Paper: An Industry View of Engineering Education

K M Black. “An Industry View of Engineering Education.” Journal of Engineering Education, January 1994, pp 26-28.

Key points:

  • We [engineers] prided ourselves on performing to specs tighter than anyone else could meet. But no one asked if the customer wanted or needed that extra performance—nor whether he would pay more for it
  • We’re now putting tremendous emphasis on total quality management (TQM), continuous process improvement (CPI) and cycle time reductions
  • Today’s engineer must also have: effective communication skills, a thorough understanding of current design tools (software basics, CAD, simulation, etc.), the expectation that in every project he or she will succeed the first time, a sense of the total business equation
  • One often hears that universities have a responsibility to “broaden” a student—to graduate a “fully-rounded” individual. Frankly, I believe the curriculum too often is overloaded
  • Some of the social studies, philosophy, English literature, and even history and art are personal interests, and engineers, who by their very nature are curious, will pursue those subjects that interest them—after graduation
  • Research capability is important to our nation’s total technology base, provides value-added for the engineering curriculum, and is vital in bringing dollar and faculty resources to the school, but relevant and effective teaching is critical for those who aspire to be engineers
  • Rockwell, for example, has about 15,000 scientists and engineers. We get most of our research scientists from research schools, and most of our engineers from teaching schools or the teaching functions of schools that pursue both endeavors. For every research scientist, the company has 15 or 16 engineers, and engineering is the function most in need of change

___________

Kent Black provides a concise summary of the problem with engineering education. His main points: exclusive focus on theory when only a small fraction of practicing engineers are researchers, very little practice with the tools (numerical analysis, especially), bloated curricula, and little understanding of the business side of engineering. He gives a few solutions, such as better communication between industry and engineering schools, but leaves most of that function to others.

Let me comment on his assessment from the perspective of a senior undergraduate engineering student.

First, too much focus on research and theory. My school (Virginia Tech) has done a better job of this than most, it seems. The two freshman engineering courses, for all their problems, both included excellent, substantial engineering design projects and software primers (Inventor and LabVIEW). There is a lot of support for undergraduate research; my department will pay for a student’s first 60 hours of work in anticipation that the professor will begin paying afterward. There is also a lot of support for summer internships, free access to software packages, relatively open access to certain machine shops, and so on. However, the rest of the curriculum is very heavily theory based (even in the more practically oriented engineering majors like mechanical engineering).

Second, numerical methods. His points on numerical analysis are completely accurate. In my current job at a small R&D company, two of the three mechanical engineers know or are learning some form of numerical analysis (Finite element analysis, finite difference, etc). They plan to budget me some time on a project where I can learn FEA soon. Indeed, another technique I recently came across, topology optimization-an awesome method of geometric optimization, requires FEA as an intermediate step. The numerical tools are obviously critical. My major requires two classes on numerical analysis: numerical methods, and intro to finite elements. It sounds great, but, unfortunately, both classes are exclusively the theory behind them. The theory is obviously worth knowing, but it should be a split of maybe one month of theory and three months of practice with the software tools on large-scale. An idea for how to teach the practice part:  each student in the class of one hundred performs numerical analysis on a part of a huge design, the students combine their results and tweak their design for the next semester’s class to analyze and optimize. Students doing *real* engineering with real engineering tools would be awesome.

Third, bloated curricula. We cannot learn in school all that we will need to know as practicing engineers or researchers or whatever else. How exactly the curricula could be slimmed I do not know. I shall write more on this later.

Fourth, business sense. I actually disagree with his point here. Businesses are better positioned to teach the business of engineering and science. I do fully understand the benefit of learning business fundamentals while in school (I took a technology entrepreneurship/business management class), but they should be one of the “personal interests” that black relegates to a student’s personal or after-graduation time. They can be learned better elsewhere.

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