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Teaching the Practical Skills PUBLIC ACCESS

To Operate Effectively, Next-Generation Engineers will Require a Panoply of Interpersonal and Management Skills, In Addition to Technical Proficiency.

[+] Author Notes

Norman L. Fortenberry is executive director of the American Society for Engineering Education. Mary Lord, the deputy editor of PRISM, the ASEE's magazine, contributed to the writing of this article

Mechanical Engineering 133(12), 36-40 (Dec 01, 2011) (5 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2011-DEC-4

This article explains why the next-generation engineers will need interpersonal and management skills to operate effectively. Engineers must communicate well enough—orally, electronically, and in writing—to sell clients, bosses, or a diverse group of teammates on an idea. They have to lead, make tough decisions, and frame questions in a way that fosters creative solutions to such global “grand challenges” as climate change. A strong moral compass, ethics, cultural awareness, and ability to apply engineering concepts across the disciplinary spectrum are important, too. Many engineering schools and engineering technology programs are revamping curricula to include team-based competitions and other opportunities for students to develop or hone their professional abilities. Some, including pioneers such as the University of Colorado, Boulder, have incorporated team-based design labs into the first-year experience. Teams are carefully assembled to assure a range of interests, social styles, and abilities, and students not only must incorporate several engineering disciplines into their final product, they learn time-management, budgeting, and interpersonal skills. Some projects have even attracted potential investors.

Engineering Workforce Development: Look at ways to give engineering graduates the necessary practical skills to succeed in tomorrow's workplace, which may see increasing emphasis on sustainability.

As an engineering student, educator, researcher, and administrator, I had to think about engineering from a variety of perspectives. My view is that engineers and engineering technologists conceive, design, realize, operate, maintain, and retire systems (products, processes, or services) that transform the form, state, or location of matter, energy, and information.

This definition not only encompasses traditional engineering fields, but includes elements of medicine, law, finance, and education. It implicitly recognizes that through their work, engineers and technologists advance human endeavors and transform societies. It's an expansive definition that matches reality and suits the interests of students. Therefore, it provides a useful framework for discussing the skills students will need to pursue the professions.

As Beloit College's annual freshman “Mindset List” (www.beloit.edu/mindset/2015/)reminds us, quite a few things can change in two decades. Much more has changed in the world since the 1950s and 1960s. Many of our students did not grow up tinkering around the farm, for instance, or tearing apart old cars. Indeed, they may never have had the opportunity.

Johns Hopkins University recently revamped its first-year mechanical engineering program to include labs where students who have never used a wrench learn “righty tighty, lefty loosey” while discovering how an internal combustion engine works. Robotics clubs are among the few places today's teens encounter tools. Yet, there are still those aspiring mechanical engineers who, in middle school, were taking apart old toasters or power drills and who find the mix of practical applications and technical knowledge appealing. Somehow we must find ways to engage both sets of students and prepare them for practice in a world where engineers not only design cars but devise smart features that turn even crash dummies into flawless parallel parkers.

And “practice” is the key term. Given the breadth of our definition of engineering and what it entails, how might engineering departments and colleges go about providing an increasingly diverse set of students with the core competencies they will need upon graduation? Actually, the better question might be: “What are practical skills?”

We can’t assume that engineers and engineering technologists rely solely or even primarily on traditional technical skills. A study conducted by a student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and published in 2004 polled mechanical engineering alumni who graduated between 1992 and 1996. They reported seldom using the underlying math, thermodynamics, and other knowledge they’d learned in core mechanical engineering classes—but regretted having learned little about teamwork or other pervasive on-the-job practices.

Over the past decade, many respected voices have weighed in with opinions and research on the new practical skill sets needed by modern engineering graduates. For instance, a 2003 National Academy of Engineering study, The Engineer of 2020, lists “practical ingenuity” (defined by implication as an ability to apply engineering processes to large- and small-scale problems of importance to human health and welfare) among a series of core attributes for engineering professionals. It also placed strong emphasis on so-called “soft” or “professional” skills. The The Engineer of 2020 offers both context and a framework for equipping engineering graduates with such professional skills.

