An engineering degree as the liberal arts education of the 21st century? That’s the bold vision proposed by UBC Engineering given the increasingly important role that technology, coding and systems-thinking is playing in addressing global challenges.
“A liberal arts education provides the grounding for people to be successful in all aspects of our economy and society,” says James Olson, interim dean of UBC’s Faculty of Applied Science. “As all jobs increasingly become tech jobs, an engineering degree will be the liberal arts education for this century. It’s what’s needed to ensure that – independently of your career path – you have a strong foundation to make meaningful contributions to society.”
Historically, an engineering education has offered students an immersion in systems thinking, with a strong emphasis on technical skills. What’s required now, says Dr. Olson, is an opening up of that education to reflect current and evolving needs, including elements like management and interdisciplinary collaboration.
He identifies three areas where UBC is leading the way in transforming engineering education: cultural fluency, entrepreneurship and experiential learning.
Given that we live in an increasingly interconnected world, cultural fluency is quickly becoming an essential skill for working on diverse project teams in Canada and abroad. One way UBC Engineering is helping students increase their cultural fluency is through programs like the Coordinated International Experience, where students spend a semester at one of 16 partner institutions in Asia, Australia or Europe. It’s an increasingly popular option for students, and the university would like to see at least 40 percent of engineering students pursuing this or a comparable type of international experience during their degree.
In addition to studying abroad, UBC Engineering students are also encouraged to develop their skills as entrepreneurs. New this year is an entrepreneurship minor, and several campus-wide programs support technology-driven ventures that offer social and economic impact.
“Entrepreneurship is not just about becoming your own boss, although it can certainly be that,” says Dr. Olson. “It’s also about bringing that spirit of drive and innovation into everything you do – looking for new opportunities to take ideas to reality.”
Experiential learning has always been an essential element of engineering education, and UBC is home to Western Canada’s largest engineering co-op program. But there are other avenues for experiential education. Students can participate in expanded professional development opportunities, work on industry-led capstone projects and build technical and leadership skills by joining some of the dozens of engineering-focused campus teams and clubs.
Dr. Olson and his colleagues are excited about the path UBC is taking to reimagine engineering education for the 21st century. And they’re confident that prospective students will increasingly see an engineering degree as a springboard to both traditional engineering careers and an ever-expanding range of professions.
Reaching out to the next generation
When asked to describe an engineer and the sort of person who succeeds within the profession, many young people still recite the stereotypes. Geering Up UBC Engineering & Science for Kids program is working to change that, through province-wide outreach activities that introduce younger students to the diverse ways that engineers and scientists use critical-thinking and collaborative problem-solving skills to make positive changes in the world.
Over the past 20 years, the program has reached over 125,000 BC students through summer camps, school-based workshops, after-school clubs, community visits and more.
In 2016, Geering Up volunteers went to inner-city schools throughout BC, enabling over 3,000 students to participate in hands-on engineering and science activities. Needs-based bursaries were provided to 10 per cent of the participants in the program’s popular summer camps, helping eliminate a significant financial barrier and allowing students to attend a week-long immersive experience on campus.
“Last year we also went out to more than 20 communities, of which just under half were First Nations communities,” says Elizabeth Croft, senior associate dean of UBC’s Faculty of Applied Science. “We want every student in BC to know what engineering is about and the opportunities it offers. Engineering is creative and it uses technology and science for the benefit of society. It’s important we get that message out to groups of people who haven’t traditionally seen themselves as engineers and are underrepresented in the profession.”
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