U.Va.'s William Wulf Delivers Address at Engineering School's Industry Day

March 1, 2007 --William A. Wulf wants to change engineering education.

Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering, vice chair of the National Research Council and AT&T Professor of Computer Science at U.Va., issued a stern warning  to a lecture hall full of engineering professors on Feb. 23 — the nation is technologically illiterate, engineering students are dropping out and engineering professors have not kept up with teaching techniques or honed their own engineering skills.

Wulf, who was the University’s first computer science graduate in 1968, spoke at the School of Engineering and Applied Science’s annual Industry Day, which featured exhibits, networking opportunities with faculty and graduate students, and lab tours in the school’s research facilities, including the new Wilsdorf Hall.

Wulf based his insights on his experiences teaching engineering at U.Va., running a 120-employee software company and, most recently, leading the national academy.

Wulf cited a 2007  academy-produced report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” which asserts that while U.S. engineering was still in the lead, it was slipping behind and the foundation on which this lead had been built was eroding.

The number of engineering graduates peaked in the 1980s, and has flagged since then among U.S. students, with foreign students, particularly from India and China filling the gaps.

“It worries me that we have to depend on foreign nationals and that we are not able to attract U.S. students into engineering,” Wulf said.

Engineering needs innovation to stay ahead, he said, adding that a more diverse engineering team will produce a better product.

“We’re not going to be able to compete with China and India on cost,” he said. “We need to compete on quality.”

Engineering education, as now practiced, does not prepare students for the working world, Wulf said, nor has engineering education changed much in 50 years. Altering the curriculum and adopting more modern pedagogical methods would bring better information to students faster, he said.

While he wants to change the way engineering students are taught, he still needs them to stay in the classroom. But student retention is a disgrace, he said. Only half of the engineering-qualified students coming out of high school become engineering majors and then half of that cohort drops out before attaining a degree, he said.

In response to a question, Wulf said engineering education should extend down into the elementary school, making it accessible for more students. Wulf also suggested engineers design a curriculum to teach teachers how to teach engineering. One professor in the audience lectures on engineering to an elementary class his wife teaches, a model he said some of his graduate students are willing to follow.

“We’re turning off half of the students with the way we teach,” Wulf said. “We could eliminate the impending engineer shortage just with the students who have dropped out.”

Engineering schools need to recognize that students enter college having already taken calculus in high school, that information technology will be used in most future engineering and that biological engineering may be the next wave. The fundamentals of engineering programs need to change, or have less time spent on them, using modern teaching techniques to cover the material in half the time with better results. He also agreed with a suggestion that there be an education minor that engineering students could take.

While teaching and research complement each other, engineering professors need to practice their craft, Wulf said.

“What other creative discipline does not require its faculty to perform?” he asked. “Painting professors are expected to paint, sculptors to sculpt, music, writing, medicine. But few engineering faculty practice engineering.”

“Producing a product is very different from research,” he continued, noting that there are many ways engineering professors could be evaluated. “You are missing creating a product and innovation.”

He said he is critical of a system that “did not allow for the richness of experience that comes from practice.”

But Wulf’s focus is not on only engineering students. He is also concerned about the levels of technological illiteracy with the nation.

“People don’t understand how technology is created and how it works,” he said. “The representatives [in elected office] and the electorate are ignorant of this. They can’t talk about public policy issues on technology.”

Wulf proposed engineering courses for liberal arts majors to “relate to technology on larger social issues.” He wants to teach such a course when he returns to U.Va. in the spring of 2008.

People are not aware of how engineering impacts their lives, Wulf said. In 1900 the average life expectancy was 46 and the third largest cause of death was water-borne disease, but now people take clean water for granted. In 1900, 50 percent of the nation’s population lived on farms, feeding the other half. He said that now, thanks to mechanization, about 2 percent of the population farms and feeds the rest of the country.

“The society is dedicated to technological change, and engineering education has to change to keep up,” he said. “The complete landscape is changing.”