As the face of the engineering field has evolved, some experts wonder if teaching methods, too, should change.
Some advocates of engineering education wonder if too great an emphasis exists on students mastering mechanics, and they believe that real-world experience—including the ability to communicate ideas and procedures clearly—should hold greater importance.
In a recent study, AMD and the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) reviewed 29 programs at 28 colleges that equally emphasize real-world experience and technical skills to produce well-rounded engineering graduates.
These colleges have anticipated and appeased a growing concern about student skill among employers. A separate survey shows that 68 percent of U.S. employers are likely to hire graduates with engineering degrees but worry that they lack the necessary real-world skills to succeed in the modern workforce. As the face of the engineering field has evolved, some experts wonder if teaching methods, too, should change.
“Simply mastering technical engineering is no longer enough to successfully compete and lead in today’s marketplace,” said Mark Papermaster, AMD senior vice president and chief technology officer. “We see firsthand at AMD that our engineers must also be able to solve complex problems, communicate clearly and collaborate globally. The innovative approaches taken by these leading engineering schools will help prepare our future engineers.”
Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif., is among those institutions the study praised for its efforts to provide its engineering students with invaluable real-world experience. The school’s Engineering Clinic, established by the Department of Engineering in 1963, allows juniors and seniors to collaborate with faculty advisers and practicing engineers to confront real problems in the public and private sectors.
As they are mentored and advised by practicing engineers, students gain a new network of connections that will serve them well in their post-grad job hunts and future endeavors.
“Our engineering students will spend the rest of their lives solving real-life problems,” said R. Erik Spjut, director of the Engineering Clinic and a professor of engineering. “The experience of doing so with a faculty coach or mentor to guide past the most common beginner mistakes means that our students are productive on day one in their jobs, compared to the six months to a year it takes most students to come up to speed.”
The Engineering Clinic understands that employers seek to hire young engineers who are not only fluent in the technical aspects of engineering, but in the communicative aspects as well.
“They are already experienced on writing up their results and preserving them in a professional manner, which leads to their ideas being noticed by management and their career advancement being accelerated,” Spjut said. “Our graduates have the technical chops, but Clinic is what changes them into practicing engineers.”
Spjut said he encourages colleges to continue thinking beyond traditional education models and stuffy lecture halls.
“Clinic or clinic-based variant has been adopted by Olin College of Engineering, Cal Poly Pomona, the University of Arizona, Brigham Young University, Kogakuin University, and several others,” said Spjut. “It takes commitment and planning, but [our program is] a model for at least a starting point.”
Study leaders received nearly 100 applications from colleges that wished to be included, though only 28 colleges passed AMD and NAE’s judging standards. Researchers identified the following seven factors used to assess each program: program creativity, innovation, attention to diversity (including geographic, institution, racial/ethnic and gender), sustainability plan, assessment of student learning, level of real-world experience, and anticipated versus actual outcomes.
Outside of detailing how the 28 colleges succeeded in executing an integrated engineering curriculum, the study surveyed 460 engineering and engineering technology deans and asked that they identify the barriers that prevent their colleges from implementing similar programs. Most colleges cited lack of funding and financial support, challenges encountered with partners, and faculty workload concerns as the most prominent barriers. Suggestions for how to address these barriers are also offered in the study.
ADA and NAE call for all colleges to recognize the need for more integrated and realistic engineering curriculum, the results of which will potentially impact all Americans.
“This nation’s prosperity, security, and quality of life are direct results of leadership in the engineering achievements that drive society forward,” said Charles M. Vest, president of the National Academy of Engineering. “These programs are strategically preparing students to become the engineers who will tackle the technical and social complexities that lie ahead in the 21st century.”