Keynote Address


Denice D. Denton
Dean, College of Engineering
University of Washington

This is an exciting and challenging time in higher education. Some view the ongoing reductions in federal resources as the death knell for high quality academic research. However, with challenges come opportunities. It is possible that we can use the external forces (e.g., reduced federal and state funding and increasing oversight by the public and legislatures) as an opportunity to sharpen our thinking and focus on our mission and goals in the academy and how best to achieve them. In times of rapid change, it is essential to have in place an agile and adaptive system that can respond appropriately to internal and external forces.

Engineers excel at the design, analysis, and improvement of complex systems; and education is certainly such a system. As engineering faculty, therefore, we are in an excellent position to play leadership roles in generating a campus-wide response to the challenges that face us. The key components of the education system in the U.S. are: (1) the College of Engineering, (2) the rest of the University, and (3) External Partners (e.g., K-12, Industry, Government, Foundations, Other Countries). The primary system outputs are well-educated graduates of the university and high-quality research. This preliminary analysis can provide a framework with which to view the challenges and strategies for the future.


Areas in which engineering faculty are well positioned to take on enhanced leadership roles campus-wide include: (1) Integration of Research and Teaching, (2) Campus-Wide Cooperation, (3) Focus on Student Learning and (4) Sophisticated Assessment Strategies.

Integration of Research and Teaching

Historically, engineering faculty have been major contributors to the research strength and economic health of this country. In order to succeed in coming decades, Colleges of Engineering will have to continue to be imaginative in pioneering new, often interdisciplinary, research directions which address societal needs. In parallel, we are challenged to do a better job of educating our students in a time in which resources are diminishing. To do both well, we need to be more effective in integrating the teaching and research components of our mission, as is increasingly recognized nationally.

For over a decade, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has supported Engineering Research Centers (ERCs) which focus both on interdisciplinary research and on the integration of research and education. There are many other excellent examples of undergraduate participation in research in both independent study (e.g., NSF's Research Experiences for Undergraduates [REU] Program) and classroom-based activities. In addition, there is a national call to better integrate research and education in graduate programs. The NSF is in fact supporting a number of Summer Workshops for graduate students and beginning engineering faculty to encourage this integration.

The experience gained from these efforts, as well the intrinsic nature of engineering research, should allow engineering faculty to be key contributors to campus-wide efforts to integrate research and education. In order to make this possible, we must develop facilities and infrastructure that better serve the dual mission. The Integrated Teaching Laboratory at the University of Colorado has some of the characteristics of such a facility. In addition, NSF has just released an announcement on "Recognition Awards for the Integration of Research and Education", an award that could be used to develop and enhance the campus infrastructure for such an integration.

Campus-Wide Cooperation

In a time of diminishing resources, we will have to be more imaginative in order to ensure the effective utilization of the research infrastructure on campus. In addition to more effective resource-sharing across campus (and between campuses), we will need to promote mechanisms for the multiple use of existing facilities. Engineers generally have expertise in teaming and collaborative efforts in which resources and facilities are shared (as in the ERCs) and can therefore provide leadership both in obtaining funding that requires collaboration and then in carrying out the work. For example, the University of Wisconsin-Madison recently was chosen as the site for the NSF-sponsored National Institute for Science Education (NISE). The ultimate goal of the NISE is to increase science, math, engineering and technology (SMET) literacy for all students from kindergarten to graduate school. This effort is a collaborative one involving dozens of faculty from the Colleges of Engineering, Letters and Science, Agriculture and Life Sciences, and Education. The NISE would not have been funded by NSF and will not be successful without continuing participation by all of these groups; and the intellectual leadership roles played by engineering faculty have been particularly notable.

In response to the national focus on SMET literacy, engineers are playing increasingly significant roles in undergraduate education, both for majors and non-majors. The first year engineering design courses that are the hallmark of the ECSEL coalition may be an excellent venue for SMET literacy for all students. There are already examples of pre-service teachers taking these courses (e.g., ECSEL and UW-Madison). Engineering educators have identified the crucial role of the "gateway courses" (e.g., Calculus, Physics, and Chemistry) and are working with their colleagues to enhance the quality of those courses for all SMET majors (at Cornell, for example).

