What’s the point of an engineering education?

There’s considerable anxiety about the value of universities and the higher education that they provide, but this isn’t new.  For some time, there’s been concern that universities don’t meet the challenges of our complex modern world.

Throw a stone in any direction and you’ll hit a viewpoint. That there is widespread student disengagement and rampant underemployment of graduates. That one in four millennials with a university degree is said to be is employed full-time in a job that doesn’t require that level of education.

Other perspectives claim that students are underprepared and do not appreciate the expectations placed on them by an education, and that universities are not accountable and don’t provide bang for the buck.

(You folks are in the service business, pundits exclaim, “So serve us!”)

Often, fault for a general decline in the value of a university education is attributed to practical subjects, such as engineering. Critics of an education that promotes employability, e.g., an engineering education, pronounce that we are making students lose their ability to think in innovative ways. Shouldn’t university be a time for self-discovery, they ask, when students can establish their own values and measures of success, so they can forge their own path.

About two in five Canadian students are anxious about getting a well paying job after graduation. So, why do critics knock employability, such as the career options offered by a more practical engineering degree?

I’ve rebutted some of this criticism before although I have no quarrel with some other points. I agree that universities should provide a venue for liberal studies.

An engineering education can bring nous and skills. It can provide opportunities for students and scholars to examine, understand, communicate and act to improve our world.

Indeed, we provide these opportunities through McMaster Engineering by helping our students learn about the great challenges that face our society. We encourage them to think of solutions that combine social responsibility with technological advances.

We offer the widest range of engineering degree program options in Canada. We also offer co-op experiences with all of our programs. Our five-year programs, Engineering & Management and Engineering & Society options, combine the requirements of Mac’s four-year engineering program in a chosen discipline with the core requirements of a commerce degree, or with areas that focus on social implications of engineering and non-technical electives.

We don’t equate delivery of classroom content with gains in professional competency.  We have a robust experiential and problem based learning approach to education.  We teach students how to inquire.  We support extracurricular activities, such as student clubs and teams, and are beginning construction of a separate building to house these.

The challenges of the 21st century demand more than just technical expertise. The complex problems facing our world require engaged citizens who are creative and can think critically, form strong collaborative relationships, and who are skilled communicators and contribute towards leadership.

At McMaster Engineering, we are helping our students develop the skills they will need for success in the 21st century. We provide more than a simple service.

That’s got to count for something.

(Recommended reading: Systematically Valuing the Wrong Things.)


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