In This Issue
Winter Bridge on Frontiers of Engineering
December 18, 2019 Volume 49 Issue 4

Higher Education in Engineering: Hands-on Experience and Teaching Factory

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Author: Jyotirmoy Mazumder

Higher education in engineering in the United States has been driven by engineering science since the Second World War, geared toward in-depth understanding of engineering science for long-term benefits. The model -proposed by Vannevar Bush, recommending more emphasis on science in education to benefit defense efforts, became the guiding principle for the next 70 years (Bush 1946; Stokes 1997). This emphasis led to extensive scientific and engineering innovation that came out of the American university system, with widespread benefits.

Historical Context

The 20th Century

For the first part of the 20th century, the path from scientific innovation to a commercial product was linear. Scientists were more or less restricted to the pursuit of basic understanding. Engineers would take it from there to search for constitutive relationships to convey the fundamental knowledge to practice. Technologists then developed the technological base needed for industry to manufacture a product.

During World War II, the development—mostly by physicists—of sonar, radar, and the atom bomb changed the paradigm and demonstrated that basic science, when applied toward a given definite goal, can produce and serve the needs of society in a shorter time compared to what can be achieved through empirical pursuit. During the Cold War, a partnership between the government and higher education institutions led to a research paradigm that encouraged applied science areas, such as engineering, to delve into a more basic understanding of phenomena to accelerate much of the technological development required for national defense.

Funding from the US government through various agencies, including the Department of Defense, was the fuel for this engine. But the end of the Cold War, changing security needs, and calls from the general population for a focus on more immediate societal concerns (e.g., the energy crisis) reduced the defense research budget for engineering science. Now increasing competition in the manufacturing arena from European and Asian countries is challenging the relevance of US higher education in engineering.

More Recently

One of the downsides of following the physics model was a slow departure of engineering from hands-on experience-based practice. Funding from defense programs accelerated the trend. Other professional degrees such as medicine, law, and architecture require extensive practical experience, whereas engineering education focuses more on scientific theory. As Simon Ostrach (1995, p. 34) put it, “Emphasis on problem solution rather than problem formulation is a deficiency of modern engineering education. Consideration of open-ended problems of importance to industry would enrich the education process.” With the increase in global competition  higher education institutions in the United States need to evaluate their role in training the engineer not only to adapt to the changing world (Duderstadt 2008) but also to drive it.

To address the challenge of preparing engineering students for the work world, universities have introduced a rich variety of programs and opportunities.

Models of Experiential and Hands-on Learning in Engineering Institutions

The concept of hands-on learning is not new. Aristotle, the founder of empiricism, advocated in The Nicomachean Ethics that all knowledge originates in experience and learning by doing: “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” Hands-on (experiential) learning has been integrated in the engineering curriculum in many ways, as illustrated in the following models.

Cooperative Programs

Cooperative (co-op) programs, in which industries, research centers, and government “cooperate” with universities to give engineering students practical experience for academic credit, combine classroom learning with practical experience for students in a paid position for 3 to 6 months.

A brief history of co-op programs attributes the vision behind them to Herman Schneider, who “worked his way through school” and “believed that his work experience had given him an advantage upon graduation”; he began the first cooperative engineering program in 1906 “with 12 students in mechanical engineering, 12 in electrical engineering, and 3 in chemical engineering” (Akins 2005, p. 63). The author concludes that “there is no substitute for blending practical application with theory learned in the classroom, and there is no better laboratory than the real world” (Akins 2005, p. 67).

Global Industrial Internships

To address the globalized nature of the engineering enterprise, major engineering schools in the United States have international internship programs that give undergraduate students an opportunity to  gain invaluable real-world work experience in their field. Such programs include the University of Michigan’s International Minor for Engineers and Engineering Global Leadership Honors Program, University of Rhode Island’s International Engineering Program, and Global Perspective Program at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) (Mazumder 2008).

Design Projects

Product design degrees are offered at institutions such as Stanford University, Carnegie Mellon, Georgia Institute of Technology, and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In practicums students conduct projects under the guidance of supervisors from both industry and academia. Senior design projects give students the opportunity to design, invent, build, and use their engineering skills on a product before entering the workplace. Student projects and products may be highlighted in campus fairs and conferences.

