Founded initially as the Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education (SPEE) in 1893, the society was created at a time of great growth in American higher education. In 1862, Congress passed the Morrill Land-Grant Act, which provided money for states to establish public institutions of higher education. These institutions focused on providing practical skills, especially “for the benefit of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts.” As a result of increasingly available higher education, more Americans started entering the workforce with advanced training in applied fields of knowledge. However, they often lacked grounding in the science and engineering principles underlying this practical knowledge.
After a generation of students had passed through these new public universities, professors of engineering began to question whether they should adopt a more rigorous approach to teaching the fundamentals of their field. Ultimately, they concluded that engineering curricula should stress fundamental scientific and mathematical principles, not hands-on apprenticeship experiences. To organize support for this approach to engineering education, SPEE was formed in the midst of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Known as the World's Columbian Exposition, this event heralded the promise of science and engineering by introducing many Americans, for example, to the wonders of electricity. Emerging out of the Fair’s World Engineering Congress, SPEE members dedicated themselves to improving engineering education at the classroom level. Over its history, the society has put out several reports on the subject, such as the Mann Report (1907), the Wickenden Study (1920s), and the Grinter Report (1955).
During World War II, the federal government started to place more emphasis on research, prompting SPEE to form the Engineering College Research Association (ECRA), which was more concerned with research than SPEE had ever been. The ECRA spoke for most engineering researchers, sought federal funds, and collected and published information on academic engineering research. After the war, the desire to integrate the less research-oriented SPEE with the ECRA resulted in the disbanding of SPEE and the formation of ASEE in 1946.
ASEE was a volunteer-run organization through the 1950s. In 1961, ASEE established a staff headquarters in Washington, DC, and undertook a more activist posture. However, through the 1960s, the Vietnam War and social unrest in general made the mood on many campuses anti-technology, anti-business, and anti-establishment. In the 1960s and 1970s, ASEE presidents Merritt Williamson and George Hawkins reorganized ASEE to better represent its members and return its focus to teaching. As a result of this new focus, ASEE began to administer several teaching-related government contracts, including NASA’s summer faculty fellowships and the Defense Department’s Civil Defense Summer Institutes and Fellowships. Currently, ASEE administers over ten government contracts, including the prestigious National Science Foundation's Graduate Research Fellowship Program.
Another result of the renewed emphasis on teaching was ASEE’s initiative for recruiting minorities and women into engineering. ASEE created the Black Engineering College Development program which used industry funding to assist African-American faculty members or students at traditionally black colleges and universities to pursue a doctoral degree and return to teach at an HBCU. ASEE also received several grants in the 1970s to research the status of women and American Indians and develop programs to attract more of these students to enter engineering. Since then, ASEE has continued to release studies on the subject in its Journal of Engineering Education, and has created divisions specifically devoted to developing programs and research in this area.
With the rise of Silicon Valley in the 1990’s and the prospect of significant off-shoring of high-tech companies’ activities, the importance of engineering education to America’s continued success has finally made headlines. As a result, ASEE has seen a rise in membership and recognition over the recent years as a clearinghouse of information about engineering education and an important tool in shaping the future of the field.
To read more about the history of ASEE, click ASEE at 130
A list of ASEE's Past Presidents
A list of past Annual Conference locations