In This Issue
Summer issue of The Bridge on Undergraduate Engineering Education
June 12, 2013 Volume 43 Issue 2

Aligning Engineering Education and Experience to Meet the Needs of Industry and Society

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Author: Rick Stephens

Industry and society depend on engineers for the design and production of goods that meet customer needs and are safe, reliable, efficient, and competitive in the global market. Given the dynamics of the global economy and changing US age demographics (specifically, in this context, the large number of engineers approaching retirement), much has been written about whether there will be a sufficient number of engineers to meet industry and societal needs.

Furthermore, although colleges and universities produce technically competent graduates who understand engineering concepts and demonstrate the ability to apply them in the real world, they often lack the people skills (also called “soft” skills) that enable them to meet their full potential. Today’s engineers need to be not only technically strong but also creative and able to work well in teams, communicate effectively, and create products that are useful in the “real world.”

Industry, society, and engineering schools can—and should—collaborate to ensure a sufficient number of such qualified and capable engineers to meet industry and society needs. In this article I discuss measures to achieve these goals.

Engineering Education and Employment: Recent Facts and Figures

The road to an engineering degree has long been characterized by challenging courses, a heavy course load, long hours of study, and high failure rates. It was not uncommon for some of the best and brightest who entered engineering school to drop their pursuit of an engineering degree and move to an easier course of study. Some even dropped out of college altogether. In 2011 it was reported that 40–60 percent of science and engineering majors change their major because “it’s just so darn hard” (Drew 2011).

The good news is that, notwithstanding these facts and figures, the United States has actually seen a recent increase in the number of undergraduate engineering degrees. From 2003 to 2009 the annual number of engineers graduating from US colleges and universities remained relatively flat (degrees awarded rose by only 3,000 during those seven years, from 71,000 to 74,000; Yoder 2012). But in 2010 there was a jump of 4,000, to 78,000 new degrees, and in 2011 another jump of 5,000, to 83,000.1

Moreover, the unemployment rate for engineers is just 2 percent (Gearon 2012), even as the national rate has averaged 9 percent since 2009.2 Even when national unemployment was nearly 10 percent, the unemployment rate for engineers peaked at 6.4 percent. In addition, the highest-paying salary for a new college graduate in 2013 is in engineering, with an average starting salary of $62,535 (up 4 percent from 2012) and starting salaries as high as $93,500 (NACE 2013). And since only 5 percent of all undergraduates complete an engineering degree (Newman 2012), there is substantial demand.

With low unemployment, excellent salaries, and rewarding work, why is industry concerned that there won’t be enough qualified engineers to meet its needs? Why is it that many students see engineering as a difficult degree to achieve? And what can be done to address these concerns?

The Importance of Soft Skills

There are at least two significant areas for enhancement in engineering education to address the concerns cited above:

  1. ensuring that engineering students can not only achieve their degree objectives but also apply their skills in the real world, and
  2. increasing graduation rates for students pursuing engineering degrees.

It turns out that progress in both areas requires the development and use of soft skills. In fact, many in business have observed that the factors that improve graduation rates are the same as those that support success in industry.

There are few reports from industry that students don’t have the right technical competency to succeed—the engineering school accreditation process has ensured the acquisition of technical competencies. Rather, engineering majors who fail in industry are those who have all the right technical competencies but not the soft or people skills to be successful. Specifically, they tend to lack the ability to work well in teams, communicate effectively, define problems, and consider alternative and creative solutions. They also tend to rely too heavily on digital tools in their efforts to develop solutions that can be delivered in the real world.

Four Measures to Develop Engineering Students’ Soft Skills

To address the need for students to acquire soft skills, many engineering school deans have enlisted the help of industry and technology leaders to understand the factors associated with soft skill development. These deans have created an environment that fosters the development of students’ soft skills through their work in teams, on hands-on projects, and in industry, all as part of an engineering curriculum that is already achieving excellent results. Following are four examples of such measures.

Assignment of New Students to Cohorts

As mentioned, engineering students face the challenges of a demanding curriculum, long study hours, and a high course load. These are particularly daunting for first-year students, most of whom must also adapt to the challenge of being away from home for the first time and being responsible for more than just their academics.

One successful model for helping students not only cope but also thrive involves assigning a cohort of up to 50 students to an engineering professor, preferably one who teaches an engineering introductory course and is clearly interested in the students’ success. The cohort provides an environment for students to develop relationships with others who are experiencing the same challenges, and it ensures that a professor monitors their progress and can quickly address issues that may arise. Early evidence indicates that students who have such additional oversight and support move from the at-risk population (at risk of quitting their engineering studies or of dropping out altogether) to successful first-year students.

Engineering Professors Teaching Mathematics and Physics

Two of the most challenging courses for new engineering students are the introductory mathematics and physics courses. Some colleges and universities have considered them “weed-out” courses for engineering majors. But as colleges are in a position to select the best and brightest students from the many who apply, courses designed to cut out underachievers are no longer warranted.

