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Well-educated Bricklayers?
Two new colleges hope to produce broadly trained engineers


By Carl Irving

Henry E. Riggs, former president of Harvey Mudd College, will head the new Keck Graduate Institute at The Claremont Colleges.  
MOST AMERICAN colleges and universities educate engineers to become the equivalent of bricklayers, rather than cathedral builders, in the opinion of Marshall M. Lih, director of the National Science Foundation's division of engineering education.

Despite years of prodding, Lih and other would-be reformers at the National Science Foundation (NSF) believe, most American engineers tend to be narrow specialists who are ill-equipped to fill top jobs in business or industry.

In an attempt to correct this problem, two new engineering schools, each with a generous endowment, will be launched almost simultaneously on opposite coasts in the next few years. Each hopes to break with tradition in order to produce technology-minded engineering entrepreneurs for the 21st century.

The newcomers are the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, in Needham, Massachusetts, 20 miles west of Boston, scheduled to open in 2001, and the Keck Graduate Institute of Applied Life Sciences, in Claremont, California, which expects to open in 1999.

Dwight Jaggard of the University of Pennsylvania helped to start a new master's degree program featuring group engineering projects
The two 62-year-old founders and friends, Henry E. Riggs, engineer-educator in Claremont, California, and Lawrence W. Milas, lawyer-president of the F.W. Olin Foundation in New York City, say they want to blend venerable disciplines and seek joint ventures with industry.

Some experts in engineering education question whether such bold plans can succeed outside the nation's best research universities. But Riggs and Milas do have an instant rooting section: Lih and his colleagues at the NSF-a federal agency which funds scientific and technological research and development-who have argued for years that America needs to prepare more engineers able to rise to executive positions and compete in a global economy.

Despite more than a decade of heavily funded efforts to promote change, less than 25 percent of the nation's 300 engineering faculties want to overhaul their training programs, according to estimates at the NSF. The price has been bored students with narrow training, and a persistent 50 percent dropout rate from engineering studies by the end of the sophomore year.

Despite the economic recovery led by technology during the '90s, the number of bachelor's degrees earned by engineering students has declined nearly 20 percent since 1985.

Olin College of Engineering and the Keck Graduate Institute should be large enough to provide a helpful push, said John W. Prados, who directs engineering education reform projects at the NSF. "We can always hope that models out there (such as Olin and Keck) will be imitated,'' he said.

Olin College, which eventually will enroll about 650 undergraduates, will combine business and engineering studies on a tuition-free campus, and will join in a partnership with the adjacent Babson Business College. Group projects with local industries will be a central part of the curriculum.

The Olin Foundation has pledged $200 million, one of the largest grants ever made in American higher education, and later may add all its remaining assets, which could equal or exceed the original grant.

The Keck Institute, headed by Riggs, will offer a master's degree that blends engineering and the life sciences, for 125 students, and will join the six-campus Claremont Colleges consortium. Studies will be linked to joint ventures with local biotech firms.

The W.M. Keck Foundation in Los Angeles has provided $50 million, to be matched by an identical amount or more from other contributors. With the Keck name to be carved into the portals of the new campus, Riggs clearly hopes that the foundation will contribute more in future years.

Prados, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Tennessee and a past president of the national Accrediting Board of Engineering and Technology, advised Lawrence Milas on preliminary planning for Olin College. Its opening year, he notes, coincides with the date that the nation's engineering schools will begin to phase in new, more demanding standards for accreditation-ten times more requirements than those that have been in effect since 1972.

According to Prados, the new requirements will focus on intellectual skills and abilities instead of tallying credit hours and subject areas. This change will be consistent with NSF recommendations and "should be a strong force in moving all engineering schools toward the same outcomes," Prados said. The accrediting board has begun training groups of engineering professors to begin reviewing and judging campus programs in 2001. Their work is scheduled for completion by 2007.

The NSF wants engineering faculties to drop what it considers to be obsolete training methods and courses. Engineering students must learn and memorize too many "unconnected pieces," said Joseph Bordogna, the NSF's chief operating officer and former dean of engineering at the University of Pennsylvania.

Laurence W. Milas, president of the F.W. Olin Foundation, which has pledged $200 million to start the Olin College of Engineering.  
Citing the high dropout rates, Bordogna said that "freshman and sophomore years are when students get excited. But they find they're in a super high school and they get discouraged. It's not because they can't do the work.

"They (recalcitrant faculties) say students have to have the fundamentals first," Bordogna continued. "We respond that the fundamentals are in group design, and in how to get the concept out the door. That's engineering. The real test is an idea and how to get your arms around it. It's exciting. You stumble over your feet and let's hear it for failure. Let's let kids fail because you do in life; you learn to take risks."

