Educating the next generation of engineers

Aug. 9, 2012
U.S. engineering programs have long been considered to be the best in the world. This sentiment is reflected in many ways...

Authored by:
Sasha Gurke
Senior Vice President
New York, N.Y.

U. S. engineering programs have long been considered to be the best in the world. This sentiment is reflected in many ways — from the growing number of foreign students who come to the U. S. for their engineering education to the US News & World Report’s college rankings for the best engineering universities in the world.

Leaders can never rest on their laurels and must be agile enough to embrace change. The dramatic transformation underway in the engineering field should motivate U. S. universities to adapt the way they educate the next generation of engineers.

Over the next decade a significant portion of the engineering workforce will retire — up to 40% in some sectors. Young engineers will have fewer opportunities to be mentored by boomers with expertise and know-how. Furthermore, competition and market demands mean that young engineers have to “ramp up” faster than ever before. They must quickly learn the ins and outs of their work responsibilities and also how to take on leadership positions.

Tasks that young engineers must execute on the job aren’t always taught in the classroom, but universities increasingly recognize the need for practical preparation. Stanford University and Rochester Institute of Technology, for instance, have robust co-op programs in place that require all engineering students to augment classwork with industry experience. Schools such as City University of New York and University of West Florida use on-campus incubators as workshops for students to build prototypes and run experiments. While incubators may not give students the same practical experience as working for an OEM or engineering firm, they do encourage students to be creative and learn outside the classroom.

With many engineers on the verge of retirement, an engineering program must not only focus on the core skills necessary for entering industry, it must also lay the groundwork that lets future engineers fill leadership positions with confidence. Universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology do a great job of preparing engineers for such roles by integrating business and management training into the core curriculum.

This is an approach all engineering programs should consider, as it helps groom graduates for leadership roles without taking an additional two years to complete an MBA program. Because industry will soon need to fill many technical-management slots, companies would benefit greatly if the next generation of engineers entered the workforce with core skills that would let them move up the ranks as needed.

The ability to find the information needed for addressing a new problem is also critical for any engineer. Knowing where to look, and how to do it quickly and efficiently, is among the most important things a student can learn. Young professionals often must solve problems when working remotely, without access to a mentor or a single resource that is guaranteed to have all the information they need. This forces them to be adept at finding answers and to embrace lifelong learning — as new resources constantly pop up and established ones can grow obsolete.

Information literacy is an important skill. Many rely on a quick Google search for answers and lack the expertise to assess the quality of information. Furthermore, an Internet search often results in a deluge of data which have to be sorted and validated.

Exposing students to different techniques for finding information is critical for a successful career. Students must learn to use secondary resources, and about the wealth of information available to them. Information literacy ensures students can properly source and evaluate the relevance and credibility of resources. University librarians are allies in advancing that skill but they often have as little as one 45-minute class to give students a glimpse of the resources available to them.

Information-science courses should be mandatory for engineering students. University libraries may have upwards of 3,000 secondary resources — learning which ones are most useful and which address specific needs should be a key component of any engineering degree.

Knovel offers comprehensive technical references for engineers, including Web-based applications integrating technical information with interactive analytical and search tools.

© 2012 Penton Media, Inc.

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