Seminar flier (PDF)

Professor Donna Riley

Professor and Interim Head, Engineering Education 
Virginia Tech

Wednesday, May 24, 2017, at 4 p.m.
Johnson Hall Auditorium 102 [Directions]

Engineering education finds itself at a crossroads in relation to our commitment to liberally educate engineering students. For decades we have enjoyed an alignment among accreditation agencies (both regional institutional accreditors and ABET), governmental organizations concerned with STEM education, non-governmental education advocates, industry employers of engineers, and institutions of higher education. All entities were moving in the same direction, in which learning outcomes and the stated priorities of the profession appeared to work in harmony toward increased educational breadth for engineers. 

Recently, proposed changes to engineering accreditation criteria have signaled an apparent intent to depart from the ideal of a liberally educated engineer, an ideal that ABET itself was instrumental in cultivating throughout the 1990s and 2000s. A historical and organizational analysis examine how broader political trends in educational accreditation shape ABET’s decisions, and how these new changes in learning outcomes for engineers both reflect and shape the structure and value commitments of the profession.

At the same time, a recently collected set of "exemplary" approaches to integrating engineering and liberal education reveals a deep underlying tension between engineering education and liberal education. Theoretical insights from science and technology studies ground a critical review of these approaches, showing that they both resist and embody particular mindsets and corporate cultures that construct narrow engineering ontologies, alternately aligning with and contradicting the classic conceptual foundations of liberal education. 

These engineering cultures and mindsets that chafe with liberal education relate quite directly to the epistemologies of assessment in engineering and approaches to governance in the profession made manifest in the recent ABET changes. These enacted institutional values trace to global neoliberal trends in and beyond higher education, which serve to undermine the professed goal of liberal education for engineers, and the mission of higher education itself. 

A renewed commitment to liberal education is sorely needed in our present time, rooted in the tradition of free exploration, critical thinking, reflection, ethical engagement, and lifelong learning. A renewed commitment to the ideal of faculty governance and the role of higher education institutions as keepers of principles and ideals, is a vital accompaniment to this charge. 

Donna Riley is professor and interim head in the Department of Engineering Education at Virginia Tech. From 2013 to 2015, she served as program director for engineering education at the National Science Foundation. Riley spent 13 years as a founding faculty member of the Picker Engineering Program at Smith College, the first engineering program at a U.S. women's college. In 2005, she received an NSF CAREER award on implementing and assessing pedagogies of liberation in engineering classrooms.

Riley is author of two books, Engineering and Social Justice and Engineering Thermodynamics and 21st Century Energy Problems, both published by Morgan and Claypool. Riley served a two-year term as deputy editor of the Journal of Engineering Education (2012-2014), rotated through the leadership of the Liberal Education/Engineering and Society Division of the American Society for Engineering Education (2007-2011), and currently serves on the ASEE Diversity Committee. She is the recipient of the 2016 Alfred N. Goldsmith Award from the IEEE Professional Communications Society, the 2012 Sterling Olmsted Award from ASEE, the 2010 Educator of the Year award from the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals, and the 2006 Benjamin Dasher Award from Frontiers in Education. Riley earned a B.S.E. in chemical engineering from Princeton University and a Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon University in engineering and public policy. She is a fellow of the American Society for Engineering Education.