To Infinity and Beyond: Taking on the Grand Challenges of Education in the New Space Age

Photo courtesy of SpaceX

Earlier this week, SpaceX launched its Falcon Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral, Fla., with an unusually heavy object on board: a cherry red Tesla roadster, navigated by a dummy astronaut. A little note attached to the circuit board read: “Made on Earth by humans.”

As The Guardian’s Bonnie Malkin wrote, after the electric car had begun its successful orbit around Earth, “even Musk…was surprised that his audacious stunt worked. His plan is for the $100,000 Tesla Roadster — with the message “Don’t panic!” stamped on the dashboard and David Bowie playing on the speakers — to cruise through high-energy radiation belts that circuit Earth towards deep space.”

How far we’ve come.

The engineering marvels of today are truly light years different from those of my college days. I think often about the young engineers who work in companies like SpaceX, and how their college experiences must have been so vastly different from mine. I am in awe every time I talk to my two sons, both of them studying engineering, and hear about the kinds of experiences they are having — inside and outside their classrooms. From my traditional lectures with blackboards to today’s virtual sessions about cryptocurrencies, with instructors who are often half a world away. From late nights in libraries to having every bit of information at your fingertips — all from a device smaller than even one engineering textbook. All of this change has changed everything — the way students connect, the way they receive information and the way they learn.

Last fall, ABET released an issue brief focused on how engineering curricula are being reimagined all over the world. As we shared in that report, “exposing students earlier to real-world challenges is increasingly important as society confronts the demanding population and infrastructure challenges of the next several decades.” I firmly believe that.

Teamwork and project-based learning are more and more important in all areas of education. And in this new Space Age, universities must go beyond theory to bring practical experiences from outside of the classroom into the learning environment.

Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, one of the engineering programs featured in our issue brief, is now bringing this concept to life in a new way. Patricia Brackin, director of the institute’s new engineering design academic program, recently launched a five-week pilot program for a select group of incoming freshmen that emphasized teaching creative design in a studio classroom setting. The program also introduces students to elements of design and graphical communications, while expanding a student’s writing and rhetoric comprehension skills: an impressive mix of technical experiences without sacrificing the role of the humanities.

As Brackin says, “Design is no longer the capstone of an engineering education…students should be learning the elements of engineering as they begin learning to design simple things. Then, as the engineering principles get more complex, so should the designs become more challenging.”

Through courses like the one at Rose-Hulman and other ABET-accredited programs, which incorporate teamwork and practical experience, students develop invaluable character traits that enhance their technical knowledge and prepare them for whatever engineering and creative challenges lie ahead. And in this brave new world, traits such as collaboration, innovation, resourcefulness and agility have become the most valued by leading technology executives.

From a cherry red sports car circling the Earth’s orbit to advancing some of the Earth’s most pressing environmental challenges — it’s what we do in the engineering, computing and science classrooms and labs today that sets the foundation for the rocket launches and scientific breakthroughs of tomorrow. And, it’s our job to ensure students are ready for the challenge.

Executive Director & CEO of ABET, the global accreditor of college and university programs in the STEM disciplines.

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