Challenges in modern engineering education

This blogpost i found recently, and is from Tom Lee, from Quanser. It perfectly describes the challenges we are faced with in education of the engineer of now and the future. It emphasis system thinking and cross-sectoral issues. It motivates the TU/e transition towards the Bachelor College, the design of the Automotive Bachelor, Master and Design-programs at TU/e, and is an input for the discussion of the Engineer of the Future. I hope you will enjoy reading it!

Figure:1 Engineering deans gather in Beijing to explore avenues to transform the undergraduate curriculumThese are interesting times for the engineering profession. On the surface, there are signs of a real engineering Renaissance. Technological magic seems to generate ever-more impressive gadgets, our cars are achieving near miraculous efficiency at affordable prices for the consumer, and modern engineering disciplines like biomedical engineering are offering new hope to countless people who would have been functionally marginalized in decades past. So why are engineering educators so grumpy these days?

No, there is no scientific study that has tracked a “grumpiness index” among our professors, but in recent years, there definitely seems to be some sense of angst among the academic community. Recently, at a conference of Innovation Centers for Engineering Education (ICEE) on Jeju Island in Korea, Korean professors gathered as part of a regular sequence of meetings among a network of 60 Korean engineering universities. These universities were charged by the national government to close the gap that exists between Korean engineering programs and the needs of Korean industry. Today, it is widely believed that Korean industry can legitimately claim the hard-fought title of the “next Japan.” Certainly on the consumer side, the products of the Korean electronics and automotive industries like Samsung and Hyundai, by any measure, command brand respect approaching, if not equaling, legendary Japanese brands such as Sony and Toyota.

The Korean ICEE initiative is significant in that it is a focused, well-funded initiative by an engineering community that is targeting the future driven by engineering creativity and innovation rather than manufacturing quality and aggressive labor costs. The sessions at this conference focused not so much on graduating more engineers to meet increasing demands; it tackled the more challenging, big-picture, questions on what qualities the engineers of tomorrow should embody and how the academic community can deliver the appropriate training. ICEE is currently concluding its first five-year mandate from the national government of Korea indicating that funding will be renewed, if not increased.

Grand Challenges of Modern Engineering

The Korean ICEE experience is a case study in a regional response to the larger issue of the readiness of engineering graduates. The most ambitious statement of the significance of engineering requirements of the future is best articulated by the so-called “Grand Challenges for Engineering.” In 2008, the National Academy of Engineering in the United States presented fourteen major technological issues that vex humankind and encouraged the global engineering community to use these as a framework for assessing education, research, policy, and industrial strategies.

The grand challenges are:

  • make solar energy economical,
  • provide energy from fusion,
  • develop carbon sequestration methods,
  • manage the nitrogen cycle,
  • provide access to clean water,
  • restore and improve urban infrastructure,
  • advance health informatics,
  • engineer better medicines,
  • reverse-engineer the brain,
  • prevent nuclear terror,
  • secure cyberspace,
  • enhance virtual reality,
  • advance personalized learning, and
  • engineer the tools of scientific discovery.

For many in the academic community, these challenges have precisely articulated the significance of the work of modern engineers but unfortunately, it also highlights how difficult it will be to prepare our students to tackle these immense challenges.

The current engineering curriculum, delivered by the great majority of institutions worldwide, had its genesis in the mid-twentieth century. Largely motivated by then urgent requirements of the so-called Space Race and its darker flipside, the Cold War, a large number of engineers had to be trained to meet the needs. The response from the academic community was a curriculum that one might consider to be linear — start with mathematical and scientific foundations in the early years, progress to application courses in the middle years, then cap it off with a rigorous thesis or senior project. Additionally, the tradition of separating students into well-defined engineering disciplines (electrical, mechanical, chemical, civil, etc.) became entrenched. Although one cannot deny that this approach was effective in that the needs of society were largely met, it left this generation with lingering memories of being completely lost for four or more years and eventually seeing the light once they began experiencing the real world.

The mismatch for the modern context often sites two very significant issues. First, as anyone that graduated from engineering programs during this period, is the simple reality of keeping students motivated through the very intensive and often abstract, theory-heavy gauntlet of the first years of the undergraduate program. Many of us asked, “What is the significance of this calculus theorem proof in the real world?” as we struggled through the process. In some sense, this is the easier problem as many successful techniques have emerged within the past few decades that have attempted to introduce more applications, hands-on labs and case studies to help “soften” the blow.

