TEACHING ENGINEERING – PREPARING FOR THE NEW FRONTIER
PART 1 OF 2
In recent years there has been many debates concerning the quality of engineering graduates coming out of colleges and universities entering the industry. Majority of the industry pointed out that recent graduates are not up to the mark. Relics such as “I don’t know what do they teach college kids these days” indicates the frustration by the industry on the somewhat poor performance of these newly graduates in engineering and technical aspects of work. Institutions of higher learnings then reacted by aligning their curricula to be in-line to the industry’s needs and practices by introducing final year projects using work-based learning method, increasing the duration of internship at the industry and even starting industrialmanship programs as early as second year. While some succeeded, many left much to be desired. The industry was left with the burden of teaching technical and engineering trades to these rookies. Few factors were found contributing to the mismatch. Among them are the fact that many academia in the universities do not have enough experience working in the industry. As a result, academia relied too much on books without really having experience on how real industry situation. Some of the subject taught in the universities are more incline towards fundamental research and not towards the real application in the industry. In this two-part series, we will try to explore what are the problem facing the engineering education and how are we going to overcome some of the issues pertaining to creating a formidable engineering and technical workforce for nation building.
When I first joined DRB-HICOM University which is part of DRB-HICOM, a large conglomerate having a vast spread of companies in the engineering and manufacturing arena, I started to ask the same question again. Why are we not producing graduates suitable for the industry? In many meetings and engagements with our counterpart in the industry, I ask the same question. The engineers in the industry lamented that the engineering graduates lack technical skills, very poor in soft-skills especially problem solving techniques. I then asked the industry, what should we teach then? The engineers have no clue either! It became a daunting task to teach engineering to suit for all sectors in the industry that the universities either take the approach of teaching the basics or teaching all but merely touching the bases. Where did we go wrong? To answer the question, I would like to take the readers back to basics. A journey where the modern engineering education was invented.
Engineering – The Early Years
In the old days, engineering or trade was taught as apprenticeship, a trade that was passed from the grandfather to the father and down to the sons. The skillsets remained with the family and it is of no wonder we have surnames associated with trades. Surnames such as “Carpenter”, “Woods”, “Smith”, “Butcher” to name a few are all the names of craftsmanship. The apprenticeship takes a long time to nurture and mature and there are not many of the craftsmen available. The needs of these skilled craftsmen were in high demand during the 1700s. As such, the need to have a systematic education model arised.
In France, during the late 1700s, a college was born. Ecole Polytechnique was formed to teach formal education in maths and science with the objective of the students will later on enter into mining and bridge design, the two dreadfully needed trade during that time. The formal education system was then taken across the Atlantic and deployed at the West Point Military Academy in 1872 where Mathematics and Science were taught as part of the Military Science with the intention of creating Army Corps of Engineers. The Army Corps of Engineers were very instrumental in building roads and bridges and railways in the old days. When I went to college in the USA circa 1980s, the same Military Science subjects were still being taught to all Engineering students. Topics such as map reading, surveying, concrete and masonry became the pillar of Military Science. We were taught to calculate and built mini-scale construction projects, performed cut and fill to build roads and were exposed to various legacy surveying equipments such as theodolite, brunton compass and stadia board.
In 1872, the American Civil War broke, a lot of the infrastructure built by the Army Corps of Engineers were left in ruins. The post Civil War saw the need to rebuilding and that requires a lot of engineers. Only 5% of engineers back then had formal engineering degree. Senators and Representatives were given free land with the intention of building new colleges with the objective of “to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and “the mechanic arts” in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes”. The sudden increase in demand of these colleges also created a vacuum in the availability of the teaching staff. Majority of staff were from the basic sciences and were not engineers to begin with. Instead the students were taught fundamental theories with complex mathematical equations. Engineering became very difficult and complicated to learn and when the students graduated from college they found out that the practice in the field was totally alien to the stuff they learnt! Students were taught things athat are irrelevant to the field culminated from the lack of industry’s experience of the teaching staff whom started to teach based on JIC Philosophy (read Just in Case). They do not know whether the stuff they teach is going to be useful or not and if they don’t teach, the knowledge might be needed in the industry. To put it simply ,Karl Fisch, in his favorite video Did You Know said;
“We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that have not been invented, in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet”.
These were the predicament facing the engineering education nowadays that a better solution must be found to create a more responsive workforce aligned with the industry needs. In summary, few problem statements can be derived and require solutions real fast:
1. The industry is too wide spread in required skills and knowledge that it is almost impossible for the university to teach students in less than 4 years.
2. Academia lack industry experience.
3. The ever changing technology makes it difficult for university to keep abreast with providing near-realism technology for the industry.
4. Engineering education-too much theories, Just In Case Philosophy teaching.
That’s it for now. We will meet again in Part 2 where we will try to disect these problem and propose new solutions and see whether it will catapult us to the new frontier.
Till we meet again.
Ir. Hj. Shamil Abu Hassan, P.Eng, MIEM