Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny – NOT

When I was an undergraduate biology major, a prevalent dogma was that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”.  This dogma, now discredited (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recapitulation_theory) held that the stages that an embryo went through in development proceeded through the stages of evolution of the species.

In engineering education I have often noted some who believe that education should have certain features of this outdated recapitulation theory.  Since Professor X took courses A, B, and C, therefore in order for a student to become a good engineer, they must also take courses A, B, and C.  Balderdash.

The founder of my university, A.J. Drexel, said “The world will change and the institute must change with it”.  This quote must of necessity apply to the profession of engineering — “The world will change and engineering must change with it”.  Rather than recapitulating the evolutionary development of ourselves by taking courses A, B and C, they should instead take Q,X, and Alpha.  And maybe some students should take Q, W, and Zeta — a diverse engineering community (including an intellectual diverse one) will be more resilient solvers of future (unforeseen) challenges.

In my own career, I have seen the transformation from slide rules and mainframe batch computing to calculators to PC’s and distributed computation.  Who remembers nomographs?  Tedious simplification of theory to facilitate rapid computation is falling by the wayside in favor of efficient methods for numerical solutions of complex problems.

Once upon a time, environmental engineers worried about soot and dust in air, floating debris in water, and blowing garbage from open dumps.  While these remain problems in developing nations, and it is important that others avoid relearning tragic lessons of our past, our problems are now more subtle but no less insidious.  Emerging pathogens and chemical pollutants, new industrial activities (including exploitation of new sources of energy), facilitating sustainable development and resource (including water and food) management, and reinvention of aging infrastructure.  These will need a different set of tools then those that we learned, and certainly than our professors learned.

In the words of Mark Twain, “history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historic_recurrence).  The challenge of engineering education is to retain riffs from the past and use them to build a new symphony to educate students for the future.

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