Dilbert no more: a fresh approach to engineering

Most engineers understand well in advance that their college years will be the scholastic equivalent of boot camp.

It's always been that way. But don't tell that to engineering schools where a number of new courses - though not exactly soft and fluffy - are a departure from the standard you'll-eat-your-broccoli-and-like-it approach.

For instance, in a bid to dump the standard "Dilbert" workplace image of engineers as go-it-alone worker-drone types who don't communicate much, the University of Alabama College of Engineering is pushing partnership and teamwork in all of its classes.

Courses and classrooms have been redesigned. Rather than sitting in desks directly behind one another, students are divided into teams and sit at tables. Instead of lectures and note-taking, students and faculty "work more as partners to solve problems," a spokesman says.

Other schools are sweetening the tough course work with a little cold cash. George Mason University's school of information technology in Fairfax, Va., offers a financial incentive for students in a class called "Technical Entrepreneurship." The team with the best project gets $5,000.

Ordinarily, engineers take a multitude of heavy-duty physics and math courses before ever setting foot in an engineering classroom. Many complain they'd like to do a little engineering. But not at California State University at Sacramento, where the hottest new engineering course is "Engineering 001" - designed to get younger students excited about careers in engineering without making them wait until their sophomore or junior year to take their first engineering-related course.

At Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg, Va., too, a renegade effort is being made by the humanities crowd to soften up hard-core engineering types. Gary Downey, an anthropology professor who also has a degree in engineering, offers a course entitled "Engineering Cultures" to get engineers more in touch with international and other viewpoints.

"The goal of this course is to help students figure out how and where to locate engineering problem-solving in their lives while also holding on to their dreams," reads the course description. "Where does one want engineering problem-solving to be in one's life, and might it prove helpful to try mapping engineering problems through humans?"

Though possibly sounding a tad touchy-feely to some die-hards, Dr. Downey says his humanities class is wildly popular with engineers, who make up 90 percent of enrollment. Testimonials on the class Web site show the impact.

"I have always thought of engineers as people who do computations all day in cubicles," wrote one course taker. "Little did I realize that engineering is a window into a country's culture, history, and society in general."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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