Rigour, content and testing: Will that help drive innovation?

How might we provide the right engineering education? How should we assess it? Should we continue to predominantly use high stakes testing for assessments of student performance?  How should we include curricular changes that promote innovation?  What is innovation, anyway?  Wouldn’t including it in the curriculum reduce both rigour and content in engineering programs? Does increasing content in a curriculum also raise competency?

I have participated in passionate meetings where these questions have been mulled over and debated.

But first, here’s Google’s take about its work. “Things move quickly around here. At Internet speed. That means we have to be nimble, both in how we work and how we hire. We look for people who are great at lots of things, love big challenges and welcome big changes. We can’t have too many specialists in just one particular area. We’re looking for people who are good for Google—and not just for right now, but for the long term.”

Tesla wants its workforce to “work in small, focused teams that are agile, efficient and focused on excellence. The pace is fast, the work is stimulating, structure is limited and innovation is expected.” At Apple, employees are asked to be “perfectionists. Idealists. Inventors. Forever tinkering with products and processes, always on the lookout for better.”

That’s what these three companies mean by innovation.  Do we educate our students and assess them in the contexts of their statements?  A discussion during a recent meeting of Canadian deans of engineering helped clarify the issue for me.

We focus on developing graduates’ more perishable skills (such as the triple integral of a four-dimensional tensor equation, or why entropy generation should be minimized in a heat exchanger). However, we do not invest as much effort in developing students’ more durable skills, such as leadership, teamwork, independence and readiness to innovate. To be clear, both skill sets are necessary to drive engineering success.

Graduates are not assessed for employment in the same manner today as they were in the past.  Google states, “We’re less concerned about grades and transcripts and more interested in how you think … don’t get hung up on nailing the “right” answer.”  Think about this.

Are we able to overcome students’ fear of failure by subjecting them to either-you-get-it-or-you-don’t tests that ask for binary answers?  How does experiential learning and problem based learning factor into right-wrong testing?  Shouldn’t experiential learning be also about learning through failure, i.e., knowing what you did wrong and then picking yourself up to correct it?

The World Economic Forum ranks Canada 26th for business innovation. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) places business investment on research and development in Canada at 22nd among OECD countries. The International Monetary Fund estimates Canadian business productivity as being 17th among OECD countries. To help our students ride the more frequent waves of disruption, we must better prepare them to compete through their contributions towards innovation.

That requires greater emphasis on innovation, experiential learning and problem solving in the engineering curricula, and deliberating upon more appropriate assessment of student learning.

(Recommended reading: Paradox Lost: Explaining Canada’s Research Strength and Innovation Weakness.)


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