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Engineering Education


As of 1997, 315 institutions housed 1,516 accredited engineering programs within the United States. To receive accreditation for their engineering programs, university departments comply with the standards established by the Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology (ABET). ABET is an organization that consists of twenty-six professional engineering societies and six other affiliating professional organizations. The twenty-five accredited engineering specializations in the United States include the following: aerospace engineering, agricultural engineering, bio-engineering, ceramic engineering, chemical engineering, civil engineering, computer engineering, construction engineering, electrical engineering, engineering management, engineering mechanics, environmental engineering, geological engineering, industrial engineering, manufacturing engineering, materials engineering, mechanical engineering, metallurgical engineering, mining engineering, naval architecture and marine engineering, nuclear engineering, ocean engineering, petroleum engineering, survey engineering, and nontraditional programs.

Despite the existence of an accreditation board, however, not all engineering schools and engineering programs within the United States are accredited. Therefore, prospective students are responsible for investigating the accreditation status of the department to which they apply. Accredited degrees are especially significant for undergraduate students who wish to pursue advanced degrees in engineering.

In addition to investigating the accreditation status of their proposed schools, engineering students must decide where they will pursue their engineering degrees. Engineering programs within research universities target both undergraduate and graduate engineering scholars. These departments are usually large and sometimes have undergraduate classes that are taught by graduate students pursuing a degree in the department. Schools with a majority of students whose primary area of study is engineering are often called institutes of technology. State universities house departments that usually produce the greatest number of engineers in the country because of the increased affordability of an engineering education at these schools and because of the larger number of students who enroll in state universities.

Undergraduate Curricula

The curricula of undergraduate engineering programs may be completed within four years, although most engineering students take longer to complete their bachelor of science (B.S.) degree requirements. Typically, engineering students begin classes within their major during their sophomore year. By their junior year, students continue to fulfill their major's requirements with an increased emphasis on laboratory assignments. Within their senior year design courses, students are expected to use their cumulative knowledge of engineering, writing, and the humanities to solve a problem within their major area of study.

General undergraduate engineering requirements as established by ABET mandate that each student's curriculum includes mathematics, engineering topics, and humanities. Because the entering level of mathematics varies depending upon a student's beginning knowledge of the subject, the amount of time required to complete mathematics requirements also varies. Once engineering students meet necessary mathematics prerequisites, they are required to complete differential and integral calculus, differential equations, and one or more upper-level mathematics classes successfully.

Students are also required to complete general engineering courses on topics such as mechanics, thermodynamics, electrical and engineering circuits, transport phenomena, and computer science. Students fulfill the third requirement, humanities, they complete classes in subjects such as literature, art, foreign languages, and social sciences.

In addition to the three requirements established by ABET, all engineering students must take core classes in physics and chemistry, as well as free and technical electives. Within the undergraduate engineering curriculum, electives may be classified as either free electives or technical electives. Free electives are classes that students can take in any department of the university if they meet prerequisites for that class. Technical electives are electives that are a part of a student's major course of study. In the process of fulfilling technical electives and major requirements, students might also fulfill minor area requirements and therefore obtain engineering knowledge across disciplines.

Graduate Curricula

Compared to the undergraduate engineering program, graduate study in engineering is more research intensive and flexible. In addition, the class requirements for graduate students are not as restrictive as the requirements for the undergraduate degree. Because of the variation of specialization in graduate engineering courses across the United States, defining a standard program of study for a particular discipline is difficult. By working closely with an adviser in their major, however, students may create a program of study with classes that not only interest them but also will prepare them to specialize in an area within their field of engineering.

Admission requirements to U.S. graduate engineering departments vary. Students are generally admitted to a program, however, if they have a "B" average in their undergraduate classes. Once admitted into a program, students typically fulfill course requirements within one to two years, depending upon any deficiencies that a student might have prior to beginning a program of study.

Upon completion of a graduate engineering program, students may obtain one of two types of master's degrees within their discipline, the master of science (M.S.) or the master of engineering (M.Eng.). The master of science degree requires the writing of a thesis, whereas the master of engineering degree requires the completion of course work. Two types of degrees also exist for doctoral students of engineering, the doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.) and the doctor of science (Sc.D.). The doctor of philosophy degree is more research oriented than the doctor of science degree and obtaining it requires a student to write and defend a dissertation successfully. A student can typically complete an engineering doctorate two to four years after the completion of the master's degree.

Traditional Degree Areas

The five largest and most traditional areas of engineering study in United States colleges and universities are chemical, civil, electrical, industrial, and mechanical engineering. Within the United States, approximately 260 departments award these five degrees. Over the years, twenty-five specializations have emerged from the basic fields, and in 2001, eighty-five subdivisions of these fields existed in colleges across the United States. Following are descriptions of the five major types of engineering degrees.

