Engineering innovation is absolutely necessary for the future of our shared planet.  Engineering is critical for meeting societal challenges in energy, sustainability, food, and healthcare.  Moreover, a rigorous engineering education allows students to quantitatively analyze problems in a variety of fields; the engineering mindset fosters careful, data-driven decision-making.  Engineers strive to not only understand the world around them, but also to create a new and better reality for everyone.  My work in teaching, advising, and mentoring within the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences is driven by one singular goal: training the next generation of engineering innovators.

The first step toward this goal is to recruit and retain first-year students in engineering degree programs.  Young students often lack confidence in their engineering skills.  Even more concerning, young students often are unclear on what engineers actually do.  Without self-assurance and without vision, these talented students are lost to the field of engineering.  I have been contemplating this issue since my first day of teaching, and I recently attended the 2013 Frontiers of Engineering Education symposium organized by the National Academy of Engineering to address this issue.  Our team of engineering educators, representing invited faculty from all fields of engineering, identified the following priorities for recruitment and retention of first-year students:

Place the best teachers in front of the youngest students.  As Professor Dave Raj Raman from Iowa State University stated, “In Iowa, we say that you need to protect your seed-corn.  You need to protect your youngest students.  The best teachers need to be in front of the freshmen.”  Students make lifelong decisions about their fields of study in the freshman and sophomore years, and they must be exposed to faculty who excel in teaching and mentoring.  Ultimately, young students must sense that engineering faculty care about student achievement and success.

Scale engineering education appropriately.  Engineering education can only succeed if it is scaled appropriately; this means that class sizes must allow quality student-teacher interactions.  One-on-one mentoring cannot take place in a large lecture hall.  If we wish to increase the number of students in engineering programs, we must proportionately increase the number of teachers and mentors in engineering departments.   Engineering is an intense academic program, and students require individual attention and face-to-face instruction.  One-on-one mentoring will allow students to build confidence and interest in engineering.

Engage students in hands-on learning.  Engineering is fundamentally all about designing new systems and tools to meet human needs.  Students pursue engineering because they like building things, so students must be engaged in hands-on projects with real-world applications as early as possible.  Hands-on learning can and should be incorporated into first-year courses.  For example, first-year bioengineering students can complete laboratory projects on vascular growth, first-year electrical engineering students can build basic circuits, and first-year mechanical engineering students can build devices using computer-aided design.  Such projects generate joy and excitement about the engineering design process, and motivate students to stick with engineering programs.

Encourage students to solve open-ended problems.  In the real world, problems will not present themselves as homework sets, quizzes, or exams.  In the real world, problems will present themselves as pressing human needs, where no clear answers exist.  A skilled engineer recognizes that any problem can have multiple solutions; the job of the engineer is to find the optimal solution.  First-year engineering students must be given the opportunity to solve open-ended problems.  Such exercises demonstrate the uniqueness and value of the engineering approach.

Engineering students must have a sense of pride in their chosen profession.  It is the duty of engineering faculty to foster a community of courageous, passionate, responsible engineering students who are driven to attack global challenges head-on.  Engineering faculty and students have the potential to change the world, we just need to recognize and harness our gifts.

Sujata K. Bhatia, MD, PhD, PE