Engineering students make the grade but not the cut

Sept. 27, 2007
I’m sorry to report that the U.S. educational system responsible for training new generations of scientists and engineers has failed.

C. W. Kauffman
Professor, Dept. of Aerospace Engineering
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, Mich.

Graduates of these institutions tasked to maintain our agricultural, industrial, and defense systems likely won’t be able to get the job done. Information supporting this conclusion is diverse. The Defense Science Board, for example, recently issued its “Report on Future Strike Skills.” The report concludes that successful development of future defense systems is at risk for two key reasons: an aging workforce and a lack of replacement talent.

A presentation at last year’s VAATE (versatile, affordable, advanced, turbine engines) meeting, “Work Force Storm Clouds on the Horizon,” noted that exceptionally talented engineers are needed to create highperformance propulsion systems. Unfortunately, it is impossible to replace the retiring talent with that of newly graduated students, the report concludes.

GM Vice President Bob Lutz has spoken out at SAE forums concerning the unavailability of appropriately educated young technical talent suitable for the automotive industry, especially in this time of economic crisis.

A veteran of the Apollo Program at the NASA Marshall Spaceflight Center shares similar concerns. He says that, while all today’s students seem to graduate with honors, the engineers who made Apollo possible had always managed to fail some of their undergraduate courses, along with half of the class. I have personally noted that homework sets, which were acceptable in the late 60s through the early 80s, are now too difficult for students. Further, the consensus is that engineering students, while adept with computers, are not comfortable working with physical hardware.

There is also the issue of obtaining security clearances for foreign nationals, who now make up a sizable portion of the student body. The current transnational character of most universities emphasizes the transfer of knowledge, technology, and know-how abroad, a practice that boosts revenue but neglects our national interests. It’s time that U.S. universities start paying attention to U.S. students. The higher education community must again emphasize its role in strengthening the agricultural, military, and industrial bases of America, and not those of our competitors abroad.

At the end of World War II, America was considered “The Arsenal of Democracy.” Our abundant food, advanced machinery, and military might vanquished totalitarianism. Such an effort may again be necessary, and we must not find, like Mother Hubbard, that the cupboard is bare.

Edited by Lawrence Kren

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