Bordogna is "very excited" about the Olin and Keck plans. He praises the academic proposals for Olin College because he believes an undergraduate degree in engineering should be a "holistic experience" combining a wide range of studies. Bordogna said that the master's program at Keck can produce "a cadre of well-educated people who go out and work in the fields of biology and health care, and become industrial leaders."

Among prominent members of the profession who endorse changing undergraduate engineering is Chang-Lin Tien, a mechanical engineering professor and former chancellor at the University of California at Berkeley.

Studying engineering, said Tien, is like drinking from a fire hose, because new knowledge keeps spurting out and the student hasn't got the time to consume it all. He advocates giving engineering undergraduates a "sound liberal arts education" and saving specialization for graduate school.

  President Leo I. Higdon, Jr. of Babson College, which will offer business-oriented cources to students at adjacent Olin College.
The NSF has provided almost $170 million in support for course and curriculum changes at more than 60 schools in recent years. Students affected by these programs have been far more likely to stick with engineering studies, yet Prados said too few students have been involved so far. He estimates that only 20 to 25 percent of engineering professors endorse the changes sought by the NSF.

The NSF's Marshall Lih, a former Du Pont chemical engineer who has taught at Catholic and Georgetown universities, said that narrowly trained engineers in America tend to be subordinate to other professions, and are among the first to be laid off during recessions. He believes that this discouraging prospect for an engineering career leads many bright students to turn to other studies.

Lih, who has represented the United States at international meetings involving technology and economics, points out that corporate executives and board members in many other countries have engineering degrees. Japan, with a population half that of the United States, produces twice as many engineers, yet never seems to have too many, because a large proportion become executives.

American engineers who move up the executive ladder are "rare exceptions," because too many "lack crucial qualities such as strategic thinking, the ability to conceptualize and communicate effectively, management skills and business knowledge," Lih wrote recently in an article published by the American Society of Engineering Education. "But most of all they lack a farsighted global vision of things to come, of where technology and society are going."

NSF officials do see exceptions amidst a generally gloomy picture. For instance, Bordogna is enthusiastic about a new master's program at the University of Pennsylvania, which features group projects combining engineering technology with entrepreneurship.

Changes in the curriculum for undergraduates at Stanford University also offer evidence that large research campuses don't necessarily block progress toward innovative and independent approaches.

Engineering deans interviewed at Stanford and Penn said they agree that students often can gain more when working together on projects, in which traditional boundaries between academic disciplines disappear. At Stanford, engineering undergraduates also are expected to take a broad range of courses outside their major. More specialized training is reserved for graduate studies.

"It's the only time in your life when you have the opportunity to study a lot of things that a large university such as Stanford has to offer,'' said Joseph Goodman, associate engineering dean and former chairman of the electrical engineering department.

Students have an "incredibly strong interest" in learning about entrepreneurship, he said. A special program places top engineering undergraduates with firms in the nearby Silicon Valley for summer work. But students also must take at least nine liberal arts courses. Requirements include writing, speech, humanities and social sciences.

Stanford's electrical and mechanical engineering departments and the computer sciences department were ranked first in graduate studies in a 1995 survey by the National Research Council. Yet a large majority of Stanford's engineering faculty agrees that it is best to limit doses of undergraduate engineering coursework, Goodman said.

At Penn, the new master's program has expanded to nearly 200 students, most of them sponsored by their employers. Several have been promoted while enrolled, noted Dwight Jaggard, associate dean for graduate education and research and a professor of electrical engineering, who helped to begin the program.

The students spend two years concentrating on emerging technologies-biotech, photonics, telecommunications, modern materials and systems engineering. Half of the coursework concentrates on technology and half on business-ranging from economics to international finance.

Related information

Foundations Provide Generous Grants for New Colleges

FRANKLIN W. OLIN established his foundation after the Cornell-trained engineer made his fortune manufacturing small arms and ammunition. Board President Lawrence W. Milas said that minutes from a board meeting in 1947 show Olin had wanted to consider establishing an engineering school or college. That notion apparently died with him in 1951. Now Milas and his three fellow board members have decided to establish the college in Olin's name.

Milas has been a board member since 1974, and president since 1982. He negotiated sale of the foundation's biggest asset, the Federal Cartridge Corporation, in 1985, substantially increasing liquidity. Before the latest project, the foundation had distributed $300 million for 72 new buildings at 57 mostly small, private campuses.