For most engineering students, understanding and applying mathematical concepts is critical to their success in the classroom and eventually in the workplace. (And as one with an undergraduate degree in mathematics, I also appreciate the elegance that the field can bring to engineering.) A number of engineering schools have enlisted engineering professors to teach mathematics and physics, using real-world engineering examples to translate mathematical concepts into practice. The approach is associated with significant improvement in student performance and thus better retention and degree attainment rates.3

First- and Second-Year Engineering Student Projects

Engineers want to solve problems. At many schools, however, the approach has been to use the first two years of the engineering curriculum to ensure that students have a solid foundation of concepts and practices before they get to solve problems.

Fortunately, colleges are finding that engaging first-year engineering students in hands-on projects bolsters retention and performance. One obvious option is the involvement of these early undergraduates in supporting graduate students and their projects. In addition, strong relationships in the community and with industry can provide opportunities to engage first-year students. For example, Columbia University works with the community to identify and define projects for first-year students, who work in teams to develop soft skills, are able to use their newly learned engineering tools, solve problems for “customers,” and begin their transformation from student to engineer in a way that is very useful to industry.

Internships

Like student projects, internships have become a critical tool for preparing students for the workforce. One model that is gaining traction is to work with students to line up internships after their second year in engineering school. Duke University makes it a point to meet with second-year students to ensure that they are taking the right steps to participate in an internship, and then discuss the experience with them afterward to get feedback on how it went.

For many students, an internship is their first real experience with industry and their first opportunity to see what it means to be a practicing engineer in the field they are pursuing. If the internship experience is good, then the student continues in the selected field of study. If, however, an electrical engineering student decides after the internship to become a civil engineer instead, there is time to refocus her studies.

Internships are also an opportunity for colleges and industry to work closer together. Experience at the Boeing Company showed that those with internships are far more successful as employees. The internships also provide a way to observe potential employee performance as well as get real-time feedback from students. As a measure of Boeing’s confidence in the benefits of these engineering internships, the company recently doubled the number available from 600 to 1,200.

Conclusion

The four measures described above are just a sampling of options, but colleges and universities where engineering school leaders and faculty have implemented them (or measures similar to them) have seen steady increases in student retention and graduation rates. For example, at Duke, Columbia, Olin, and the University of Southern California, 85 percent of entering engineering students graduate with engineering degrees—a dramatic improvement over the figures cited in the New York Times article (Drew 2011).

These schools show that creating opportunities for students to engage as engineers makes a huge difference in their graduation rates and ensures that they meet the needs of industry. Students with access to such program enhancements do not drop out because “it’s so darn hard” because, although they face the same challenges as their peers in other college or university engineering programs, they receive critical support and early opportunities to develop both engineering and people skills.

The key to ensuring that engineering graduates are ready for the future rests in how they are educated, which must involve more than the right technical content. An effective education in engineering must also include development of soft skills. Programs that cultivate both demonstrate high retention and graduation rates that also ensure students become employees that design and help produce goods that are safe, reliable, efficient, and competitive in the global market. Industry and engineering schools working closely together with students in a true partnership make it happen.

These are great examples and a strong start, but there is more to do. Tracking and reporting (1) the number of internships that businesses provide and (2) engineering school retention and graduation rates will go a long way toward enhancing accountability and continuing to achieve the results needed for US engineering students, industry, and the national economy.

References

Drew C. 2011. Why science majors change their minds (it’s just so darn hard). New York Times, November 4.

Gearon CJ. 2012. You’re an engineer? You’re hired. US News and World Report, March 22.

NACE [National Association of College Employers]. 2013. Salary Survey: April 2013 Executive Summary. Available online at www.naceweb.org/uploadedFiles/NACEWeb/Research/Salary_ Survey/Reports/salary-survey-april-2013-executive-summary. pdf.

Newman R. 2012. Where the jobs are, and the college grads aren’t. US News and World Report, May 14.

Yoder BL. 2012. Engineering by the Numbers. Washington: American Society for Engineering Education. Available online at www.asee.org/colleges.

 FOOTNOTES

 1 These recent dramatic increases correlate with general undergraduate enrollment growth that began early in the decade. After remaining flat at about 375,000 between 2003 and 2006, undergraduate enrollment in 2007 began a steady rise, with an average annual increase of more than 22,000 students, bringing total undergraduate enrollment in 2011 to 471,000 (Yoder 2012).

2 Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, available online at http://data.bls.gov/timeseries/LNS14000000.

3 While some have claimed that ABET requires mathematics and physics to be taught by the professors from those fields, engineering deans who have adopted the approach of engineering professors teaching math and physics indicate that it has not affected their ABET accreditation.

 

About the Author:Rick Stephens retired in March from the Boeing Company as Senior Vice President of Human Resources and Administration.