We all hold mental models of educational systems and to some extent these models affect both our day-to-day activities and the ways we envision the future of engineering education. Such models include the metaphor of a leaky pipeline common in policy documents about STEM education. This model, along with engineering beliefs about rigor, give rise to concerns about the efficiency of education. For example, this pipeline model has led to the view that retention issues (leaks) can be fixed through appropriate investments (patches). Such models are very organization or system focused, drawing attention to how educational programs are constructed and, if broken, repaired. Other models give rise to different belief systems. One of these views education as a journey in which students follow a diverse set of learning pathways to a degree. This model is increasingly popular, since it helps to explain ways in which the rapidly growing population of non-traditional students assemble credentials. By focusing on students and identifying how individuals navigate existing systems, it steers attention to potential opportunities to make educational systems work for individuals.
Another model that is gaining increasing interest in engineering education is that of an ecosystem. Ecosystem models arise from inter-subjective and ecological views of education. These perspectives recognize that learning occurs in networks that span scales from the cellular neural networks of the brain up to distributed knowledge embodied in social networks of people. Such networks can be broadly characterized as complex adaptive ecosystems in which individuals occupy and transition between different niches and information flow and diversity maintain organizational resilience. Emergence, or novel forms of self-organization with new patterns and properties, can arise in complex systems. Such emergence challenges conventional notions of education; the idea of education as emergence implies unpredictability, a perspective anathema to the view that engineering education produces engineers with defined capabilities who can serve societal needs.
R. Alan Cheville received degrees in electrical engineering at Rice University, specializing in ultrafast optical spectroscopy. After postdoctoral work in ultrafast optoelectronics, he joined the faculty of Oklahoma State University in 1998. He continued his work on high speed THz optoelectronics—supported by funding from the Department of Energy, the Army Research Office, and the National Science Foundation including a CAREER award—in areas such as THz time domain spectroscopy of molecular vapors and flames, pulsed ranging, and optical tunneling. During his time at Oklahoma State University he slowly transitioned his research interests from optoelectronics to engineering education, with an initial focus on effectively integrating research-based pedagogies into engineering curricula in the areas of photonics and electromagnetics. He led a five year, $1.2M NSF-sponsored department-level reform project at OSU that sought to integrate relevant design experiences and mathematical competencies across the curriculum. Following the conclusion of this project, he served for two and a half years as the program director for engineering education in the National Science Foundation’s Engineering Directorate. During this time he developed several funding programs, served as NSF liaison to a Federal working group on games, as well as on several internal working groups. He was recognized by the Director’s Award for Program Management Excellence. He currently serves as chair of the Electrical & Computer Engineering at Bucknell University, an associate editor of IEEE Transactions on Education and the Journal of Engineering Education, and on several advisory boards. He is currently interested in engineering design education, engineering education policy, and the epistemology of engineering.