Technical proficiency is necessary, but not sufficient. To operate effectively, next-generation engineers will require a panoply of interpersonal and management skills. They must communicate well enough—orally, electronically, and in writing—to sell clients, bosses, or a diverse group of teammates on an idea. They have to lead, make tough decisions, and frame questions in a way that fosters creative solutions to such global “grand challenges” as climate change.

Engineers will have to lead in a way that fosters creative solutions to global “grand challenges.”

Grahic Jump LocationEngineers will have to lead in a way that fosters creative solutions to global “grand challenges.”

A strong moral compass, ethics, cultural awareness, and ability to apply engineering concepts across the disciplinary spectrum are important, too. As the NAE report puts it, the engineer of 2020 “will aspire to have the ingenuity of [ergonomics inventor] Lillian Gilbreth, the problem-solving capabilities of [Intel cofounder] Gordon Moore, the scientific insight of Albert Einstein, the creativity of Pablo Picasso, the determination of the Wright brothers, the leadership abilities of Bill Gates, the conscience of Eleanor Roosevelt, the vision of Martin Luther King, and the curiosity and wonder of our grandchildren.”

Purdue University, which recently revamped its engineering program to foster such 21st century competencies, has a term for these do-it-all dynamos: “Renaissance engineers.” A similar vision, specific to mechanical engineering, was articulated by “5xME” workshops (www-personal.umich.edu/∼ulsoy/5XME.htm), supported by the National Science Foundation and led by A. Galip Ulsoy of the University of Michigan. The title “5xME” refers to the challenge for U.S. schools to educate “mechanical engineers who can provide five times the value added when compared to the global competition.”

The United States is not alone in seeking these skills. In the past decade, reports issued in Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, India, and the United Kingdom, and by the African Network of Scientific and Technological Institutions have all urged the “reform” of engineering education to better incorporate “professional” skills.

Lillian Gilbreth, Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, Pablo Picasso: Role models for the Renaissance engineer of tomorrow, who will need a strong moral compass, scientific insight, and cultural awareness.

Grahic Jump LocationLillian Gilbreth, Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, Pablo Picasso: Role models for the Renaissance engineer of tomorrow, who will need a strong moral compass, scientific insight, and cultural awareness.

Inculcating this set of practical skills may seem a tall order. But, as the son of an Army lifer, I subscribe to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ unofficial motto:

“The difficult we do at once; the impossible takes a little longer.” Research by the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the Pennsylvania State University indicates that engineering faculty understand the new “skills gap” and assign high importance to competencies identified in NAE's follow-on report, Educating the Engineer of 2020, such as teamwork and the ability to apply math and science to engineering problems.

However, students do not learn how to work in teams simply by being thrown into them. Nor do they learn effective presentation skills solely by being asked to make presentations. Just as we promote the attainment of desired technical skills by providing detailed guidance and opportunities for students to practice, engineering educators must do the same thing on the “professional” side. In other words, interpersonal communication and other practical skills must be taught effectively, which means faculty, lab managers, and other instructors must learn how to help students acquire them.

Many engineering schools and engineering technology programs are revamping curricula to include team-based competitions and other opportunities for students to develop or hone their professional abilities. Some, including pioneers like the University of Colorado, Boulder, have incorporated team-based design labs into the first-year experience. Teams are carefully assembled to assure a range of interests, social styles, and abilities, and students not only must incorporate several engineering disciplines into their final product, they learn time-management, budgeting, and interpersonal skills. Some projects have even attracted potential investors. (The UC Boulder program was the subject of an article, “Time for Teamwork,” published in the August 2009 issue, which is available online at www.memagazine.org.)

Well-designed student competitions may also build skills and increase learning, according to a 2005 paper in the Journal of Engineering Education by a Purdue chemical engineering professor, Phillip Wankat, director of undergraduate degree programs in the School of Engineering Education.

The hovercraft design/ build competition that now caps the redesigned first-year engineering experience at the University of Maryland teaches students about such teamwork challenges as managing a project or assembling a working vehicle from skirts, motors, and levitation systems designed by other teams. Students also learn to sew, solder, and recover from failure. According to William Fourney, the professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering who spearheaded the changes to the introductory course: “It's all about real-life engineering.”

