You can't become a physician without completing an internship. If your preferred profession is plumbing or you strive to be an electrician, you don't get a license to practice before logging countless hours of real-world apprentice work.
Yet that kind of on-the-job problem solving has not become an established part of most engineering curricula at universities and colleges. Traditionally, this segment is still stuck with programs that focus on the theoretical as opposed to providing a practical, hands-on approach to solving real engineering problems.
A recent blog post by my colleague Chuck Murray pointed out this gap in light of The Princeton Review's 2012 edition of the "Best 376 Colleges," where engineering schools once again dominated the list of "least happy students." One of the points Chuck made was that college administrators are still making little effort to link theoretical classes to real-world engineering problem solving, particularly in the initial semesters.
Arizona State University appears to have taken that message to heart, as illustrated by some big changes to its aerospace engineering program, reflecting students' desire for hands-on training and independent discovery. In response to a pilot study conducted by one of its engineering education researchers, the department found that students were generally doubtful about their mastery of course material and were skeptical that what they learned in junior-level courses was properly preparing them for future engineering roles.
Based on that feedback, two aeronautical engineering faculty members, with support from the school's director, embarked on a new, more practical approach to certain courses -- the goal being to better motivate students and to provide more useful training. Specifically, faculty member Dr. Valana Wells wanted to incorporate computational approaches in aerodynamics classes; and Professor Praveen Shankar, lecturer of aerospace engineering at ASU's School for Engineering of Matter, Transport, and Energy, wanted to build a solid understanding of flight simulation and visualization into the core curriculum for Aircraft Dynamics and Control courses to boost students' understanding of fundamental concepts.
"The basic idea in both courses was to invert the traditional theory to an application approach to improve student motivation," Shankar told me.