Define your education

Engineering students need an education more focused on critical thinking skills­

On March 21, the 2010 class of Applied Science received their iron rings. The highly-anticipated ceremony signifies the distinction of each individual as an engineer.

In light of this achievement, it seems natural to reflect on what it means to graduate from the engineering program.

As societal issues become more complex—such as those concerning climate change, sustainable development and genetic engineering—educational institutions have to equip today’s graduates with a different skill set than their predecessors in order to serve society’s needs.

In the midst of budget constraints, growing class sizes and other operational difficulties, keeping the engineering program as current as these issues doesn’t come easy.

Examination of the Queen’s program requires an understanding of the determinants of curriculum structure and how changes can occur in order keep the program contemporary.

Engineering education in Canada is governed by the Canadian Engineering

Accreditation Board (CEAB), which has established criteria and procedures every program must meet in order to graduate students accredited for professional engineering registration.

These requirements, which are outlined in the CEAB Accreditation Criteria and Procedures, are then interpreted and implemented by an educational institutions’ administrations. Given the Queen’s engineering program is accredited, one assumes the curriculum effectively provides its graduates with a full toolbox of skills and the knowledge to tackle contemporary issues.

Few would argue the program lacks technical robustness and thereby endows its students with most of the required technical attributes.

But one needn’t look far to see the overwhelming number of past engineering failures that have been rooted in a lack of understanding of social and cultural context, rather than technical failure.

To prevent these mistakes from reoccurring, engineers must understand how their technology fits into the big picture.

So how are students being taught to develop technology that’s appropriate for society and the environment is hugely varying contexts across the globe? If the results of exit surveys over the past several years are any indication, the answer is engineering graduates aren’t leaving Queen’s with the listed non-technical attributes.

Surveys have steadily shown in areas such as multiculturalism, social awareness and contemporary global issues, Applied Science students are consistently 30 per cent less satisfied than other faculties in terms of how much they feel they have been taught at Queen’s.

This is despite the CEAB requirement that “the curriculum … include studies in [among others], impact of technology on society [and] sustainable development and environmental stewardship,” because “while considerable latitude is provided in the choice of suitable content for the complementary studies component, some areas of study are essential to the education of an engineer.” The only two complementary Arts and Science courses focused on the “studies in impact of technology on society” curriculum component weren’t offered in 2009.

The first course, SOCY 234: Engineering and Social Justice with Richard Day and Caroline Bailey, was cancelled. The second, DEVS 330: Technology and Development, has moved to alternate years after its instructor, Jonathan Vandersteen—the last of the civil department’s advocates for a humanitarian engineering degree option—left Queen’s for Guelph University.

Low enrollment and budget restrictions may be at fault, but these courses have never been core requirements for engineers.

Courses that look good on paper aren’t so good if they don’t deliver, as evidenced by the exit surveys.

A light in the dark may be Joshua Pearce’s MECH 425: Engineering for Sustainable Development. Still in its inaugural term, it’s founded on the philosophy of service learning and forces students to think critically about what they’re taught.

This course should be reviewed and considered a precedent for others as an effective means to provide students with both technical and non-technical attributes.

If Queen’s is to remain an international leader and continue to produce high-quality graduates, instruction on sustainable development and the impact of technology on society must be taken away from the peripherals of the curriculum and concentrated instead on core studies, where every student will garner the benefits.

Furthermore, faculty instructors and administrators must align their views in a manner that’s conducive to seeing these changes implemented.

The Faculty must seek out students’ input on their education. This is being undertaken in small steps, but more student engagement is needed to catalyze the process. Students’ input is highly valuable and they must take advantage of every opportunity to define their education for themselves.

Whether participating candidly in exits surveys and Maclean’s questionnaires, attending curriculum discussion forums or even sending an e-mail to the Faculty with an idea for curriculum change, students must take initiative and have their voices heard.

Most students are content to keep their heads down, get their iron rings and move on, but there’s opportunity to affect positive change if we empower ourselves to do so.

Graduating as a Queen’s University engineer is a privilege. It’s the collective responsibility of faculty, administration and students to honour this.

Together we must improve the curriculum so graduates have the skills to positively impact society, long after the class of Sci ’10 moves on.

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.