An expert in communications and signal processing, Orsak has been the lead researcher on more than 25 federal, state, and local grants totaling more than $7million. Here, he gives his views on engineering education.
Generally, are engineering schools preparing students well for the real world? Engineering schools certainly believe they are. But you have to define what you mean by "the real world." Most engineering schools are doing more than ever in terms of courses, research and activities. But we continue to typically plan curricula assuming students will pursue and get traditional engineering jobs after graduation. For those who obtain those traditional jobs, schools do a fantastic job of preparing them. But for those who go into other arenas, quite frankly we can all do better.
What other arenas? Business consulting is one hot example. Finance, law, and public policy are others. Engineers are the best problem solvers, and problem-solving skills are important everywhere. Because of the demand for problem-solving skills, working in a traditional engineering job in a large company is less of a reality today than before. U.S. News And World Report reports that 20 percent of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies had engineering degrees, while 18 percent had business degrees. That shows you don't necessarily need a business degree for corporate success. Quite frankly, ambiguity is part of nearly every job, and engineers are as good as anyone at dealing with that reality. A wide variety of industries are increasingly interviewing engineers for jobs where analytical and communications skills are required.
Communications skills? Engineers aren't usually thought of as great communicators. Right, because they have historically only communicated with each other—which they can do very well. However, today they have to speak in broader terms to wider audiences. Engineering schools are wrestling with how to help engineers communicate with non-technical people.
Then, what is the essence of engineering? It's the drive to find a practical solution while understanding that there are always constraints. Anyone can solve a problem with unlimited time and an unlimited budget. Engineers solve problems that people care about and do it with limited resources and plenty of constraints. Society doesn't give engineers enough credit for that. But engineers are about solving problems, not getting credit.
Should engineering education start in the lower grades? Yes, kids in elementary school, middle school, and high school should be able to register for engineering classes. They can take chemistry and biology, so why not engineering? Which is more important to the real world of work? To address this need, I've been involved in creating programs to expose kids in K through 12 to engineering across this nation.
What is the Infinity Project? It's the first large-scale pre-college engineering curriculum available today. Kids solve engineering problems they care about, such as building cell phones so they can call each other, and making digital synthesizers, or special effects for movies. That's what pre-college engineering is really all about—getting kids excited about the work of engineering.