NAE Grand Challenges Scholars Program

The NAE Grand Challenges Scholars Program (GCSP) prepares undergraduate students to address 14 important global challenges for engineering. The combined curricular, cocurricular, and extracurricular program calls for each student’s development of “viable business/entrepreneurship competency,” defined as an “understanding, preferably developed through experience, of the necessity of a viable business model for solution implementation.”

Interdisciplinary Spaces

The global classroom formation of multidisciplinary teams and collaborations with companies and agencies is leading to the creation of interdisciplinary spaces. In the University of Delaware’s new Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Laboratory, classrooms and laboratories are side by side and students easily move from theory to practice.[1] And at Drexel University cutting-edge laboratories and research spaces include a 3D printing lab and a Center for Interdisciplinary Clinical Simulation and Practice where faculty and students from multiple disciplines can come together to innovate and work on projects.[2]

Project-Based Learning

In 2016 the NAE’s Bernard M. Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering and Technology Education was awarded to WPI for its project-based engineering curriculum preparing students to tackle global issues through interdisciplinary collaboration, communication, and critical thinking. The program offers a specially designed sequence in which first-year students complete projects on topics such as energy and water; second-year capstones focus on the humanities and arts; junior-year interdisciplinary projects relate technology to society; and senior design projects are done in conjunction with external sponsors, providing relevant experience upon graduation. In 2018 WPI launched its Institute on Project-Based Learning to help other colleges and universities implement project-based learning on their campuses.

Architectural Design Studio

The architecture studio, an American adaptation of the atelier-based training at the École des Beaux-Arts in 19th century Paris (Chafee 1977), offers a teaching model from a design discipline in which the functional and the structural, the social and the technical, must be successfully blended (Kuhn 1998). Such project-based pedagogy is central to the training of architecture students (Kuhn 1998). Design engineers can learn from this model how to incorporate social need with technical need; the former may be anything from waste reduction to a smaller carbon footprint.

Engineering Clinics

In the medical field, “hands-on learning” is an essential part of medical education. By shadowing a physician and through rotations, externships, and the performance of procedures and surgery under supervision, the medical student is prepared for the profession.

Similarly, a few engineering schools are creating “clinics” to familiarize students with real-world engineering problems by seeking problems from industry and working with practicing engineers. Harvey Mudd College’s Clinic Program (Loftus 2013) is a collaboration with industry with sponsorship from industry and funding agencies. These may be steps toward the creation of engineering clinics. But to create professional training comparable to that for medical students, what’s needed is a “teaching factory,” like a teaching hospital.


Even with this rich variety of hands-on initiatives in the engineering curriculum, a new approach is needed. For engineering education to be more effective for global society and the economy, students need to be trained both to contribute to immediate competitive needs and to develop analytical skills. The information they acquire is not as important as skill in gathering and analyzing it.

Education for professions such as medicine, architecture, and law explicitly entails real-world experience. Medicine has teaching hospitals where students train and practice their skills on real patients. In law school, students intern under judges or participate in university “innocence projects” to free wrongly convicted death row prisoners. In engineering, capstone design courses and other models described above provide similar, but less extensive, experience. Capstone design courses, which are mandated by ABET, often consist of projects that are extensions of faculty research projects.

Borrowing from the medical profession, I propose a “teaching factory,” like a teaching hospital, where engineering students can get hands-on professional training and be exposed to various needs of the engineering enterprise. This model will also provide flexibility to design and develop new products to meet global and local challenges.

The challenge for academia is to maintain rigorous academic requirements while serving industry needs and attracting industry partners. With a teaching factory, education can meet industry needs, reduce training costs, and enhance innovation.

The need to explore and develop the practical, real-world preparation of engineering students is well recognized, as evident in studies and workshops of the National Academy of Engineering and others (Bailey et al. 1993; Bement et al. 2016; Duderstadt 2008; NAE 2004), and academics have expressed interest in the concept (e.g., President Vistasp Karbhari of the University of Texas at Arlington; private communication). The question is not whether to do it but how.

