11/14/2013 01:50 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Engineers Must Fix the Roof While the Sun Shines

Canada needs more engineers. Business is demanding more engineers. More students want to study engineering. Governments, philanthropists and universities are responding to this clamour with big money investments in engineering schools.

Barely a month goes by in North America without another mega-donation. Earlier this year the University of Illinois received $100 million for engineering programs. A $133 million gift is creating the centrepiece of the new Cornell NYC Tech campus, and only last month the University of Calgary was awarded a government grant of $142.5 million.

Engineering schools are enjoying a remarkable boom at a time when belts are tightening across the post-secondary education sector as a whole.

We're seeing more money spent, more faculty hired and more students enrolling, as well as long-dreamed-of engineering palaces springing up on campuses across our continent.

The danger of overconfidence at this moment is a clear and present one: we are doing the right thing, but we are going about it in the wrong way. This threatens to be our greatest undoing.

The fact is, the world is facing new challenges that need new solutions and new ways thinking -- and a different type of engineer. Business is demanding a different type of engineering graduate. Students want a different type of engineering education.

A more of the same approach simply will not do. We must repair the roof while the sun is shining.

Universities are stuck in the past, producing engineers for the bygone industrial era. Too many still teach budding engineers with a staid curriculum delivered in gloomy lecture halls using narrow assessment criteria.

We are letting down our country. China, Korea and India are graduating almost two-million engineers every year. Canada's only chance for competitive advantage is to produce better engineers.

We are letting down business. For years, employers have told educators that they need engineering graduates with an entrepreneurial zeal, a multidisciplinary outlook and an understanding of the global economy, yet we still churn out technical professionals lacking the 'soft' skills they need to succeed.

Most importantly, we are letting down students. Graduates have a rude awakening when they leave the comfort blanket of a university campus and face the realities of working in global corporations or leading international projects. Too often they're back in school before long, learning the business and legal skills their engineering program failed to provide.

The next technological breakthrough or business leader -- the next Jeffrey Skoll or Marissa Mayer -- won't be nurtured in bigger engineering schools with professors using the same notes they put together before today's students were even born.

Solving these problems won't be easy, and won't appeal to many engineering educators, particularly when the sun seems to be shining so brightly.

But we cannot allow these new multi-million dollar investments to breed complacency or organizational caution. If we do, we'll be left in ten years with a series of engineering white elephants churning out the same kind of engineer, one who will be out-numbered and out-innovated by their counterparts in the east.

Entrepreneurial thinking, business leadership and people skills must be as familiar to engineering students as calculus or structural analysis. This is the only way Canadian graduates can hope to out-smart and out-create the global competition.

The Lassonde School of Engineering was established this year to educate this new type of engineer -- someone with an entrepreneurial spirit, a social conscience and a sense of global citizenship who is a highly-trained professional in their field and across many disciplines.

Unfortunately, the only person who likes change is a baby with a wet diaper. Our engineering education system has become too soiled with inertia and is ripe for fresh thinking, not simply piecemeal changes.

We need to embrace a radical evolution in engineering education. One that questions our assumptions, rejects our comfort zones and invites outsiders in to open the windows of our cloistered academic world.

We need to invest in ideas, not simply bricks and mortar or expanded payrolls.

It's a time for boldness to triumph over timidity. More of the same will not do.

At the Lassonde School of Engineering we're working with Californian global design thinkers IDEO, an award-winning global design firm that takes a human-centered, design-based approach to helping organizations innovate and grow, to create a truly radical evolution in engineering education, what we call Renaissance Engineering.

We want to flip the classroom to deliver most lectures online and rethink the student experience based on their needs, not the convenience of administrators or academics. We are designing a striking new $90 million building, but one without lecture halls or closed-door offices.

None of this will be easy. We won't get everything right first time. As we buck tradition we will no doubt face many doubters, but we must break free from the 'a little change is good; no change is better' culture that continues to be prevalent within many academic institutions.

The sun is shining. Let's fix the roof before it's too late.

Academics, business leaders and innovators must get behind a radical evolution.

Canada needs it. Business is demanding it. And students deserve it.