Asee peer logo

Toward a Globalized Engineering Education: Comparing Dominant Images of Engineering Education in the United States and China

Download Paper |


2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Tampa, Florida

Publication Date

June 15, 2019

Start Date

June 15, 2019

End Date

October 19, 2019

Conference Session

Liberal Education Division Technical Session 11

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

Tagged Topic


Page Count




Permanent URL

Download Count


Request a correction

Paper Authors


Qin Zhu Colorado School of Mines Orcid 16x16

visit author page

Qin Zhu is an Assistant Professor in the Ethics Across Campus Program and the Division of Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences at Colorado School of Mines, where he is co-directing the Daniels Fund Program in Professional Ethics Education that provides support for faculty to integrate ethics into applied science and engineering curricula. Qin serves as a graduate faculty member in the Master's Program in Natural Resources and Energy Policy at Mines. Qin is also Associate Editor for International Perspectives at the National Academy of Engineering's Online Ethics Center for Engineering and Science and Book Review and Digital Platforms Editor for the Journal of Engineering Studies. Qin's research interests include the cultural foundations of engineering ethics, global engineering education, and ethics and policy of emerging technologies such as robotics and nanotechnology.

visit author page

Download Paper |


As a rising power in the global economy, China has produced the world’s largest engineering education system. However, very limited research has been conducted to understand the professional formation of Chinese engineers and the broader historical, social, and political contexts in which they become who they are. By drawing on the theory of “dominant images” in engineering studies, this paper conceptualizes the most prevalent cultural ideas and practices in the engineering education system in China. This paper employs a comparative approach to the cultural studies of engineering education. In particular, it examines the cultures of engineering education in China by comparing them with those in the American context with which most readers are familiar. Another crucial reason for adopting such comparative approach is that the American model of engineering education has arguably become a “global form” and other countries including China have been challenged by such global form when they struggle with creating engineering education systems sensitive to their own needs and traditions.

This paper starts by depicting the dominant images of American engineering education deeply rooted in the ideology of liberal democracy. Extensively influenced by philosophies such as social constructivism and pragmatism, American engineering education has embraced a decentralized, student-centered, outcome-based approach to learning. In this sense, the power dynamic in the classroom is liberal and democratic. The traditionally dominant role of the instructor has been challenged and the teacher plays an equal role as compared to that of the students in the learning process. Students assume a more liberal role in the learning process and are responsible for the construction of their own knowledge through experiential learning. The teacher serves as a facilitator who mainly “scaffolds” student learning. Engineering education research thus places more emphasis on the psychological development of students, that is, the efficiency of individual students in retaining scientific concepts and applying them to solve problems. Researchers have more interest in studying how a particular pedagogy affects students’ learning efficiency than in how personal characteristics of the instructor influence students’ self-growth. The effectiveness of instruction is assessed in a pragmatic way that is based on the outcomes of student learning.

In contrast, the Chinese engineering classroom is more hierarchical. Influenced by the Confucian culture, the instructor has more power and “dominates” the whole class. Learning means starting with finding a “good teacher” and then imitating his/her words and deeds. Engineering education in China today remains more of a “(teaching) art” rather than a kind of “(learning) science” and it is more interested in “how teachers teach” than “how students learn.” Western scholars feel concerned that such Confucian approach may make students “passive learners,” although such worry may not be well warranted and it deserves further reexamination. The Confucian approach to learning that focuses on deeper-level, self-reflective learning is challenged by the global forms of engineering education that emphasize team-based, hands-on, problem-solving skills and the entrepreneurial mindset. Rather than solely being capable of translating innovative ideas into marketable products, an ultimate goal of Chinese engineering education is to educate future engineers who are responsible for utilizing their engineering expertise to serve the strategic goals of national development. Education reformers in China are challenged by various dominant images of Chinese engineering education including large quantity but low quality of engineers, overly theory-driven curriculum, disconnect with the industry, and the lack of practical capabilities and entrepreneurial mindset.

This paper is of particular interest to comparative education scholars, international engineering educators, and education policymakers with a global focus.


Gereffi, G. , Wadhwa, V. , Rissing, B. and Ong, R. (2008). Getting the numbers right: International engineering education in the United States, China, and India. Journal of Engineering Education, 97, 13-25.

Zhu, Q., & Jesiek, B. (2014). In pursuit of the Dao in policymaking: Toward a cultural approach to understanding engineering education policy in China. Technology in Society, 38, 169-176.

Zhu, Q., Jesiek, B., & Gong, Y. (2015). Past/forward policymaking: Transforming Chinese engineering education since the Reform and Opening-up. History of Education, 44(5), 553-574.

Zhu, Q. (2019, June), Toward a Globalized Engineering Education: Comparing Dominant Images of Engineering Education in the United States and China Paper presented at 2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Tampa, Florida. 10.18260/1-2--33448

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2019 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015