The foundation may make the college its last project, because there's "no new money" except from the stock market, to support the foundation, Milas said. After more than a year of study, the foundation has suspended indefinitely making any more grants to other campuses and may use its remaining funds to support the Olin campus and help it "provide some leadership in higher education."

David Morgan, vice president for research at the Council for Aid to Education in New York, which monitors such gift giving, said it is difficult to know whether Olin's is the largest grant in higher education history. Past grants may have been larger in non-inflationary dollars, and some gifts are distributed over many years.

"There's nothing unusual about it, and it's probably the direction foundations are moving, to more narrowly defined contributions,'' Morgan said. Foundations have been on "more precise missions, looking for greater accountability. They rationalize their programs and articulate their goals,'' he added.

The Keck Foundation, which has more than a billion dollars in assets, was founded by Howard B. Keck, who made a fortune in the oil, gas and mining industries. He died in 1996 after serving as foundation chairman for 31 years. Keck is widely known for grants that made possible construction of the Keck telescopes and observatory in Hawaii.

In 1996, Keck distributed 59 grants totaling more than $39 million-32 of them in the field of science and engineering. The grants were distributed to a wide range of public and private campuses.

÷Carl Irving

Jaggard thinks innovative engineering training programs should be launched at established research campuses, not as separate entities like Keck and Olin.

"This program was started from scratch, and continues to enjoy freedom from other programs,'' he said. Most faculty members come from among the university's engineering, management, economics and social science departments, but the dean of the program has "absolute control of faculty quality." The program is self supporting and thus "has not bogged down due to constraints that might include school money."

Jaggard said there is another advantage to having this program at a prestigious, established campus: "A Penn degree means something, no doubt. It's the cachet of an established university."

At perhaps the most prestigious engineering school of all-the Massachusetts Institute of Technology-undergraduates may soon be required to include a minor field of study on the business side, according to John Vander Sande, associate dean of engineering.

"It's probably universally true for engineering education in the United States, that graduates often are weak in communications skills," said Vander Sande, a professor of material sciences and engineering and associate dean for the past six years.

He also conceded that "companies often refer to the fact that MIT students are very bright and well prepared and contribute as individuals, but have not learned to operate in a team environment as they should, and must, when joining a specific workforce·Comments are often made that we need other ways to broaden students, because many won't practice as engineers but will move into management."

But "the MIT stance is not to throw the baby out with the bath water,'' he said. The MIT core of instruction, focusing on engineering and science, will not change. MIT graduates may not be as quick to know how to operate equipment at their first job, but "they will understand the underlying principles that will withstand the test of time, while the equipment may change."

About half the engineering faculty at MIT favors curriculum reforms, with the split most evident between older and younger members, Vander Sande said. Three years ago, the would-be reformers were outnumbered three to one.

Some faculty critics of reform say, "What's good for me is good for the student," according to Vander Sande, but industry complains that faculty members who take this stance "don't know enough about what the real world is like. They don't know. They're not out there in the workplace."

MIT does have several cooperative programs with industry underway at both undergraduate and graduate levels, involving smaller numbers of students. The campus does not have to worry about retaining its students, however: 92 percent of them graduate in less than five years, and alumni urge the engineering school "to continue to supply an education to our students based on fundamental principles-the core element in our engineering education," according to Vander Sande.

He applauded Olin for being "very wise" in its ability to see that the 21st century world will need engineers who understand industrial and business management. But the MIT official questioned whether Olin will be able to succeed by stressing teaching, with little time for faculty research, or whether there will be enough money to make it all come true.

"MIT is a research university, and I believe in a strong relationship between research and education,'' Vander Sande said. "It's not simply a matter of hiring faculty and saying 'OK, go into the classroom and teach.' In order for those people to be viable, they've got to remain very active in research. And that doesn't happen with nickels and dimes.

"I know (Olin's $200 million grant) is a big lump of money. But I know what it takes for a school of engineering like MIT's. And it's not enough money. They still have a challenge to build a school of engineering that will have the same reputation (Babson) presently enjoys in management. If you want to do this from scratch, you have to realize there are infrastructural costs-it's not just hiring faculty, you have to have a lab."

But founders of the two new institutions, as well as NSF officials, disagree.

"Olin wanted to invest so that every student would get the kind of experience they are trying to produce, and if you put that kind of money into a large institution it would certainly have an impact, but not on all the students,'' said the NSF's Prados.

"At MIT, one would run into the reward structure which supports research ahead of teaching," said Riggs, who is establishing the Keck Institute in Claremont. "You don't get many rewards for starting a really good teaching program, because it's just not where the glamour is,'' he said. Milas, president of the Olin Foundation, agreed.

