May 4, 2010 | By Andy Sobchak |
Many Canadian engineers agree that our academic curricula need to better equip engineering students for professional life in a dynamic and global 21st century. A 2009 survey conducted within the Canadian engineering community by EWB-Canada indicated there was a “strong disconnect between the profession’s desired future impact and its current inability to help make globalization’s benefits accessible to disadvantaged communities.” Where there is less agreement, however, is around how to best affect this change. A series of four articles published in the Journal for Policy Engagement between May 2009 and April 2010 provides an interesting snapshot of the divergent views on the subject.
In May 2009, Jonathan Fishbein, Program Coordinator for Curriculum Enhancement and Global Engineers at EWB-Canada, and Adrian Chan, Associate Professor in Systems and Computing at Carleton University, authored a paper asserting engineers needed to better understand their societal responsibilities. With an industry-wide global mindset the attraction of socially conscious engineers to and public perception of the profession would be enhanced, and the best way to achieve this mindset shift would be through reflective changes to engineering curricula in our universities.
For many who have professionally matured in an EWB-infused culture, this stance may appear as a no-brainer, but for others in the Canadian engineering community, the issue is not as clear cut. In fact, several published responses to the article haven’t been in support of Fishbein’s and Chan’s viewpoints.
Alexander Kobelak, a retired engineer with 40 years of experience working in international settings, was not as taken by the idea of producing global engineers in the classroom. In his January 2010 article, Kobelak maintains that engineers who work abroad are different than most in the profession, often possessing qualities inherently that make them successful at what they do. He continues by stating that these qualities are hard, and perhaps impossible, to teach to all engineering students, subsequently rendering a globally focused curriculum inappropriate.
Fishbein and Chan’s published response claims these skills are already being incorporated into current curricula with no negative impact to technical abilities. They argue further that “our globalized economy requires more engineers equipped with superior communication skills, with flexibility working in different cultures and contexts, and who have a facility for multi-disciplinary and interdisciplinary teamwork, a well-developed sense of social responsibility, and strong complex problem analysis skills,” best described as “global engineers.”
The latest word in the JPE published debate came in April 2010 from Jonathan VanderSteen and Usman Mushtaq, a post-doctorate fellow at the University of Guelph and a M.Sc. candidate at Queen’s University, respectively, who portend that engineer development should be focused locally and not globally. “Local community engagement provides many of the benefits gained from international experience with fewer practical, ethical and pedagogical risks” claim the authors. “As well, focusing on local communities strengthens engineering’s relationships with the people it is most intimately connected with and helps practitioners prepare for a future in which they are likely to be more locally engaged.”
For those who were not able to previously partake in this debate or attend the 2009 National Engineering Summit in Montreal, reading all four articles is recommended to get a taste of the discussion. Each of them, as well as a host of others can be accessed through the noted links or through the JPE website. For additional commentary with an EWB flair, the published discussion in the JPE is also mirrored on EWB-Canada’s intranet website, MyEWB.
Most in the engineering industry would agree with VanderSteen and Musthaq: “Canadian engineers can create positive [and] transformative change in society.” Exactly how we train the new wave of Canadian engineers to best do this appears to still be contentiously at issue.