Finally, campuses must consider an intellectual restructuring to better achieve the research and education missions in changing times. Engineers can again play a key role in the "re-engineering" of the campus organizational chart. Virtual departments are being experimented with and major restructuring has taken place on some campuses, notably at Nagoya in Japan. Our colleagues in business and industry are farther along in this process of "horizontal integration" and it is essential that we in the academy reflect on the structure of higher education to identify ways to make our organizations more effective.

Focus on Student Learning

There is a paradigm shift taking place in the academy, in which the focus is moving from faculty and their teaching to students and their learning. Efforts to improve student learning include a variety of innovative pedagogical approaches (including first-year design courses, cooperative learning, upper division interdisciplinary courses, technology-enhanced education, and distance learning). Engineering educators are leading the way in many of these areas. It is also important to recognize the role of students in this transformation process. In a number of locations, students are providing leadership in curricular change.

Finally, with the focus on student learning comes the opportunity for research in engineering education. There is a new cadre of engineering faculty focusing their research efforts not exclusively on engineering but also on how students learn engineering. These efforts could be strengthened by greater collaboration with colleagues in education, cognitive science, and ethnography who are breaking important ground independently at present. The goals of such work include exploring the diversity of learning styles of engineering undergraduates, experimenting with the use of multimedia materials, and developing a theoretical framework for curriculum design. The results of this work will allow us to more effectively educate the engineer of the future.

Sophisticated Assessment Strategies

Most Colleges of Engineering have in place a mission statement, goals, and a strategic plan for achieving them. However, mechanisms for monitoring the progress toward these goals, and for assessing the contributions of individual departments and units to the overall mission, remain rather limited. Particularly in times of increasingly constrained resources, Colleges of Engineering will have to be more critical in prioritizing their goals (both in research and education) and in holding departments accountable for their performance. It is not that each unit needs to excel in all areas ; rather, individual units should be able to develop their own strategic plans in the context of the broader mission and then devise self-assessment strategies to facilitate the desired outcome.

Assessment strategies should not be onerous and bureaucratic in nature, but should be designed to serve the dual purposes of helping the unit to reach its goals more effectively and of helping the College as a whole to continuously fine tune its collective efforts. This approach is illustrated in the proposed ABET Engineering Criteria 2000 in which institutions seeking accreditation must have in place self-assessment structures to demonstrate that they are meeting their goals. There are a number of examples of powerful approaches to the evaluation of pedagogical innovations in engineering.

In addition, any discussion of assessment must recognize the national call for modernization of the faculty rewards structure. A core issue here is how to assess the quality of the contribution to scholarship, broadly defined. One national model for the assessment of the faculty contribution to education is the American Association of Higher Education (AAHE) Peer Evaluation of Teaching Program. This effort involves faculty members (many of whom are engineers) from twelve institutions around the country. The AAHE program is developing a variety of strategies for assessment of classroom teaching and other components of the educational contributions of faculty.

In order to successfully achieve continuous improvement in all of the areas described here, higher education must critically review the infrastructure currently in place for data collection for student, staff, and faculty records. At present, it ranges from 3x5 index card files at some institutions to sophisticated electronic data bases at others. But on the whole, we do not have in place the capability to do meaningful assessment of individual student and faculty performance, longitudinal studies of large cohorts of students to determine the impact of pedagogical innovations, or the contributions of departments and units to the broader research and education missions of the College. This situation must be remedied in order to effect the systemic approach outlined here.


The higher education system interacts in a complex way with a variety of "external" partners whose energy and expertise must be more effectively harnessed to overcome the challenges we face. A few possible strategies are described here.

K-12 and Two-Year Institutions

These are the primary sources of our undergraduate student body. We must work with colleagues from these arenas to ensure the best possible education for all students and to effect a seamless web of educational experiences K-16. We are in a particularly critical period with respect to K-12, in that we must understand the impact of the national math (NCTM) and science (NRC, AAAS, and NSTA) standards. If and when the recommendations in the standards are effectively implemented, the character of first-year university students will be dramatically changed in turn requiring a change in our undergraduate curriculum. We in higher education should decide what role we wish to play in implementation of the K-12 standards, and not simply react to the external forces. We must also take a proactive role in articulation from high school or two-year institutions to the College of Engineering. It is essential to maintain open lines of communication (and programmatic efforts where necessary) with our colleagues in these arenas to ensure as transparent an interface as possible for students moving between these venues.