Chemical engineering is a field of engineering that combines the knowledge of chemistry and engineering. Unlike chemists, however, chemical engineers develop new materials and design processes for manufacturing. In an effort to design these processes, chemical engineers must stay abreast of technological advancement in society. Specific curricula requirements for undergraduate chemical engineering students include engineering science, engineering design, communications, and basic life sciences. In addition to general engineering requirements, chemical engineering students are expected to earn course credit for classes in materials science and material and energy balances. Engineering design courses include engineering economics, design of chemical reactors, heating and cooling apparatus, and piping. In addition, chemical engineering students are required to understand computer programming languages and complete a technical writing class.

Civil engineers utilize their knowledge of structural processes in a variety of ways. They often oversee the development of facilities such as buildings and bridges, in addition to the construction of highways, water resource facilities, and environmental projects. Specific course requirements for civil engineering undergraduates include classes in engineering and scientific programming, soil mechanics, engineering geology, strength of materials, analysis of determinate and indeterminate structures, hydraulics, highway geometrics, and surveying. A sample topic within a civil engineering design course might include an investigation of the design of steel and concrete structures.

Electrical engineers design and develop various types of electrical processes. Examples of their contributions include computer chips and systems, radio and television equipment, and power generation and control systems. Specific courses for electrical engineering students include classes in logic, set theory, algorithms, probability and statistics, numerical methods and analysis, and operating systems. Subdivisions of electrical engineering include power generation, control systems, communications, or electronics.

Industrial engineers contribute to the successful integration of processes and people. They look at the broad picture of engineering in an effort to maximize the benefits of a system. Additional courses for industrial engineering students include engineering economics, organizational development, computer simulation, statistical quality control, human factors engineering, and system evaluation. Other suggested classes include biology and psychology. Finally, mechanical engineers examine how mechanical work and various types of energy combine in an effort to design materials and processes for use. In addition to core engineering classes, mechanical engineers may complete several courses in electrical and materials engineering.

Other Engineering Specializations

In addition to the traditional engineering fields, there are several branches of engineering and areas of specialization. Aerospace engineering is the study of aspects of aeronautics and space. Aerospace engineers may select from several divisions of study within their field. They are encouraged, however, to also obtain knowledge about mass transportation, environmental pollution, and medical science within their curricula.

Agricultural engineering is a field of engineering that is most closely related to the environment. Agricultural engineers are concerned about the conservation of natural resources and are required to build new tools that will aid the production and distribution of food and fibers.

Biomedical engineering applies the principles of anatomy and engineering to biological systems. With their knowledge of these systems, biomedical engineers may assist the health care industry through the design and maintenance of medical systems and equipment. In addition, biomedical engineering students often use their engineering training as a foundation for medical school.

Computer engineering mandates that students become knowledgeable in the areas of computer information systems, computer science, computer hardware, and information science. In many schools, computer and electrical engineering is a dual specialization. Next, environmental engineering improves the quality of life through the preservation of the environment. Environmental engineers are interested in reducing pollution, encouraging hygiene, and reducing waste and toxins found in air and water.

Nuclear engineering closely resembles the science of physics, because nuclear engineers study matter, including protons, neutrons, and electrons. They primarily investigate the nature of inanimate objects. Metallurgical engineers study metals and investigate ways to improve the characteristics of metal for society's use. Three areas of specialization within this field include process metallurgy, physical metallurgy, and materials science.


American Society for Engineering Education. 1992. Directory of Engineering and Engineering Technology: Undergraduate Programs, 3rd edition. Piscataway, NJ: American Society for Engineering Education.

Basta, Nicholas. 1996. Opportunities in Engineering Careers. Lincolnwood, IL: VGM Career Horizons.

Garner, Geraldine O. 1993. Careers in Engineering. Lincolnwood, IL: VGM Career Horizons.

Irwin, J. David. 1997. On Becoming an Engineer: A Guide to Career Paths. New York: Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Press.

Monica Farmer Cox

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Engineering Education


ENGINEERING EDUCATION. Revolutionary America possessed no way to educate engineers. Mill-wrights and other craftsmen had solved most technical problems for colonists, but the continental army had to turn to Europeans for advice on fortifications and military engineering. After independence, early canal promoters and elected officials alike continued to rely on visiting civil engineers. The army found this situation intolerable and in 1802 established the U.S. Military Academy at West Point to train artillery and engineering officers. Sylvanus Thayer, commandant after 1817, transformed West Point into the nation's first engineering school by copying the École Polytechnique in France.

Most Americans entered the engineering profession, however, by serving an apprenticeship. Thus John Jervis began as an axeman on the Erie Canal in 1817 and rose to division engineer in 1825. Only after 1825 did additional educational opportunities become available to Americans interested in engineering careers. Partial programs, ranging from individual courses in trigonometry and surveying to year-long certificate programs, appeared at many schools, including Washington College, Princeton, New York University, and Vanderbilt. Apprentice-ships then completed the training for many students. Partial programs differed in kind but not in spirit from the courses and lectures at Philadelphia's Franklin Institute and similar voluntary associations in other American cities. In keeping with Jacksonian democratic rhetoric, these were self-help programs for working people encountering new technologies.

