I was born into a family of educators, and I married into a family of educators. For quite a while, it looked like my professional life was headed in a different direction. I worked in the automation industry as a system integrator. Eventually, however, like in The Godfather: Part III, "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in." I became a professor, and now I find myself running a company focused on educational content and technology.
Having one foot in the teaching world and the other foot in industry has given me a unique perspective on engineering education. Strangely enough, the strongest feeling that I have about engineering education comes neither from my years as a student nor from my years as a professor, but from my years working on (and under) machines.
For years, as a "software guy," I worked squarely between electrical engineers and electricians or between mechanical engineers and toolmakers. I often observed problems arise between young engineers and the seasoned tradesmen and women. "The Wall" was a literal thing -- a real divide between carpeting, reclining desk chairs and workstations, and cement floors, stools, and tools.
Lab and project work is just as important as academics.
Engineers would throw designs over "The Wall," and men and women would build those things, wire them up, and make them work. That was the plan, but I don't know how often I heard, "This can't be built" or "This can't ever be taken apart" or "That'll never work." It became clear to me that good engineers are receptive to feedback, and the best ones are proactive enough to get input before stamping a drawing. Years later, when I began teaching future engineers, and still later, when I began employing engineers as a business owner, this still rang true.
So how does an employer encourage this sort of collaboration and flexibility? A number of engineering students are now taking part in things like robotic competitions and alternative energy vehicle competitions. Most engineering programs have senior projects. As an employer, I view those activities as more important than mere grade point averages. When interviewing or working with interns or new graduates, I ask things such as:
- What have you built?
- What have you fixed?
- Have you ever hurt yourself in the shop? (I'm not sure what the right answer is, but I like to ask.)
- What's your favorite machine or tool to work on?
And what can engineering educators do to foster these qualities in their students?
- Some schools have fantastic internship or co-operative education programs. I think all schools should.
- Most schools have capstone or senior project courses. I think all of them should, and the students should really be required to make something from scratch.
- Students should consistently be inspired by seeing real results of real projects that relate to their studies. I think as engineers, we should give back by showing off our cool work. Educators should be asking us to do this.
I talk to many engineering educators about their challenges. Student engagement is always on top on the list. I think this is relatively easy to solve by talking about "The Wall" between theory and practice and then showing them how to break it down.