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If you’re reading Design News, you probably have a good grounding in the fundamentals of engineering. You know your statics, dynamics, thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, materials and electrical elements inside out. Differential equations don’t scare you a bit. And why should they. You’ve put in your time in engineering school.
Yet, the big question facing would-be design engineers nowadays is whether a solid knowledge of the fundamentals — and how to apply them — is enough to get ahead. The answer turns out to be a resounding “no.”
Design engineers obviously need a technical foundation, but they increasingly have to apply knowledge that either falls outside of or has been given short shift by the traditional mechanical engineering curriculum. Dr. Jim Jones, an associate professor and associate head of mechanical engineering at Purdue University and one of the co-chairs of its recent curriculum reform efforts, has a term for these engineers who can do it all. He calls them “Renaissance Engineers.”
He admits the term makes some engineers uncomfortable, but his underlying point is one that emerges again and again in conversations with academics and engineering managers from industry. “Engineers who want to be competitive in the coming years need to have both a strong technical foundation and a broader non-traditional skill set,” Jones says.
The ability to communicate well tends to top the list of non-core skills cited by those involved in engineering education and hiring. In fact, the need for communications skills is mentioned so often and reflexively it has become something of a cliché.
Nowadays, however, communication means a lot more than being able to write a technical report or make a riveting presentation to the engineers in the next cubicle. Engineers increasingly have to bridge gaps with people from other cultures and with business leaders from their own organization.
And the skills that help to bridge those gaps may soon define the successful engineer as much as design proficiency does. “There’s a lessening need for the ‘vertical engineer’ who’s very good at just one thing and a growing need for the ‘horizontal’ engineer who can marry technical abilities with a broader understanding of world,” says Sheri Brodeur, a university relations program manager with Hewlett-Packard Labs.
There was a time when cultural awareness was not considered an important part of an engineering education, but the increasingly global nature of design teams promises to change all that in a hurry. Jones notes that experience working in other cultures has in recent years started to turn up important engineering attribute in the alumni surveys conducted by Purdue’s engineering school. “The message about global awareness is loud and clear,” he says.
“It’s more important than ever that engineers be able to work across different cultures,” says Regina Clewlow, founder of Engineers for A Sustainable World (ESW).
She argues that the ability to work across cultures would ideally mean student engineers cultivate some foreign language abilities. Yet, even short of learning to speak a new language, student engineers can still work to improve their cultural awareness through engineering courses that emphasize work within other cultures.
One of ESW’s main goals, for example, involves the promotion of project-based engineering courses that give students experience creating sustainable technology solutions to problems here in the U.S. and abroad. These courses require plenty of pure engineering work. In many cases, the courses immerse the student in a different culture during school breaks, so they can work with local populations and NGOs. Think of them as the engineering equivalent of a semester abroad.
The courses, which qualify as technical electives at most schools, also include lectures from community development professionals, anthropologists and other social scientists whose perspective doesn’t usually turn up in engineering courses. “The ESW courses provide real-world context, often within other cultures, for what students learn in their basic engineering courses,” Clewlow says.
So far about a dozen engineering schools have adopted courses based on ESW’s model. And Clewlow predicts there will be more in the future — as well as chapters for practicing engineers interested in sustainability.
Minding the Business
Of all the cultures around the world, the one engineers sometimes find the most foreign can be found in the corner offices of their own companies. But just as engineers can learn to work with people from other cultures, they can learn to work with the suits.
And the first step in that process is developing an understanding of how to turn a buck. Or as Brodeur puts it, “A great idea isn’t so great if it doesn’t make financial sense.”
Developing a sense of what makes financial sense should begin in engineering school. “Every design engineer should take at least one course in accounting or engineering economics,” says Dr. Winston Knight, professor of industrial and system engineering at the University of Rhode Island and a senior vice president at Boothroyd Dewhurst, a design-for-manufacturing consulting firm. What they take away from accounting coursework is an understanding of the time value of money. “Engineers need to master concepts such as depreciation and return on investment if they want to speak the language of business fluently,” he says.
Engineers also need to understand softer business skills, too. Jones mentions entrepreneurship and leadership as two skills Purdue is working into its curriculum. Entrepreneurship training involves lectures in how venture capitalists operate and in patent law. Leadership is taught mostly by doing. Jones says the growing understanding of leadership has triggered a change in how Purdue conducts its project-based classes. “In the past, the students with natural leadership abilities tended to take charge of each project. Now, we rotate leaders to give every student some experience with that role,” he says.
Teaching the New Skills
Training the next generation of culturally aware, business-savvy engineers may be necessary, but it won’t be easy for a couple of reasons. One is time, or more precisely, the lack of it. “If you add too much to the curriculum, no one would ever graduate,” says Knight. And he and Purdue’s Jones both note that adding non-engineering coursework to an engineering education will result in trade-offs — either in the time spent on fundamentals or the time spent in school.
The other is the conservative streak that still characterizes many engineering schools. “Cases like Olin College, which has built an engineering curriculum from scratch, are still rare,” says Brodeur. “Most engineering schools are still run by old-school, grey-haired deans fighting for the pure curriculum they know best.”
For that pure curriculum to share some time with the new engineering skill set, she adds, engineering education will have to become far more project-based and interdisciplinary than it is now.