Originally written for Olin's "learning about learning" mailing list, for conversations about engineering education. Reposted here.

I'm reading a 1999 JEE (Journal of Engineering Education) article by Bruce Seeley titled "The Other Re-engineering of Engineering Education, 1900-1965" which might be a fun one for Oliners going "rah-rah-hands-ON! Change the OLD and STILTED curriculum!" Because as it turns out, the OLD and STILTED! forms aren't... very old.

Engineering as a formal academic discipline in the US wasn't really formal when it started in the late 1800's; most "engineers" are what we'd call mechanics or machinists today, with a very hands-on, build-things background. Faculty were basically supposed/assumed to have spent time in industry, and they were spending all their time teaching students to be industry-ready; the idea of doing "engineering research" was rare in the early 1900's. Having students get hands dirty fixing things wasn't the issue -- stepping back to learn the math that explained why doing X and Y fixed things was the missing bit.

Apparently this wasn't necessarily true outside the US; I recall Steven Zhang describing French engineering schools as more theoretical-math-based from his study abroad experience, and this seems to have been true in France when engineering education in the US was just getting started, leading a visiting French scientist in 1920 to declare that "the first-year students... are very weak.... [the American engineer] is first of all a man of action." (As if action contraindicated strength in engineering!) Other European immigrants (Russian, etc) similarly deplored that US engineering students didn't know anything (and by "anything," they meant "math and science"), and as they came in and rose through US academic ranks, things started to shift towards the theoretical. American scientists (for instance, Caltech's founder, a physicist) supported them; of course that's how engineering "should" be taught -- science!

When the World Wars hit and physicists got the credit (and funding) for things like the atomic bomb, engineering programs really started changing, chucking out machining classes and sticking math in their place, because the government was shoveling funds in the direction of "research" and boy howdy engineering wanted that cash. And so began the shoveling-on of theoretical courses into the curriculum, because I guess it was assumed that "of course engineering and engineers are going to be useful to industry no matter what we do!" And around the time when people start yelling that the pendulum's swung too far in that direction and needs to return the other way is when Olin (and most of us as young students) enter the scene.

Anyway, thought this would be some food for thought. It's interesting to see how quickly (relatively speaking -- well within a person's lifetime) the fundamental nature of ENE changed, and how few people (a bunch of engineers who rose through academic ranks collaborating with each other to make "proper" learning happen) really tipped the scales. And nowadays, change can happen way faster, collaboration way easier.

100 years ago, European engineers brought "engineering as applied science" to the US; wouldn't it be ironic if we returned the favor with a pendulum swing in the other direction? Seems like that's exactly what we're doing now.