cooling soda can. Miran Farah designed a spiral escalator, Hayden Huang an umbrella that won't turn inside out in a high wind. At least two student inventors at Johns Hopkins have filed for patents.

At the University of Maryland in College Park, freshmen engineering students are designing and building human-powered water pumps. Last year it was windmills.

All this, of course, might seem routine for engineering students. In fact, it signals a radical change in the way engineers are trained in America, a return to the more pragmatic methods of 30 years ago.

It is a change precipitated by a number of very visible engineering failures in the past decade or so, including defects in the Hubble space telescope (1990), the USS Stark's defense system against an Iraqi missile (1987) and the Three Mile Island nuclear plant (1979).

It is spurred by embarrassing questions from Congress, industry leaders, and even ordinary citizens as to why the United States was slipping behind other countries in the application of technology for commercial purposes.

Why is Japan, for instance, producing so many of the new products?

(Despite advances by American industry, most of the 10 top companies receiving patents in the United States for new products are Japanese. It's been like this since 1985.)

Accompanying the emphasis on pragmatic training is the re-introduction of design in the early stages of the undergraduate curriculum. Design is the essence of engineering. It is usually reserved for the junior or senior years. But universities from Maryland to Morgan, MIT to the University of Washington are determined to work it back into the entire curriculum.

At Hopkins, the undergraduate design course was created to stimulate students "to think both creatively and pragmatically, to appreciate the commercial application of what they design," says Martin Ramirez, who teaches it.

James Armstrong, a chemical engineering student, says the Hopkins course "opens your mind to design, and to how things originate in the first place.

"We were encouraged to think of problems and then try to find the solution," he says.

His most persistent problem occurred while he was traveling. Either his suitcase was too big or too little, he says. So he designed a reconfigurable bag that can be made large or small as needed. He is confident of a getting a patent for his invention.

The revisions in the engineering curricula, though slow to take hold, may have the inexorability of a returning tide. Thomas M. Regan, coordinator of the freshman program in engineering at Maryland, estimates that only about 10 percent of the nation's engineering schools offer design instruction early in the undergraduate curriculum, but "maybe 50 percent are thinking about it."

The intent is to correct some of the excesses brought by the revolution in training unleashed in America by the 1957 shock of Sputnik -- the launch of the first artificial earth satellite by the Russians.

It would be hard to exaggerate Sputnik's impact on the technological and scientific community in the United States. It undermined all presumptions about the superiority of U.S. scientific prowess. "Panic" was the word Dr. Regan chose to describe the reaction. Sputnik sparked the most serious revision in the teaching of engineering -- and eventually the practice -- that the profession had ever seen.

William S. Butcher, a senior engineering adviser at the National Science Foundation, which encouraged the revisions three decades ago, says, "Before, engineering students were taught how to make a road; you dealt with people who had experience, who had built roads or bridges. . . . Students were shown things and shown how to do it."

But after Sputnik, the whole discipline became more theoretical and abstract, more concerned with the examination of physical principles and less with teaching students how things are actually built. The preferred descriptive word was "scientific."

"The emphasis," says Dr. Regan, "was on the why, not the how."

Design was de-emphasized. Students were turned from the making of things to more esoteric investigations, say, the microscopic study of materials, or the nature of steel fractures. They moved closer to pure research.

The new "scientific" approach had its critics from the start. Among them was Eugene S. Ferguson, author of "Engineering and the Mind's Eye" and an emeritus history professor at the University of Delaware.

Dr. Ferguson faults the turn away from the pragmatic side of engineering and especially the de-emphasis on design. More recently, he has joined those who warn against what they regard as an overreliance on computer software in the design process.

What has been lost, he said, is "the intuitive feel for the way the material world works, and sometimes doesn't work."

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