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issue: March 2008 APPLIANCE Magazine

The Open Door
Back to School?

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by Arthur E. Schwartz, deputy executive director and general counsel, National Society of Professional Engineers

Today, there are growing questions within the engineering profession about the manner in which engineers are educated, and whether or not the current academic standards are adequate. Will they provide future engineers with the basic knowledge necessary to meet growing employer, client, and public demands? A profession that does not look for opportunities to evolve and change in concert with future demands will place itself in jeopardy, and will see its value to clients, employers, and the public eroded.

For any learned profession, there is a required knowledge base necessary to enter into the practice at the professional level. The key components of this knowledge base include technical breadth, professional practice breadth, and technical depth. While each engineering discipline (e.g., mechanical, electrical, chemical) may require different skill sets, there are some common and essential needs among these disciplines. In addition to basic math and science, these include problem recognition and solution, design, sustainability, risk, project management, communications, and public policy. They also require business and public administration, globalization, leadership, teamwork, lifelong learning, ethics, and professional responsibility.

How has the engineering profession fared in incorporating these essential needs into the engineering knowledge base? The 2005 National Academy of Engineering report, “Educating the Engineer of 2020,” clearly states: “It is evident that the exploding body of science and engineering knowledge cannot be accommodated within the context of the traditional four-year bachelor’s degree.” Shockingly, this and other recent studies have demonstrated that since the early years of the 20th century, the number of credit hours required to graduate with a four-year degree in engineering has dwindled from more than 150 credit hours to fewer than 130 credit hours. This drop is as the breadth and depth of engineering practice has become more complex and the demands of engineering practice have increased. While professions such as medicine, law, architecture, pharmacy, and accounting have dramatically increased the years of education required to enter professional practice, the engineering profession—once a leader in this area—is now at the bottom of the list.

For these and other reasons, professional and technical societies, including the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE), have been encouraging changes in policies and laws to require additional engineering education for professional practice in the future. For several years, it has been NSPE’s position that with the rapid expansion of knowledge required to practice, additional engineering education beyond the four-year ABET/EAC degree should be required in order to meet the formal academic preparation necessary for the professional practice of engineering in the 21st century.

In September 2006, the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) amended its Model Law to require an engineer intern with a bachelor’s degree to obtain an additional 30 credit hours of acceptable upper-level undergraduate or graduate-level course work from approved course providers as part of the process for obtaining their professional engineering license. Changes have also been incorporated to address individuals with a master’s or doctorate degree in engineering. Although the NCEES Model Law is only a guide and has no force of law, it has significant influence over U.S. state legislators considering proposed changes to state licensure laws.

In reality, these changes will have no impact on practicing engineers or even the majority of those engineering students currently “in the pipeline” since the earliest implementation date for the changes would be in 2015. And that date is considered somewhat optimistic by many observers. However, it is something that currently practicing engineers need to consider. And for the engineering profession to continue to be sustainable and thrive in the decades ahead, it is essential that those entering the profession possess the necessary technical and professional skills that will allow engineers to continue to lead. The alternative is something that the engineering profession and the public can ill afford.

About the Author

Arthur E. Schwartz, CAE, serves as deputy executive director and general counsel for the NSPE. He has written extensively for various professional journals and has participated as a guest lecturer at many colleges and universities, federal and state agencies, and national professional association meetings. If you wish to contact Schwartz, please e-mail lisa.bonnema@cancom.com.


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