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An ASME Task Force Recommends Changes to Close the Gap Between Engineering Schools and Industry.

[+] Author Notes

Allan Kirkpatrick is a professor and past department head in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

Scott Danielson is associate dean of the College of Technology and Innovation of Arizona State University in Tempe.

Robert O. Warrington is director of the Institute for Leadership and Innovation at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, and was ASME's vice president for education when the Vision 2030 Task Force was formed.

Mechanical Engineering 134(11), 38-39 (Nov 01, 2012) (2 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2012-NOV-3

Abstract

This article focuses on changes that are required to close the gap between engineering schools and industry. The ASME task force that was originated in 2008 initially set out to define the engineering knowledge and communication skills that mechanical engineering (ME) graduates should have if their employers are to be globally competitive. This resulted in the Vision 2030 report, which was recently released worldwide. A survey has revealed that young engineers and their professors saw themselves much better prepared than their managers did. Experts believe that ASME and its industry leaders can play vital roles by initiating faculty-industry exchanges, by endowing practice-based faculty chairs, by pressing for better faculty-student ratios, and by seeking out new faculty candidates with more industry experience. The successful implementation of a broader ME curriculum, with a tighter focus on professional skills, will produce savvier, more well-rounded, and more professional graduates. The Vision 2030 Task Force predicts that these graduates will always be thinking about the world’s grandest, and most daunting, challenges.

Article

The world is always changing, and successful people need to keep up with it. Consider early-career engineers, for instance. They are tasked with taking an ever-more-connected world into its next technological generation.

Young engineers see themselves generally well prepared for their first jobs in a number of key skill areas. Their professors in engineering schools tend to agree. Employers of early-career engineers, on the other hand, do not.

The mismatch was evident after ASME's Vision 2030 Task Force polled young engineers, educators, and industrial managers. It is the opinion of the authors and others on the task force that engineering schools may have to rethink some of the ways they educate engineers.

This should not be dismissed as an “academic dispute.” Much is at stake in reforming the curricula of today's engineering schools—including the stature of American engineering in an ever-more-complex, competitive, and interconnected world.

The task force originated in the ASME Center for Education in 2008. The 16-person group was made up of ME educators and engineering program managers—the industry people who employ MEs and, of necessity, evaluate their skills.

The task force initially set out to define the engineering knowledge and communication skills that ME graduates should have if their employers are to be globally competitive. This resulted in the Vision 2030 report, which was recently released. It's available for download at go.asme.org/v2030.

The Vision 2030 Task Force identified 15 key knowledge areas, skills, and abilities. We asked respondents if young engineers were weak or strong in vital skills such as design/ product creation, teamwork and leadership, grasp of new technical fundamentals, systems perspectives, problem solving, and computer modeling/analysis.

We approached academic department heads, industry supervisors, and early career engineers with less than ten years on the job. ME department heads at more than 80 institutions responded, assessing their recent graduates. We heard from more than 1,400 engineering managers and supervisors who rated their newly hired MEs. More than 600 young engineers assessed their own strengths.

The survey revealed that young engineers and their professors saw themselves much better prepared than their managers did. For example, problem-solving abilities and critical thinking were rated strong by 48 percent of department heads, but only 14 percent of industry supervisors agreed. A similar gap emerged over interpersonal teamwork; 51 percent of early-career engineers rated themselves strong, as did 43 percent of the academic department heads. But just 20 percent of the industry supervisors concurred.

Industry supervisors’ primary perceptions of weakness fall into four categories, beginning with understanding how devices are made and how they work. Next was communication, both within diverse engineering teams and with non-engineers elsewhere in the organization. Insufficient knowledge of engineering codes and standards was third, followed by a lack of systems perspective—seeing how new designs work with existing equipment, for example.

Early career engineers judged their greatest weaknesses in practical experience, project management, knowledge of business processes, and knowledge of engineering codes and standards. There was, however, general agreement among all three groups of respondents, who rated young MEs as strong in computer modeling and technical fundamentals.