The trickier issue is the latter — the disconnect between the traditional structure of the engineering disciplines and the emerging complexities of modern engineering systems. With the pace of innovation and the increasing sophistication of products and infrastructure, many consider the techniques represented by the traditional curriculum out-of-date. Modern engineering teams are typically cross-functional with contributions from a variety of specializations. This included technical and non-technical specializations, including business and human factors. The shortening project time-lines also demand greater project parallelization and cross-functional tasks that simply do not map cleanly to the disciplines. Simply put, engineers need to know more and do more, all with less time and resources.

Technologically, such pressures have triggered highly innovative techniques often facilitated by modern information and digital technology. A clear testament to this trend is the academic migration of the traditional departments of Electrical Engineering (EE) to the more contemporary hybrid departments of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE). In another important corner of the engineering world, many departments of Mechanical Engineering (ME) are starting to express themselves as Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering (MME). This sort of trend is one of the modern responses of the academic community; creating new departments to accommodate new techniques. Is this sufficient?

The reality is: this will generate a relatively small specialized group of engineers skilled in even more specialized and narrow fields. It also leaves the vast majority of our students in the framework of the traditional disciplines. A very practical example of the deficiency in this approach becomes clear in a very familiar context: modern cars.

A Practical Example: The Green Car

Virtually all consumer vehicles produced today are electronically fuel-injected. More precisely, they are typically computer-controlled, deploying the same semiconductor technology we use in our general purpose computers. The electronic control unit (ECU) manages the fuel injection and ignition timing and other key parameters that influence the burning and energy release of the engine. For many cars, there will also be some computer control through the drivetrain (e.g. traction control). Within the rapid development cycles of today’s auto industry, it becomes essential for the engineering team to work with the system in its totality. In the case of the engine, you will need to consider mechanical, chemical, and electrical characteristics as a minimum. You will also need computing knowledge, as the engines are computer-controlled.

From a workflow perspective, new techniques such as hardware in the loop testing (HIL), offer a rapid, highly accurate and cost-effective way of testing the performance of control systems for engines or any other computer-controlled subsytem. This is a way of testing key components without having to physically prototype the entire system only to find a critical design flaw. This type of sophisticated simulation and control systems design will demand a system-level approach that blends techniques and knowledge from many of the specialized disciplines. Extrapolating further to green vehicle design, the same problems become greatly amplified for hybrid electric vehicles (HEV), fully electric (EV), and fuel-cell powered vehicles. For these applications, chemical engineering knowledge becomes increasingly important as battery design and alternative fuels become the big variables.

The Renaissance Engineer

The professors at the Korean conference expressed keen interest in techniques that introduce such multidisciplinary and system-level approaches to an engineering education. It may seem simple enough to begin merging select techniques from other disciplines into programs, but the actual implementation is substantially more difficult. The curriculum legacy is entangled within a large complex system of organizations and suborganizations with bureaucratic structures and decision-making processes that ensures academic freedom but hinders coordinated transformation. Furthermore, the recent focus on the research function of the engineering university also needs to be tempered to allow greater creativity and energy to revitalize the teaching function.

The Korean context was used to highlight the level of commitment and vision required to educate the modern Renaissance engineer. This particular group would be the first to admit that they have only taken a baby step. But that first step is literally a “doozy.” Korea is a nation of fifty million people for whom the engineering community has literally lifted the population out of mass poverty within a generation. For this country, the revitalization of the engineering community is an issue of national priority and government, industry, and academic institutions seem to be in-sync to implement the changes. They are not alone, however. At another recent conference in Asia, approximately three hundred deans of engineering and other senior engineering education administrators met in Beijing at the 2011 Global Engineering Deans Conference presented by the International Federation of Engineering Education (IFEES). In the audience were significant contingents from North American institutions who are also anxious to learn from their global peers and trigger positive action in their respective juristictions.

Throughout North America and elsewhere, a generation of children have embraced robotics as a hobby and even an obsession. These same children also lose sleep at night wondering whether their world will provide sufficient food, clean water, and livable environments when they take the helm. In many ways, the scene is fundamentally different from the concerns of Western nations on whether we are training enough engineers to compete against emerging economic superpowers. The demands on the engineering community are becoming deeply personal and we witness an empowered generation ready to take on the challenges—but they can only succeed if our generation can structure our institutions and methods to guide them wisely.

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