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Don't Let Engineering School Kill Your Passion

02/27/2014 12:25 EST | Updated 04/29/2014 05:59 EDT

Engineering schools are passion-killers.

Creative teens arrive at our doors with burning ambition, inquisitive minds and a determination to change the world for the better.

All too often much of that desire, that enthusiasm and that sheer excitement is sucked out of them within weeks.

The all-too-familiar reaction of many students when they begin their engineering education is one of disappointment and frustration. Drop out rates are too high and student satisfaction is too low. They're told they must shape up or ship out.

These passionate students come to university to be engineers: to design, to build and to make things. Instead, they are immersed in discrete math and physics until the only survivors are those who bury themselves in textbooks rather than creating or ideating with others.

The result is we lose too many exceptional budding engineers. And it's not because they lack enthusiasm or lack commitment. As engineering educators we are guilty of acting more like drill sergeants weeding out those who do not conform rather than instilling creative confidence, encouraging students to explore their passions and offering permission to fail.

The challenge for educators is how we make our engineering schools places where passions are pursued, ideas are explored and where students smile more than they grimace.

We need engineering education that teaches outside the book. We need to find ways to offer professional training that fuels passion and ignites creativity, without sacrificing technical proficiency.

After all, this is not a zero sum game. We can educate engineers with passion and perspective, while still developing their technical chops. If students understand the context and the reasoning behind concepts they're much more likely to grasp them and to develop a mastery of engineering fundamentals.

One part of the solution is to begin engineering degrees with a blast of passion. Students should spend their first semester working on passion projects with their classmates to get a sense of why they want to be engineers and what problems they want to solve with the technical knowledge they will learn.

Another element we must consider as educators is to give students the chance to gain perspective -- as well as passion -- much earlier in their university careers. The idea of waiting until third or fourth year to go out into the real world seems like a relic of the past not reflective of the future of our economy.

The era of a job-for-life and gold watch at retirement is long gone. Today's students will have portfolio careers that are likely to span many different contracts, industries, countries and projects. We need to give them the perspective they need to thrive in this new reality.

We need co-op placements much earlier. We should find ways to offer credit for freelance work assignments that counts toward students' degrees. We must recognize student start-up ventures as an integral part of engineering degrees, not as a sideline or something to be squeezed into their spare time. The divide between education and real-world experience should be more like a revolving door, and less like Checkpoint Charlie.

Engineering degrees with passion and perspective. It's not a misnomer. It's the change we desperately need.

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