At the Interface - A New Kind of Engineering Educator

Helen L. Plants

Engineering Education, vol. 62, no. 2, November 1971

During the last decade, the engineering colleges have seen a new kind of teacher begin to emerge. A number of engineering teachers are reading books and papers in educational psychology. In many of today's engineering colleges one or more faculty members are engaged in dialogue with their opposite numbers in colleges of education. A few people in a few schools are developing a considerable expertise in areas that were once the preserve of the educational psychologist. In short, the engineering educator has discovered education, and has found a challenge in it.

Causes for the Change

This has come about as the result of several causative factors. First, the colleges of education have changed. The concepts of behavioral psychology, particularly as advocated by B. F. Skinner, have won wide acceptance and form the dominant basis for action in many, if not most, colleges of education today. The doctrine that learning must lead to observable phenomena has led to an emphasis on measurement that has attracted many in the engineering community. The idea that what happens in a teaching-learning situation is actually subject to objective measurement rather than subjective evaluation has proven a first step toward educational gains in many disciplines.

Second, the activities of A. A. Root,1, 2 and more recently, Fred Keller,3 have tended to break down the prejudices that have characterized the engineer's view of the professional educator. The obvious common sense of these men, together with the apparent utility of the schemes they described, have made engineers begin to realize that things were happening in colleges of education that merited careful consideration. Some found the ideas presented by Root at ASEE Annual Conferences so exciting that they began searching the fields of education and psychology for nuggets of equal merit. Others were so impressed by Keller's success that they began to implement his ideas in their classrooms.

Third, by developing the Programmed Learning Project, 1965-67, ASEE identified a core of engineering teachers who had already shown innovative tendencies, and by an intensive cram course in current educational thought and practice and a long term follow-up and critique of their efforts, shaped them into highly effective practitioners of the new educational ideas. 4 While the Society was initially disappointed by the small number of programs published as a result of the project, its overall effect has been far-reaching. The majority of the participants in the project have turned out to be highly creative, applying their new expertise in many directions other than programmed learning. In addition they have been highly articulate and possessed of an almost missionary zeal to change engineering education. Earlier, the Young Engineering Teachers' summer institutes at Penn State sponsored by ASEE and conducted by Otis Lancaster had inspired a similar group of talented teachers. 5 These also afforded an attentive audience for the new ideas.

Last, ASEE, particularly the Educational Research and Methods Division, has provided a platform and an audience. Through the papers presented at the annual meetings, at the section meetings and in Engineering Education, an ever-growing number has been exposed to the innovative ideas and methods of the pioneers. Many have found merit in them, gone home to try them, and returned to convert others. In addition ERM's extremely popular program of Effective Teaching Institutes, under the leadership of Edward Kraybill, 6 has served to increase the awareness of engineering teachers everywhere that there are new ideas abroad in the land.

The result of all this has been that a certain number of people have emerged as experts in engineering education and a somewhat larger number has developed an ambition to become expert. The majority of those currently at the forefront are highly educated in engineering but only self-trained in educational techniques. A somewhat smaller number has topped an engineering master's degree with a doctor's degree in psychology or educational administration. A few have followed individually tailored paths, combining engineering and education courses into a Ph.D. program. There has been no formal program anywhere to train a man to function as an expert in engineering education.

Educational Design at West Virginia

As more and more people have come to perceive education as an area in which the engineer's problem-solving techniques are not only applicable, but needed, a demand has begun to develop some sort of training in the design of education. Informal programs have developed in several universities. West Virginia University has developed a formal program — the first of its kind in the country. It is the outgrowth of the continuing program of research in engineering education carried on by the Department of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics. 7

The program's aim is to create a man capable of applying the principles of educational psychology to the problems of educating engineers. It is primarily concerned with the design of education. It does not propose to serve the teacher by giving him a minor program of education courses relevant to his needs and performance in the classroom. Such a minor would be a perfectly acceptable goal for another program; it just is not the goal of this one.

A graduate of the program might be hired by a college of engineering in an advisory capacity to help the faculty bring modern educational thought to bear on specific problems, and to identify and investigate problems dealing with motivation, professional characteristics, and instructional goals. In a large school this might be his entire responsibility. In a small school it might constitute the research activity that supplemented his regular teaching load in his area of engineering specialization.

His services might be sought by others than colleges of engineering. He might be asked to develop or improve technical curricula on the community college or technical institute level. He might be employed by industry as a consultant on the problems of continuing education, in evaluating training manuals and programs, or he might find a place in the new industry devoted to the production of educational hardware and software.

The program at West Virginia is administered by the College of Human Resources and Education with the cooperation of the College of Engineering and is implemented in part by staff holding joint appoint meets in the two colleges. Students in the program are expected to have demonstrated engineering competence by completion of a M.S. degree in engineering prior to acceptance in the program. In addition, evidence of a commitment to education is required. The program itself consists of doctoral level courses in education and related fields and culminates in a research project in some area of engineering education. It results in the degree of Doctor of Education.

Individual Curriculum Development

Each student's program is tailored to his back- and aspirations so that considerable variation occurs, but the major portion of the course work is in the areas of educational psychology, human development, curriculum design and educational research. A seminar in engineering education is included in each student's schedule for each semester of his enrollment and provides him with an opportunity to place the material he is learning in context with the problems of engineering education.

To date, 14 students have made some progress toward the degree and the first graduates are expected in June 1972. The majority of the current students are on paid leave from their institutions and will return to serve as innovators-in-residence and educational advisors to their own engineering colleges. Dissertations are in progress dealing with programmed instruction, laboratory instruction, self-paced instruction, and motivation.

The response to this program has been tremendous. It is in itself a confirmation of the need for people trained to apply engineering solutions to educational problems. If we are to effectively transmit ever-increasing knowledge to ever-increasing numbers of student engineers and technicians, we must train people who are competent to work at the interface. West Virginia University has provided one response to the challenge of training men who are fully professional in both engineering and education. Other answers are needed.


  1. Root, A. A., "Teaching as Decision Making," Engineering Education, vol. 59, no. 7, March 1969, pp. 850-851.
  2. Root, A. A., "A Model of What Happens in Teaching and Learning," Engineering Education, vol. 60, no. 7, March 1970, pp. 726-731.
  3. Keller, F. S., "Goodbye, Teacher. . .," Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, vol. 1, 1968, pp. 79-89.
  4. Roe, Arnold, "The ASEE Programmed Learning Project," Engineering Education, vol. 59, no. 7, March 1969, pp. 869-874.
  5. Lancaster, O. E., "ASEE-Penn State Summer Institute on Effective Teaching," Engineering Education, vol. 58, no. 2, October 1967, pp. 127-131.
  6. Kraybill, E. K., "Evolution of Quality Teaching Programs in Engineering," Engineering Education, vol. 58, no. 2, October 1967, pp. 122-126.
  7. Plants, H. L., "What Kind of a Degree is This?" ERM Magazine, vol. 2, no. 1, October 1969, pp. 21-22.

Professor Plants is a member of the Department of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics in the College of Engineering and the Department of Curriculum and Instruction in the Division of Education at West Virginia University.