By the 1840s informal engineering education seemed inadequate for an expanding nation that linked political independence to technology. A few schools copied the French polytechnic model, which derived technical training from a common base in mathematics and science, delivered in separate schools outside existing colleges. The Rensselaer School, started as an artisans' institute in 1824, transformed itself into the first American polytechnic in 1850. By the time the school renamed itself Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1861, other polytechnics had appeared, including the Polytechnic College of Pennsylvania (1853) and Brooklyn Polytechnic (1854). All departed from liberal arts curricula to train men for careers in engineering and manufacturing.

Not all educators separated engineering from colleges. In 1847 Harvard and Yale launched undergraduate programs for engineering, albeit in separate schools out-side their main colleges. But after 1850 more private institutions and state universities developed engineering programs as regular courses of study. Midwestern colleges, including Wesleyan, Denison, and Allegheny, offered engineering under general science degrees, while the universities of Illinois, North Carolina, and Iowa, and the University of Rochester added engineering degrees. The crucial step in placing engineering inside American universities was the Morrill Act of 1862, which provided federal support (initially thirty thousand acres of federal land for every congressional representative) to en-courage the agricultural and mechanical arts. Land-grant colleges quickly became leading engineering schools, among them Pennsylvania State, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and midwestern state universities in Illinois, Indiana (Purdue), Ohio State, and Wisconsin. New York's land-grant school, Cornell, was the largest and best engineering college in the country by the 1870s.

Every approach to educating American engineers shared a desire to balance theory and practice. Even as academic education became more common after 1870, hands-on training remained. Universities, land-grant schools, and polytechnics all combined lecture courses, engineering drawing, surveying, and shop classes. The basic credential for faculty was engineering experience, not advanced degrees. Indeed, some mechanical engineers were so concerned about practice they created yet another educational alternative, the technical institute. Worcester Polytechnic Institute (1868) and Stevens Institute (1870) explicitly placed machine-shop apprenticeships ahead of studies of math and science. Even Cornell's mechanical engineering program emphasized shop work until the 1880s.

But the classroom finally prevailed over practical venues for training engineers. New technologies based on electricity and chemistry required more than a common-sense knowledge base. Equally important was the desire of leading American engineers to gain the social recognition accorded other emerging professional groups. A key step was presenting engineers as college-educated gentlemen, not narrow technical specialists. The formation of the American Society for Engineering Education in 1893 symbolized the shift of engineering education from the shop to the classroom.

Balancing theory and practice remained a fundamental issue, however. Cornell's Robert Thurston led those pressing to replace shop work with math and science along the lines of French polytechnics and German universities. Other faculty emphasized training practical problem solvers for American corporations, so the University of Cincinnati introduced a cooperative education program in 1907 in which students alternated semesters working in industry and attending classes. After World War I, hints of change appeared as European émigrés demonstrated the utility of sophisticated mathematical analyses. Ukrainian-born Stephon Timoshenko, first at Westing house and then at the University of Michigan and at Stanford, prepared textbooks placing the strength of materials, structural mechanics, and dynamics on a mathematical footing. Hungarian-born Theodore von Kármán brought German theoretical work in fluid dynamics to the new California Institute of Technology. At the University of Illinois, Danish-born and German-educated Harald Westergaard connected civil engineering and theoretical mechanics through studies of bridges, pavement slabs, and dams.

Only Caltech, Harvard, and, belatedly, MIT embraced the changes introduced by this generation of European engineers in the 1930s. Developments during World War II in such areas as radar and atomic weapons confirmed the value of the European engineers' approaches. Major educational reforms followed, including greater emphasis on research and graduate study. Theory outweighed practice for the first time as engineering science replaced shop work and drawing. Driven by Cold War rhetoric and apparent challenges such as Sputnik, the Soviet satellite program, federal military funding supported this transformation and promoted hybrid inter-disciplinary fields, such as materials engineering, that blurred the boundary between science and engineering. By 1960 engineering education was remarkably uniform.

Transforming engineering from a white-male preserve was much more difficult. Wartime "manpower" concerns in the 1940s and 1950s led some faculty to accept women students. But progress was slow until the social movements of the 1960s brought serious steps to recruit women and underrepresented minorities. Engineering remains, however, the least diverse profession in the United States. And by the late 1980s declining numbers of American students meant most graduate students in engineering were born outside the United States.

This demographic shift was accompanied by questions about the postwar emphasis on engineering science. Declining American competitiveness in global markets was partly connected to the lack of engineering graduates with practical problem-solving skills. New attempts to balance theory and practice in the 1990s marked a very basic continuity in the history of American engineering education.


Emmerson, George. Engineering Education: A Social History. New York: Crane, Russak, 1973.

Grayson, Lawrence P. The Making of an Engineer: An Illustrated History of Engineering Education in the United States and Canada. New York: Wiley, 1993.

Reynolds, Terry S. "The Education of Engineers in America before the Morrill Act of 1862." History of Education Quarterly 32 (winter 1992): 459–482.

Seely, Bruce E. "The Other Re-engineering of Engineering Education, 1900–1965." Journal of Engineering Education 88, no. 3 (July 1999): 285–294.

———. "Research, Engineering, and Science in American Engineering Colleges, 1900–1960." Technology and Culture 34 (April 1993): 344–386.


See alsoCornell University ; Sheffield Scientific School .

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