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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Summer 2011
DOI: 10.5062/F4JW8BSH


Seeking a Paradigm Shift for Engineering Librarian Instruction

James B. Clarke
Engineering Librarian
Brill Science Library
Miami University
Oxford, Ohio

Copyright 2011, James B. Clarke. Used with permission.

After three years of being employed in academia as an engineering librarian, I have become dismayed that the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) accepts the status quo of engineering information literacy instruction. Who is responsible for legitimizing the conventional and outmoded paradigm that mandates only a few librarians to serve an entire school of engineering? Whatever the answer may be, I believe the current situation marginalizes information literacy instruction to the detriment of undergraduate engineering education.

Here at Miami University, The School of Engineering and Applied Sciences employs 43 full-time professors to educate approximately 1,100 students. The vast majority of these engineering students are undergraduates, and the school would probably hire more professors to teach them if the budget allowed for it. At the same time, the school only requires one liaison librarian to meet the requirements of engineering education. This disproportionate ratio is certainly not limited to Miami University. The same is true at many universities located throughout the United States and the rest of the world. The challenges of the status quo are especially acute for engineering librarians because accredited engineering curricula should require undergraduate students to perform a considerable quantity of library research prior to their senior capstone design projects.

The current situation presents engineering literature research to students as a curriculum supplement rather than as a core subject matter. Many engineering liaison librarians operate like missionaries by serving engineering schools as peripheral instructors who teach an optional, non-credit bearing topic. Undergraduate students are rarely ever required to interact with us. Fifteen-minute guest lectures during a single class session are considered an acceptable educational opportunity, and a single fifty-minute class session during the course of an entire semester is a considerable privilege. We attempt to make the most of these limited opportunities in the hope that some students will seek out additional interaction with us at the library. To reach as many students as possible, we supplement our instruction with technology: online subject guides, literature database video tutorials, blogs, and customized wikis are common tools often developed in an effort to compensate for a lack of quality student interaction. Some of these educational tools do work well, but no information gadget can fully replace direct instructional interaction with our students. The status quo simply allows for technical literature research to be taught as the lowest priority within an engineering curriculum.

My own position does not place me above the status quo. I have pursued the same limited instruction opportunities as I described earlier, and I have also experimented with a variety of online educational tools. In addition, I have reacted to the conventional paradigm by engaging in unconventional outreach and instruction activities. As an example, I invited myself to the engineering school's fall semester orientation, and I used the opportunity to put myself on the e-mail lists for every active engineering student organization. I followed up that activity by attending co-curricular student association chapter meetings. In addition, I invited myself to the senior capstone mid-term and final presentations. The professors and students welcomed my participation, so I took on an even more unconventional role in the following academic year by serving as a co-teacher for three senior capstones.

At the time I was doing all of these activities, ABET representatives arrived on campus to perform an accreditation evaluation for the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. An ABET representative interviewed me and observed my library facilities. After I answered the representative's questions to the best of my ability, the individual praised my activities to academic leaders here at Miami. I remain flattered by the ABET representative's endorsement, but I simply don't believe ABET is demanding enough.

As I began my capstone instruction shortly thereafter, I shared in full leadership of the classroom experience and played an equitable role in the grading process. At the start of the capstone courses, however, I was confronted with the brutal truth that the seniors were completely unprepared to commence the engineering literature research required for a professional design project. The students had forgotten almost everything they had learned about information literacy when they were underclassmen. Vital documents like patents and standards were largely unfamiliar to them, and their experience with scholarly journal articles was extremely limited. My participation changed all that for the capstone students. I forced them to read through a wide variety of technical literature about their respective design topics, and I demanded that they interact with the business librarian to explore industry information. The engineering professors at my side were surprised, pleased, and impressed.

The participating students performed excellent engineering literature analysis. They used their analysis to base every design decision on knowledge rather than speculation. As much as I took pride in my success, I had to accept the reality that only 14 of more than 200 graduating seniors could directly benefit from their engineering librarian in this way. I had reached out to as many capstone classes as I could, but I knew all of my seniors deserved the same experience as those participating in my three capstone classes. When I first made this sobering observation, two logical solutions became very clear to me.

One part of the solution involves the pursuit of an ideal educational scenario: a required, credit-bearing information literacy course embedded within the engineering curriculum. The credit-bearing aspect is crucial because it guarantees quality instruction time. I have submitted my own proposal here at Miami University for a course that could be taken by students as an alternative to the current technical writing course requirement. Consequently, my course would not add credits to the curriculum. If approved, it will not completely solve the problem. One librarian cannot teach all of the undergraduate engineering students here. Regardless, if I can eventually teach four course sections that empower up to 100 engineering seniors with strong research skills prior to their capstone projects, these students can then be dispersed as research leaders among the various design teams. My expectation is that such an opportunity will improve the senior capstone learning experience and promote life-long learning among the graduating seniors when they transition into the workplace. This would be a vast improvement over the status quo here at Miami University. I believe all engineering liaison librarians should consider how to make a similar type of instructional change at their respective universities.

The other and most important part of the solution involves proactive leadership from ABET. When I think about ABET's role in setting engineering education standards, I am reminded of my experience working in the commercial vehicle industry when diesel engine emissions were being reduced. The engineers at companies like Caterpillar, Cummins, and Detroit Diesel were not developing emissions reduction solutions because their customers wanted it done, or because the company executives cared about the environment. The solutions were designed and implemented because the Environmental Protection Agency raised the standard for clean air. ABET needs to do the same sort of thing regarding engineering information literacy. If ABET raised the standard, then all engineering schools seeking accreditation would eventually need to comply. ABET officials should collaborate directly with engineering librarians. An interdisciplinary team could then empirically assess the status quo, define an ideal instruction model, and then adjust the standard accordingly. Such a paradigm shift would greatly increase the effectiveness of engineering librarians and improve both the quality and performance of young engineers.

DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of ISTL, the Science and Technology Section, or the American Library Association.
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