Joseph Bordogna, of the National Science Foundation, thinks the new colleges will provide "holistic experiences" for engineering students
Riggs and Milas have been mutually supportive for many years. In 1990, while Riggs was president of Harvey Mudd, the undergraduate engineering college at Claremont, the Olin Foundation provided a $5.5 million grant for a new science building. Last fall, Riggs-who has counseled Milas regarding startup planning for the Olin College-was part of a committee actively supporting the college's accreditation in Massachusetts.

Startup costs for Olin and Keck are estimated to be two to three times greater than they would have been if either had been part of an established campus. But both Riggs and Milas point out that their campuses will save significantly in faculty and service costs, because they will be joining consortia.

The Olin campus will be constructed on 88 acres of rolling, forested land which the foundation will purchase for about $15 million from adjacent Babson College. In recent years Babson has been strengthened by a $6 million grant from the Olin Foundation for a library and computer center, and another $30 million for a graduate business school complex.

Babson has had popular recognition for its business-oriented studies. The annual rankings in U.S. News & World Report placed Babson's undergraduate program first in the "business speciality school" category from 1989 until 1995, and its graduate program was ranked first in "entrepreneurship" for the past four years.

"We do one thing well,'' said Sandra T. King, vice president for marketing. And the campus does not hesitate to boast about it: Last fall, King's office purchased two full pages in the Wall Street Journal to display the pictures of ten successful alumni, all with impressive executive titles. "Their entrepreneurial leadership began at Babson," the headline crowed.

Babson's "culture of innovation and integration will support and foster the same kind of curricular revolution by the Olin College faculty,'' Milas said. "I don't know of any business college better than Babson." Linked to Babson's studies, Milas said, Olin students will learn about global issues and acquire entrepreneurial skills.

A central focus for Olin College will be joint ventures with local businesses, Milas said. He predicts that Olin's graduates will be prepared to manage technology-based commercial ventures and government agencies, becoming "senior corporate leaders, entrepreneurs, political leaders and specialized professionals in medicine and law."

Last November the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education approved Olin's petition to grant three bachelor of science degrees-in engineering, mechanical engineering and electrical and computer engineering.

For Riggs, the Keck Institute is a logical last career stop. After earning his BA in industrial engineering at Stanford, and an MBA at Harvard, he spent 15 years as an executive with two Silicon Valley companies before returning to Stanford as a full-time, tenured faculty member. He became chairman of industrial engineering and wrote three books about his specialties: business ventures and managing technology. He spent his last three years at Stanford as the campus' chief fund raiser, launching a successful campaign to raise $1 billion.

In 1988, Riggs became president of Harvey Mudd College, a highly regarded undergraduate campus specializing in engineering, within the Claremont Colleges group. In 1996, to the consternation of many Mudd faculty members, he announced his resignation in order to found the graduate campus just across the road. The consortium donated an 11-acre site and agreed to let Keck become the first new campus to join the Claremont Colleges since 1963. Keck will share the consortium's graduate library and administrative services.

The other members of the group are Pomona College, founded in 1887; Claremont Graduate University, 1925; Scripps College, 1926; Claremont McKenna College (formerly known as Claremont Men's College), 1946; Harvey Mudd College, 1955; and Pitzer College, 1963.

The setting is on flat land at the edge of an attractively landscaped cluster of campuses. On rare days when the smog disappears, the stately San Gabriel Mountains rise abruptly to the north. Riggs believes the location will generate joint ventures with a growing number of biotech firms in the Los Angeles basin.

"In recent years, human understanding of the fundamental building blocks and processes of life has accelerated exponentially," said Riggs. "Many declare that we are now entering the biotechnology century, defined by the life sciences and our ability to harness their power for the benefit of humanity."

Riggs said he has no concerns about industry dictating coursework. Industrialists he consulted have applauded his plans to include ethical and policy questions in coursework. He intends to have a bioethics specialist on the faculty.

"This school will help eliminate a big problem now hampering the industry-engineers and life scientists unable to talk to each other,'' said Keck's planning director, Bernadette Busenberg. For example, she said that biotech researchers often must deal with microscopic batches of life. Engineering, combined with biochemistry, can project ways for quantifying such testing, and thus visualize how to produce useful discoveries on a world-wide scale.

Riggs believes that too many engineers in industry have spent too much time-up to eight years-earning Ph.D. degrees by dipping deeply into small research areas. Firms hire them because they have no alternative, he said. He hopes to help "shoot the gap" by providing students with two graduate years of broader studies, trained by a faculty "bent differently, who will be more interested in teaching than more typical scholars."


Carl Irving is a former political and education writer for the San Francisco Examiner.

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