Paper: Viewpoint: An Industry View of Engineering Design Education

L M Nicolai. “Viewpoint: An Industry View of Engineering Design Education.” International Journal Engineering Education Vol. 14, No. 1, p. 7-13, 1998

Key points:

  • What industry needs is clear: engineering graduates with a better design experience. American engineering schools respond to this need by producing great scientists but mediocre engineers
  • American industries place the highest value on engineering design in their product development; timing and quality are essential, and both are dependent on the design
  • The solution to this problem involves a major change in the attitudes and priorities within the engineering departments and a minor restructuring of the curriculum
  • An attitude change is required that will make design faculty equal to analytical faculty. This should involve changing the reward/promotion system to be more compatible with the design faculty’s situation
  • An Arizona State University College of Engineering task force (composed of students, faculty and industry representatives) study revealed that the unanimous number one attribute desired for a newly graduated engineer was the ability to identify and define a problem, develop and evaluate alternative solutions, and effect one or more designs to solve the problem
  • Several engineering schools have had great success in teaching engineering science by introducing the course material from a design approach rather than the traditional analytical approach
  • Need a senior year capstone design course and more open-ended problems inserted into the engineering science courses with frequent and spirited discussions of the design process and


Table 2 is a perfect illustration of the contrast between the problems we work in school and the problems in both industry and academic research. (I am a senior engineering student, and I have worked two positions in both industry and academia so far.) Though the types of problems in industry and academia do differ, they share some key characteristics. First, they are both open-ended. The specifics are different; broadly, in industry the open-ended piece comes in the conceptual design and selection of components and characteristics while in academia it comes in the form of assumptions and models used. Second, they both require mastery of the fundamentals as a stepping stone but always need several more steps afterwards.

The methods of preparing students in school for this type of work, however, focuses exclusively on the stepping stone fundamentals. I do not see how this is the best way to educate either engineers separately, scientists separately, or both together. It does the engineers a disservice by promoting neither practice in applying the knowledge nor design experience. It does scientists a disservice by covering so many topics in such shallow detail and by . Wouldn’t everyone benefit if classes took the form of something like 50% fundamentals, 25% in-depth study of a specific effect learned during the fundamentals section, and 25% design experience? It would require serious thought about exactly what information is important in each class, but that important information would be learned very well while gaining the critical engineering and research experience.

Table 3 is a fascinating portrait of a different educational style, but could that design approach work as the main or only method of learning? Would it be possible to implement a project-based curriculum all the way down from elementary school up through graduate school? Also, could it be retooled to work with interdisciplinary groups? Obviously, the focus might have to be expanded from thermodynamics to energy, for example, to be workable for interdisciplinary study. These are the issues in education that fascinate me, and I’ll be working through them over the next several months. More to come!


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