Power Electronics

Undergraduate Engineers Can Expect New Curricula

“Educating Engineers for the 21st Century” was the title of a presentation at the recent December 2008 Internal Electron Devices Meeting (IEDM) held at the San Francisco Hilton. The presentation by Jim Plummer, dean of the Stanford School of Engineering, should resonate with future engineering students.

Plummer began by describing the typical engineer as “someone who takes discoveries from the basic sciences and turns those discoveries into things that are useful to people.” He said the appropriate technical knowledge must be science-based and include math, physics and chemistry. Plummer said that engineering education should first cover basic science and then engineering. He also noted that education should focus on preparing students to be “immediately productive,” and that engineering students should learn how to:

  • Integrate information from different fields
  • Innovate
  • Communicate ideas
  • Make design trade-offs
  • Deal with complex systems.

Although the above approach covers traditional engineering education, Plummer observed changes have occurred that now impact the modern engineer and will affect future engineering education:

  • The Internet provides information anytime, anywhere (i.e., Google).
  • Careers are becoming global, unpredictable and require lifelong learning.
  • Technology is changing rapidly, particularly with worldwide competition, where innovation wins.

According to Plummer, there are several arguments for change. Among these arguments are that although current curricula are packed with technical courses, too often they are designed to “filter out” students. He said that real-world engineering involves technology, science, art and business. There is no room for critical skills such as entrepreneurship, team projects and business skills.

Plummer described an “extreme” view toward engineering education based on the medicine, law and business model. In this approach, undergraduate engineering students major in a variety of liberal arts majors and also are provided detailed technical knowledge at the MS level.

Plummer discounts the above approach for a more realistic view. In his approach, traditional undergraduate engineering majors are maintained, but current requirements are decreased and broader skills are infused into the curriculum.

He pointed out that undergraduate engineering students need several critical skills to make them “T-shaped people.” On the horizontal part of the “T,” students need a breadth of knowledge about entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation. On the vertical part of the “T,” they require a depth of knowledge in a technical discipline.


Plummer noted that entrepreneurship programs are springing up in many universities — sometimes in business schools, sometimes in engineering schools. These include courses, seminars, student competitions and summer internships in startup companies.

According to Stanford's Ventures Program, “Entrepreneurship is a mind-set, an outlook that shapes the way you see the world and the possibilities that it holds. It is basic dissatisfaction with the status quo, and it is the courage to say to yourself, ‘This could be better.’”

In Plummer's view, this involves a team that includes members from technology, business and human values, covering feasibility, viability, and usability or desirability, respectively. It must be an interdisciplinary team consisting of engineering, business, art and social sciences. The team should work on real projects with industry mentors.

He maintains that undergraduate level students should spend summers in a faculty research lab. The work they do should involve real engineering problems, which attracts new students and helps retention issues. This might also include summer internships, which can be a cultural and technical experience if pursued outside of the United States.

Communication skills include the ability to “sell ideas,” which can be critical to career success. Because of its importance, Plummer says technical writing/speaking skills should be integrated into many engineering courses.

Plummer noted that a company CEO once told him, “We no longer want to hire engineers with a four-year degree. Instead we want our employees to have a 40-year degree.” Recalling a statement from Peter Senge's The Fifth Discipline, “The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage,” Plummer said lifelong learning can take several avenues, including online courses (some free) and free lecture notes, and integrated with online search.


Plummer pointed out how Erik Strasser talked about “waves,” and that information technology, energy/environment, and life sciences are the waves for the next 25 years. Therefore, we need the very best, brightest, and the most innovative and creative young people choosing engineering as a career. “These students are driven by passion, curiosity, engagement and dreams,” he said

Or as Charles Vest's explains in “Educating Engineers for 2020 and Beyond,” making universities and engineering schools exciting creative, rigorous, demanding and empowering milieus is more important than specifying curricular details.

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