I agree with all of your points, TJ, except your comments about the liberal arts background. I'm not an engineer by degree or training--I'm a journalist--so perhaps that makes me biased in a certain way. I think that good engineers still need strong communications and writing skills as you well point out, and they also need a fundamental understanding of the business and a broader context of how and where their products fits into the marketplace.
Having covered information technology for years, there was always this focus early on for professionals to concentrate on their core technical skills as a way to get a competitive edge. Today, it's all about having a dual focus not just on the technical stuff, but how to apply the technical stuff to solve real business problems in the context of how the business operates. Shouldn't the engineering challenge be the same and don't you need a well-rounded education and balance in order to deliver that context? I'm not saying in lieu of integrated and practical engineering training, I'm saying in addition to.
Having graduated from General Motors Institute (when it was still owned by GM) I have long believed that co-op is the most sensible approach to an engineering education. (GMI is now known as Kettering University). By tying every semester of education to practical applied experience, students learn not only engineering theory but, on a personal level, whether they even really want to be an engineer.
Most university professors are so enamored with theory that they are hardly capable of designing a practical curriculum. When students come to the class with real world experience they are far better ready to push their limits and demand that the school contribute what they need educationally.
Funds. (It's always about the money). How are the funds to be spent? A university education is already too expensive, so something must be jettisoned to make room for these changes. I am strongly for drastically cutting back on the liberal arts portion, leaving only enough to properly teach an engineer how to communicate (good techincal writing), and a better history curriculum.
Commitment. A university has to decide that the "classic" way needs to be revamped, and commit whole-hog. EVERY teacher gets involved in crafting a new curriculum to create the integrated building block approach. Each teacher can then point to where the student should have come from, and where the student will go next.
Interest. Engineering takes a lot of hard work to learn. That doesn't mean it shouldn't be interesting and inspiring. The simulation approach by ASU is the start, with real world tools (MatLab and Solidworks are terrific for this). But the simulations must be proven to actually simulate the world, and that is where some practical, physical tests come in.
Someone should be arguing that that is what lab classes are for. Haven't heard that yet. Yes, lab classes would fit the bill, but they are also treated as ends unto themselves.
I'm minded of the supersonic aerodynamics class I took. The lab consisted of undergrad students huddled in a dark room, waiting for compressors to fully pressurize the storage tanks. This took at least forty minutes. The actual wind tunnel run lasted about 15 seconds. Then we got to take home whatever data was collected. I learned NOTHING from this lab. Grad students ran the tunnel. We stood around for an hour, for fifteen seconds of noisy, meaningless test.
I suppose we learned that supersonic lab testing is expensive and time consuming. But I think we could have gotten more from it with better preparation.
Internships are a definite win-win for the students and the prospective employers no matter what industry or profession. But the internships need to be structured and tied to the curriculum that's being taught in the schools as opposed to being a check box for the student--show up at the job and get the credits. That kind of laissez faire attitude doesn't help the engineer-in-training or the employer.
When I graduated from Iowa State they had just started to encourage internships at some point during your college studies. Now I know they stress them more than ever. An internship typically includes the summer and either the fall after or the spring semester before but wither way a good 7 months working in an engineering environment in incredibly valuable and I encourage any student to take advantage of the opportunity. As for employers, this can be a great way to find good engineers that you may want to hire in the future. It can be a win, win.
Who defines "well rounded"? The university which is trying to make a profit? The classes were uninteresting, uninspiring, in some cases downright repulsive (Flannery O'Connor, take note!). The catastrophic failures class was a very cool history class; it tied history and engineering together.
When I went home on break, I talked about the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse. My father proceeded to tell me something NOT taught in the engineering history class: that the insurance salesman who sold the policy on the bridge POCKETED the premium, thinking "bridges don't collapse". The salesman commited suicide. There IS a lot to be said for a broad base for education, but the mind-numbing way it is currently taught makes it practically worthless.
History must be taught (else we are bound to repeat it). But the manner in which it is taught is almost guaranteed to cause it to be ignored. James Burke and his Connections series on PBS would be a terrific example of how to teach history.
The competitions are fun, but again, they stand alone as ends unto themselves. An integrated approach will give more and make a better graduate.
TJ, I think your point about needing to integrate the physical prototyping with the newer virtual prototyping stuff is sound--the digital world is never going to fully supplant building something tangible, and learning the proper intersection between the two at an early stage is obviously a core lifelong skill engineers are going to need to master.
It seems like all of the zillions of student competitions I hear and read about all the time are definitely a good way to strike some of that balance. But you raise a good point about needing to integrate that same kind of hands-on work into the day-to-day stuff done in the classroom. Maybe engineering programs really do need to incorporate a residency or apprenticeship. But even if it evolves that way, I still think having a solid liberal arts background is important as well. It's called well-rounded balance.
The focus on virtual prototyping is because it is inexpensive; electrons are essentially free, while cutting metal, or mixing chemicals, or building chips all cost money. The low-cost approach is not necessarily the best approach when it comes to education! It's awarding a building contract to the lowest bidder for the foundations of your career.
I believe the "classic" rounded education provided by most universities today is a waste of time and money. Why is a liberal arts education segment necessary for an engineer? I got NOTHING from that portion of my education. Well, maybe not "nothing". I know I will NEVER pick up another Flannery O'Conner book ever again. But I would probably not have in the first place, so let's call that a wash.
Engineering classes are taught simple to complex, has to be that way. But they're taught almost as an end to themselves. The student ends up with basic building blocks, but universities do not do a good job tying them into an integrated structure. The student leaves with a degree, and a jumble of blocks with no guidance as to how to put them together.That falls to their first employer.
ASU has the right idea, but it is just the first step.Simulations, virtual prototyping, by themselves, are not going to be memorable to a student. People experience this virtual world every day now; it's common. Necessary, but common.The simulation tools are a great way to learn, but students also need to see that the simulation actually SIMULATES the real world.The only way to do this is to duplicate the simulation results with a real test, to prove that what happens inside a computer is in fact an accurate representation what will really happen.
Take those simulations, have each build on the previous one, culminating in a real world build and ultimate static test to failure, and there will be a memory that lasts a lifetime, and with it a superior education.
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