Power Electronics

Grasping the General Character of Science

It seems that the need for a scientific education is a contemporary idea espoused by members of engineering societies. However, in 1869 Lynton Huxley in England presented his ideas that are strikingly similar to those we have since heard.

Huxley noted that “no boy nor girl should leave school without possessing a grasp of the general character of science, and without having been disciplined, more or less, in the methods of all sciences; so that, when turned into the world to make their own way, they shall be prepared to face scientific problems, not by knowing at once the conditions of every problem, or by being able at once to solve it; but by being familiar with the general current of scientific thought, and by being able to apply the methods of science in the proper way, when they have acquainted themselves with the conditions of the special problem.”

Today, seminars, speeches, and academic reports on engineering education echo the same idea. One example is in the 1994 report “Engineering Education for a Changing World,” where the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) asserted that “engineering education programs must not only teach the fundamentals of engineering theory, experimentation and practice, but be relevant, attractive, and connected: relevant to the lives and careers of students, preparing them for a broad range of careers, as well as for lifelong learning involving both formal programs and hands-on experience; attractive so that the excitement and intellectual content of engineering will attract highly talented students with a wider variety of backgrounds and career interests…; and connected to the needs and issues of the broader community through integrated activities with other parts of the educational system, industry, and government.”

Putting ideas such as Huxley's and the ASEE's into practice, a modern approach toward engineering and physics education is one by the Tufts' College of Engineering. With a $1 million grant from NASA, the college has developed workshops that now involve about 15 schools in the United States in its program to teach science courses at the elementary through high school level. The program's primary teaching tool: computer-generated LEGOs.

The original idea to use LEGOs stems from Chris Rogers, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Tufts. He developed software to program LEGO-like structures to perform scientific experiments. Martha Cyr, director for the Center for Engineering Educational Outreach said, “He loves LEGOs, they're a great way to do engineering design. You can build a prototype easily, and you don't have to go into the machine shop for recutting if you change your design.”

Another approach to engineering education is via the Internet, even though it's hard to assure quality information when surfing the Web. However, one reputable organization, the National Engineering Education Delivery System (NEEDS), has developed a quality “scalable infrastructure that allows engineering educators to locate and discuss digital learning resources and participate as part of a community of practice.” NEEDS is now in process of expanding to include a broader communication of learners and educators in Science, Mathematics, Engineering and Technology Education (SMETE).

These modern approaches to this old idea are only a few examples of efforts to teach the general character of science to our nation's young people. We welcome any suggestions our readers may have to improve teaching the art and science of engineering. Engineering education programs must not only teach the fundamentals of engineering theory, experimentation, and practice, but be relevant, attractive, and connected.

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