Higher education has a well-documented pace problem. From challenges in keeping up with demographic shifts to the globalization and digitization of business, the delivery of curriculum in the age-old tradition is rarely effective in today’s world.

But it’s not a new challenge, by any means.

Mark Taylor, a philosopher of religion at Columbia University, argued in his 2010 book, Crisis on Campus, that “until colleges accept the need to change, they have little incentive to overcome their natural inclination to stay the same.”

Over these past seven years (and many would argue longer), programs within higher ed have been racing to keep pace with such rapid change. The constantly moving target, of course, is how best to ensure that graduates of those programs walk out into the world with the cutting-edge skills and technical knowledge required to succeed.

Yet, there is a spring of innovation happening, especially among U.S.-based engineering programs. Institutions of higher learning, and particularly those with program offerings in the STEM fields, have been implementing proactive and innovative steps in recent years to completely redesign curriculum that is outcomes-based, informed by real-world business needs and gives students core discipline knowledge while retaining a student’s ability to explore individual interests. Universities that have made such adjustments report direct improvements in their ability to increase general enrollment, improve retention in STEM degree programs and develop more thoughtful and prepared graduates.

Earlier today, ABET released a new report, titled Engineering Change. Within the paper, we highlight six university programs across the country that have found success in driving curriculum change on behalf of their student populations and the surrounding business communities. Each featured program has unique elements, which we thread together as considerations for the higher education community. While driving curriculum change can often feel as if it is moving at a snail’s pace, these programs are leading the way in keeping curriculum relevant to the real-world needs of today’s employers in a time of rapid change.

Darryl Pines, dean of the A. James Clark School of Engineering at the University of Maryland, said it well this past spring when he joined us for the annual ABET Symposium: “This generation of engineering students are socially connected and helping them understand how engineering can help solve societal problems will bring more of them into the field of engineering. It’s our responsibility to improve the human condition by the work that we do and the people that we train.”

Indeed, the education of today must be far more connected to the world than ever before. In developing this paper, we found several key themes — all central to the design of effective and flexible engineering programs:

1) The blurring of disciplinary borders: Higher education is no longer a straight line within any given program area. Rather, the most compelling programs are those that blend learning across many diverse program areas.

2) Holistic approach to problem solving: Learning to solve a problem is about much more than memorizing the math equation. By deeply engaging real-world practice into the classroom, students learn beyond theory in a way that can make them better problem solvers for life.

3) Informed by business: From cross-sector learning to corporate pipeline programs embedded inside the classroom, innovation in education is increasingly important in building tangible success for graduates, as well as the universities in which those students thrive.

4) Customizable curriculum: Flexing with the needs of the business community has become critical for universities to show value to students and corporate partners, as is the process for allowing students an opportunity to chart their own course, with flexibility and choice in program elements.

5) Dynamic hands-on learning: The environment in which one learns, tests and problem solves is as important as the frame in which one is learning. Exposing students earlier to real-world challenges is increasingly important as society confronts the demanding population and infrastructure challenges of the next several decades. This emphasis and approach to problem solving came across clearly in all programs we examined. Teamwork and project-based learning are the new principles of education. Universities must go beyond theory to bring practical experiences from outside of the classroom into the learning environment.

6) Effective assessment: Curriculum is no longer static. Through regular and effective assessment, as provided by ABET and other program accreditors, universities have the tools and confidence needed to be the best they can be for their students, donors and corporate partners.

Simply put, for students to be competitive in the 21st century, they cannot be taught in 20th century ways. Rather than “teach-memorize-test-repeat,” the new model is about dynamic, hands-on learning and projects.

I encourage you to learn more and read the case studies of our featured university programs in the new Engineering Change issue brief.