Volume 15 | Issue 2 | Year 2012

For decades, students from around the world flocked to the United States for the best engineering education. More often than not, these students, the crème de la crème from their respective countries, stayed here to become university professors or corporate engineers.
This dynamic has changed dramatically in the past 10 years. While foreign students still come to our universities, more of them return to their home country to pursue opportunities. Businesses can no longer rely on access to this imported talent pool; globalization is making the marketplace for goods – and talent – much more competitive.

STEM-related programs (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) that aim to increase the talent pool are important, but we also need to focus on the quality of engineering education. To remain cutting edge, college-level engineering curriculum must change to reflect the realities and demands of a global market and the importance of developing skills for lifelong learning. We need to take a hard look at the face value of an undergraduate engineering degree. Learning business skills, staying on top of emerging technology and trends to innovate, and hands-on experience are more important than ever. Let’s take a closer look at these issues.

Today, fewer students choose engineering. It is considered too hard, or worse, “geeky.” Despite the emergence of STEM-related programs, not many students understand its value. Those who pursue an engineering degree often lack the fundamental math and science skills to succeed without remedial coursework. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, bachelor’s degree programs in engineering typically last four years, but many students find that it takes between four and five years to complete their studies.

Challenges to prepare undergraduate students for the rigors of engineering study has led to a significant increase in the reliance on advanced degrees by engineering firms and organizations. For many years – and still today in many countries – a bachelor’s degree proved sufficient, unless you stayed in academia. That’s no longer the case: Undergraduate engineering degrees have become a minimal education requirement for many positions.

While post-graduate work is certainly required for many highly specialized engineering disciplines, the majority of engineering responsibilities at the entry level and beyond should not, at least in an ideal world, require advanced degrees.

With engineers in short supply, we quickly need to fill the pipeline with qualified engineering candidates. We have to start by filling the gaps in education that emerge from our secondary school system. We need to ensure that universities effectively prepare engineering students for the workforce. Engineering students should have basic business skills and understand emerging trends.

Before students join the workforce, they need to learn more than just engineering. Too often, engineers graduate with no knowledge of how the business world works. There is a glass ceiling for engineers in senior management. The lack of business coursework is one significant factor in this poor representation. A few basic business classes would go a long way to empowering engineers to function better – and succeed more – at the management level.

Further, it’s critical that education integrates developing technologies and concepts into core curriculum. New trends, like green engineering, are often overlooked. They’re relegated to elective classes. Few students participate. But developing trends are critical to innovation; exposing students to them early will help bolster adoption.

Simply having the theoretical knowledge is not enough. Engineering education must foster practical knowledge through partnerships, incubators and internships.

Engineering program designers have known for years that theory is not enough to prepare students for the real-world challenges. Practical application of knowledge – through labs, internships and hands-on experience – is critical to developing dynamic, imaginative engineers.

One way to make practical application possible within education is through corporate partnerships, which allow interns to work from start to finish on a project, empowering them to solve real problems they would face in the workforce. Corporate partnerships and interns are mutually beneficial, providing practical experience for students and innovative and creative resources for industry Corporate incubators provide another resource for students. Large universities use incubators to help new companies develop with the help of professors and students. Incubators force students to be creative and learn design not from theory but from practical applications. This creativity must also manifest itself in the student’s desire to learn and be challenged. Hands-on experience helps to prepare students for the transition to the workforce and reinforces their value out of the starting gate.

Engineering in the United States is at a critical junction, but we have an opportunity to realign engineering education to address the business needs of a global market. By filling in the education gap, rounding out engineers’ education to include business and cutting-edge technologies, increasing corporate involvement in the education process and training students on all aspects of research, we can prepare our country and our engineers for the future.

Sasha Gurke is senior vice president and cofounder of Knovel. Gurke has more than 25 years experience in the technical information field. He led the expansion of Knovel’s award-winning technical resource and contributes to its success by integrating real-life workplace solutions.

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