The Case for a Teaching Factory

The educational programs and models described above provide students with some exposure to the industrial workplace, but they do not immerse them the way a medical student gets immersed in a teaching hospital. Co-op programs are probably among the best available for making students familiar with real-world problems. But they do not offer students the experience of the process of conceiving an idea and taking the product to market for societal benefit. Industrial internships, real-world projects, and engineering clinic programs also partially expose students to industrial problems and processes.

The timing is right for the NAE to take the lead in this area, which I believe will create a national trend if successful. Factories around the country have closed because of the downturn in US manufacturing industry associated with globalization, and universities may be able to negotiate the inexpensive acquisition of a closed factory to start a pilot project. For example, a closed GM truck plant next to Tinker Air Force Complex (TAC) east of Oklahoma City was acquired by TAC for $1/year with the city’s help (Inhofe 2008).

The benefit to engineering education will be hands-on experience with real quality and time management demands as well as flexibility in addressing societal engineering challenges. I foresee the following benefits of the teaching factory for engineering students:

Teaching factory experience will reestablish engineering education as preparation for a profession. Engineering students, both undergraduate and postgraduate, will have rigorous hands-on professional training, making them ready to take on global competition.

Engineering schools can combine knowledge from other schools and disciplines, such as business and public policy, which are generally needed in any industry. Figure 1 shows that a teaching factory would draw expertise from various schools to provide students with a first-hand view of the total engineering enterprise.

Figure 1 

As shown in figure 1, a teaching factory will work with industry to develop, design, and manufacture a product needed by a particular industry. The engineering school will of course provide the technology and manufacturing methodology. An advisory committee will include industry representatives and faculty members from other relevant disciplines. Students’ products will have to satisfy cost and public safety requirements. Business school faculty can advise on cost marketing. Medical school faculty may provide guidance on public health products and impacts. School of public policy faculty can provide guidance on policy issues. From the school of literature, arts, and sciences students will develop a well-rounded education.

Students will thus be exposed to the entire engineering enterprise of design, development, production, and marketing. In a nutshell they will have experience of the real world before they embark on their career. This can also be the place for an industry to try different concepts of product design and development.

The teaching factory can offer a number of benefits not available through existing programs:

  • It will strengthen engineering education and accelerate US innovation, thus making the country more competitive in the global market.
  • It will reduce the need for in-house training currently provided by industry and thus reduce their costs and make US industry that much more competitive in the global arena.
  • Products created by students in a teaching factory can be marketed at a reduced cost (thanks to lower overhead and “salaries”), thus decreasing some of the need for offshoring.
  • Teaching factories can become a source for “in-sourcing” and, again, arrest the growth of out-sourcing. With the help of the business school and economics department, students will learn costing of economic analysis and develop in-sourcing skills.

Concluding Remarks

A teaching factory will  provide engineering students with the professional experience of the entire engineering enterprise, similar to that of medical students during their training.


The author thanks Aparajita Mazumder, former director of International Programs in Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and University of Michigan, for her valuable input. Important guidance from Diran Apelian of WPI is also greatly appreciated, as is Cameron Fletcher’s editing.


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Bailey PJ, Parisotto A, Renshaw G, eds. 1993. Multi-nationals and employment: The global economy of the 1990s. Geneva: International Labour Office.

Bement A Jr, Dutta D, Patil L. 2016. Educate to Innovate: Factors That Influence Innovation. Washington: National Academies Press.

Bush V. 1946. Science, the Endless Frontier: A Report to the President on a Program for Post War Scientific Research. Washington: National Science Foundation (reprinted 1990).

Chafee R. 1977. The teaching of architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts. In: The Architecture of the École des Beaux-Arts, ed Drexler A. New York: Museum of Modern Art.

Duderstadt JJ. 2008. Engineering for a Changing World: A Roadmap to the Future of Engineering Practice, Research, and Education. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan.

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About the Author:Jyoti Mazumder (NAE) is the Robert H. Lurie Professor of Engineering and professor of mechanical engineering and materials science and engineering at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.