Finally, we must actively define our role as engineering educators in the preparation of the future K-12 teacher work force. Colleges of Engineering are increasingly taking on responsibilities for the pre-service and in-service education of teachers (e.g., City Science at CCNY, ECSEL precollege outreach, and the NSF Teacher Collaborative at MIT), but there is much room for additional effort in this crucial endeavor.


Industry is a primary employer of our students and a major supporter of our research efforts. Engineering colleges have a strong history of working closely with industry through contract research programs, faculty consulting, student co-op and internship programs, and service by industrial colleagues on College advisory boards. We need to explore ways to enhance this already strong collaboration to face major challenges such as reduced federal funding for R&D, reduced state funding for education, reduced industrial support for in-house research efforts, and the ever-increasing costs of the research facilities essential to academic scholarship.

The message from our industrial partners concerning desired attributes of engineering graduates is very clear. They include a good grasp of engineering science fundamentals, a good understanding of design and manufacturing, good communication skills, curiosity and a desire to learn for life, and a profound understanding of the importance of team work. In addition, employers are demanding that Colleges of Engineering graduate a diverse student body with respect to gender and ethnicity. We are being asked to ensure that we provide opportunities for all students to become successful engineers.

Our collaboration with industry to create an educational environment that produces students with these attributes, while preserving strength in research, requires not only financial support but a real intellectual engagement. Such an engagement will require different strategies, approaches, and infrastructures from those that were successful in the past. Some examples of novel approaches include the cooperative efforts between higher education and the business community in Virginia to convince the legislature of the importance of higher education, and the NSF GOALI (Grant Opportunities for Academic Liaisons with Industry) program.


Engineering academics historically have worked closely with the federal government by serving on national advisory boards in education and research and by taking on important "rotator" positions in the government for extended periods. Our interaction with state governments has not been as effective in the past. This was not particularly problematic in "fat" times, but with ever-decreasing state resources, it is important for us to interact effectively with our colleagues in the state and local governments to ensure the health of public-assisted higher education. We must explore new ways to work cooperatively to develop a shared vision and goals. This will require enhanced lines of communication with more regular interaction between university, government, and industry. A few successful examples such as the Virginia case cited above and the University of Colorado's student-driven "Adopt-a-Legislator" program exist, but campus leadership must be proactive in this area to ensure a successful and productive partnership.

Additional key partners include other campuses, foundations, and other countries. The National Nanofabrication Users Network exemplifies a successful multi-institutional partnership supported by the NSF. Colleges of Engineering must also work with foundations and international colleagues to achieve shared goals in engineering education and research.


The engineers we educate today will become the industrial employees, educators (pre-college and higher education), and researchers of the future. We must ensure that they are prepared to face and overcome the challenges (many of which we do not yet imagine) of the next century. In order to be effective in preparing our students for these increasingly complex roles, while continuing to provide the research leadership upon which economic competitiveness ultimately relies, we will have to be far more imaginative and ambitious intellectually. What is called for from us is the more effective application of the analytic skills which characterize our technical work to the social problems that face us. Engineers have been in a position to take on such leadership roles for quite some time, and the past decade has seen notable initiatives. Nevertheless the scope of what we can offer is far broader than that of our contributions to date. Engineering faculty can use this time of challenge not only to rethink engineering academia, but to play key leadership roles campus-wide in the restructuring of higher education.

To quote from the Call To Action of the report of the NRC's Board on Engineering Education:see notes #2

"It is essential for each engineering institution to update itself within the context of an institutionally shared vision of the overall system and its goals -- a concept best expressed by the phrase, think globally, act locally."

More specifically, the following actions are recommended for all institutions:

  • Conduct an institutional self-assessment
  • Redress imbalances in the faculty incentive system
  • Improve teaching methods and practices
  • Ensure that the curriculum supports the institution's strategic plan
  • Expand beneficial interactions and outreach.

    With these actions in mind, I would urge you all to Just Do It!