Some of the largest disparities emerged in reducing theory to practice. The authors believe this is a challenge faced by many ME programs. Accordingly, the Vision 2030 Task Force has several suggestions to address these mismatches. Three of them are broadening the “design spine” coursework with multidisciplinary projects, changing some coursework priorities, and the hiring of professors of practice to augment the real-world skills of senior faculty members.

Design spines are four-year sequences of team-based, hands-on projects emphasizing core mechanical engineering requirements. The task force recommends broadening ME design spines with students from other engineering areas for multidisciplinary projects. In addition, yearlong senior “capstone” courses should concentrate on device/ system design followed by analysis, building, testing, and operation in industry-supported projects.

To foster discovery-based learning, the task force recommends that design spines and capstone courses be enriched by tackling more difficult projects.

We recognize that expanding design spines with multidisciplinary coursework means that some of today's required engineering science courses may become electives.

Reprioritizing ME design spine coursework to strengthen young engineers’ professional skills is recommended as a way to add emphasis on innovation, leadership, systemslevel perspectives, inter-disciplinary teamwork, project management, and entrepreneurship. As shown in the Vision 2030 responses, the importance placed on these subjects should approach that accorded to technical topics.

Comparisons of Assessments of Weakness in Me Curriculum and Preparation of ME Grads

Grahic Jump LocationComparisons of Assessments of Weakness in Me Curriculum and Preparation of ME Grads

The Vision 2030 Task Force recognizes that practical engineering experience has been overlooked in many previous educational reform efforts. Debates sparked by those efforts centered on ideal mixes of math, science, engineering analysis, and design knowledge rather than their real-world applications.

A role we call “professors of practice” would create faculty positions to be filled by senior engineers with real-world experience who would be instructors especially in the design spine and capstone courses. These faculty newcomers would help students gain a broader understanding of everyday engineering challenges such as determining product specifications, identifying constraints, and managing supply chains—not to mention practical mentoring.

Professors of practice could also free tenured faculty to pursue more externally funded research. Their industrial perspective would inform senior faculty of current industry practices, and ensure that standards and codes are better understood.

No one doubts that the engineered systems of the future will continually grow more complex. An obvious example is the search for oil. Drillers will go deeper; producers will operate in harsher environments; risks to companies, careers, and society will inevitably rise. Analogous challenges are found in every industry.

Strengthening the areas highlighted by the Vision 2030 findings may mean new coursework, shifts in faculty makeup and incentives, adjustments to established programs, new criteria for faculty evaluations, and closer involvement with industry. Given the consensus-based decision making in most programs and colleges, none of this will be easy.

ME programs at the University of California, Berkeley, Georgia Institute of Technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Pennsylvania State University, Purdue University, and of course many other schools are adopting practices in line with the task force's recommendations.

If the proposed reforms are to succeed, the importance of ASME's role cannot be overestimated. Individual ASME members must act specifically, and locally.

ASME and its industry leaders can play vital roles by initiating facultyindustry exchanges, by endowing practice-based faculty chairs, by pressing for better faculty-student ratios, and by seeking out new faculty candidates with more industry experience. They can also join schools’ industrial advisory boards. When advisory boards can offer more suggestions from recent graduates about improving academic programs, faculty and administrators are more likely to take action.

The successful implementation of a broader ME curriculum, with a tighter focus on professional skills, will produce savvier, more well-rounded, and more professional graduates. They must have the skills and abilities to conceive, coordinate, manage and lead global projects. And in a tightly interconnected and increasingly interdependent world, these graduates will be involved in policy and regulatory decisions at all levels.

These graduates will become leaders at all levels of society and will foster economically and environmentally sustainable solutions for the good of all. Tomorrow's ME graduates will foster sustainable growth in myriad ways; they will regularly re-create their own jobs and create new jobs for others.

The Vision 2030 Task Force predicts that these graduates will always be thinking about the world's grandest, and most daunting, challenges.

Copyright © 2012 by ASME
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