Better Education = More Education?

April 13, 2013
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Frequent contributor Rafael Gomes de Oliveira just finished answering a survey about more education requirements for professional licensure and the raising the bar initiative. He was quite taken aback by the implicit assumptions that more education is the solution to raising the bar for the profession. An entrepreneur with a bachelor’s degree, Rafael offers an interesting perspective on educating engineers and advancing the profession.

The opinions expressed below in no way reflect ASCE’s positions on Raising the Bar. You can read all about ASCE’s raising the bar initiate here ( and here (

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To whom it may concern:

Here is a copy of my comment after your survey about additional education requirements for professional licensure and the raising the bar initiative:

First of all, the questions and answers are really biased toward implementing the new master’s degree requirement. That makes the survey very weak and unbalanced, and it would be very difficult to express a contrary opinion based on what was given. This is very upsetting because this is a serious issue that can have huge impacts on the lives of future structural engineers and on the profession as a whole, and it’s too bad that a fair and balanced survey was not achieved through this effort. I would actually like to see this redone to give engineers a better chance to express their opinion clearly and not through a distorted filter.

What we need is better education, not more education. This starts before students reach the university. The U.S. is so lucky to have a system that allows students to take higher level classes before going to college. I know several people who had taken their Math and Physics and Chemistry classes all while still in high school. I am from Brazil and here we are not given that option. Education is the same standard for almost everyone and people who can learn at a faster pace are held back and people who can learn at a slower pace are left behind. If you want better structural engineers, start there, through more outreach programs such as ACE and Future City. Give students the chance to be aware of what it takes to be a structural engineer, and allow them to take the responsibility to acquire the necessary skills – not through formal education only – but through an attitude towards self-learning and life-long learning.

What is an education? And what is a structural engineering education? How many people drop out of formal schooling and are still able to have successful lives and make significant contributions to their fields? This is not the standard, but that’s the attitude we need to nurture not only for structural engineering, but for all areas of knowledge. What makes a good engineer is not only the amount of time she/he spends learning, but the quality of that time.

What kind of a message will you be sending future engineers? “We don’t think you are capable of handling the responsibility of learning the necessary skills on your own, so instead of improving the current system starting from early education, we will add a couple more years to your required education and without this you won’t be able to practice as a professional engineer.”

Trust me, if a 4-year bachelor’s degree from an accredited school, the FE exam, 4 years of experience, and the PE/SE exam are not enough, a couple of extra years will not suddenly turn disengaged students into stellar engineers. In fact, students who were already disengaged are way more likely to burn out and perform poorly if two more years of school are added to their curriculum.

We do not need MORE EDUCATION. We need MORE EARLY ENGAGEMENT and BETTER EDUCATION. We need to teach students how to learn on their own and develop a passion and personal responsibility for their careers as stewards of the built environment. Sure it might sound ideal and even naive to have such high hopes, but why shoot for less? “Shoot for the moon. If you fail then you will land on the stars.”

More education is the easy way out. All of this and I haven’t even mentioned the amount of debt that the students will acquire during those two additional years. I don’t want my fellow engineers to be wage slaves. I want them to have the freedom to take risks and fight for the betterment of our profession, and not have their most important life decisions bounded by fear from their gargantuan student debt.

This is coming from someone who is going to pursue his master’s degree next year. I’m doing it because I love engineering and the built environment and I want to do world changing significant research, not because it is required.

Now, if you think nurturing that passion in all engineers is too high of an expectation and we need to produce more technically competent mediocre engineers who are drowning in debt and who will take on any job to barely survive while making universities and corporations more money, then be honest and say that. Don’t try to blame it on the profession being more complex or on other professions having higher status because they spend more time in school. If anything, this proposal weakens our community culture and diminishes our dignity as human beings. This goes for all fields of knowledge and all professions.

Again, I hope a new survey comes out with questions and answers that are more fair and balanced. If not, then why have a survey at all if you already chose the answer to your own question. And why raise the bar when you can barely stand on your own two feet? If worldwide engineering education needs to be improved, let’s tackle it early on where it matters, not where it benefits other parties’ interests and takes away our individual responsibility to be competent.

Better Education does not equal More Education

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  • Thanks for the article, I appreciate your point of view and your advocacy for early engagement of potential engineers. Better early education is always a worthy pursuit.

    That being said, I believe a false choice is being presented here. I think that both early educational engagement AND masters degree requirement is the answer. For many engineers, an MS education an invaluable launching pad for their structural engineering careers. 400 and 500 level coursework is a necessity for a proper understanding advanced stability problems, strut-and-tie modeling, creep & shrinkage, just to name a few. Comprehensive understanding of these topics is rarely replicated with on-the-job learning.

    I guess it depends on expectations for one’s career. But for advanced structural engineering, an MSE degree is a necessity.

    • Perhaps another question worth asking is does a MSE degree provide the needed skills to thrive in the present and future engineering profession?

      I value my graduate studies, but I have to admit that advanced stability, strut and tie, and creep & shrinkage were hardly covered in my grad courses. I have had to study these topics during my professional career. Looking ahead, I can imagine a different skill set required as trends like building information modeling, generative architecture, and structural optimization grow to become cornerstones of the profession. Structural engineering will require more expertise in writing algorithms. Is it better to develop these skills at school or work?

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