Taking inventory

The concept inventory is an educational tool intended to test students’ understanding and ability to apply fundamental concepts that they have been taught.

The DCI Team, which includes researchers from several universities, including Arizona State, Penn State, and the U.S. Air Force Academy, has developed the Dynamics Concept Inventory, which defines core concepts concerning rigid-body dynamics that sophomore engineering students are expected to understand, and poses questions to test the students’ grasp of the concepts.

One of the test questions is this:

“The box of mass m shown is initially at rest on a smooth, frictionless, horizontal table. The box is acted upon by a constant force F as shown. The line of action of F is located a distance h from the center of mass of the box, G. Describe the path of the mass center of the box and how the orientation of the box will change.”

According to a report by the team (www.foundationcoalition.org/home/keycomponents/concept/dynamics.html), “Every student except one in the focus groups at three universities chose the wrong answer to this problem. The most common incorrect answer was that the object moves upward to the right and begins to rotate. The equations developed in rigid-body mechanics show that the object actually moves to the right (in the direction of the applied force) and begins to rotate about the center of mass. Focus group results show that students have not connected what the equations foretell and what students think will happen in reality. The one student who chose the correct answer did so because he experimentally observed the behavior with a sheet of paper on his desk—a behavior he did not anticipate.”

 

Grahic Jump Location 

Real-world problems also may help students forge life skills. For the past three years, Youngstown State University's innovative Cooperative Laboratory, or Co-Lab, has sought to boost creative thinking and entrepreneurship by putting mechanical engineering technology students on teams with visual and performing arts majors to work on real-world, open-ended design projects. Students had to negotiate, compromise, and communicate technical aspects of their designs with non-technical colleagues—just as they would in the manufacturing world. An evaluation presented at the 2011 annual conference of the American Society for Engineering Education this past June by Brian Vuksanovich, assistant professor of mechanical engineering technology at YSU, and Darrell Wallace, assistant professor of industrial and systems engineering, revealed evidence of enhanced student skill in teamwork and communications as well as increased interest in pursuing engineering technology careers.

I find that students value activities tied to their personal experiences. As a new assistant professor, teaching a design class that was rather esoteric and dry, I had students visit the School of Allied Health and work with physical therapists to create devices that met the needs of patients. The students were immediately engaged; many of them had grandparents or other relatives who used wheelchairs and other assistive devices. I also collaborated with a sociology professor to have students design solar dryers for farmers in Equatorial Africa and the Caribbean to dry yams and other tuber crops. Again, the students saw the relevance to helping others and were engaged.

Some engineering schools expose students to real-world engineering practice through cooperative experiences and internships. These yield higher percentages of graduates with careers in engineering. For example, in an examination of the “simmering skills gap,” Larry Hanneman, director of engineering career services at Iowa State University, and Phillip Gardner, head of Michigan State University's Collegiate Employment Research Institute, found that 90 percent of engineering graduates who had co-op experiences were practicing engineers, compared with just 54 percent of 1996-to-2009 graduates who had no experiential education. “The starting job has just moved to college,” they conclude in a paper presented at ASEE's 2011 annual conference.

Engineering schools also are incorporating service learning and society's grand challenges into coursework. Northeastern University's school of engineering, which has a strong co-op program starting in the second semester sophomore year, now launches first-year students with such team projects as designing a safe play space for children in the local hospital's oncology ward. First-year engineering students at Ohio Northern University invent inexpensive products to alleviate poverty in developing nations; their designs, which include ingenious water pumps and devices to make cooking briquettes from trash, often sweep the school's annual entrepreneurship contest.

How do engineering schools foster essential communication skills? Villanova University included public speaking requirements among the foundational elements in its recently redesigned first-year engineering program. Students have a poster session at the end of every mini-project, and weekly sessions where students must stand up in front of dozens of people and talk about what they’ve learned and what they could have done better.

Students not only learn the economic decisions industry people must make when tackling a problem, they also emerge with “a sense of how to collaborate and use their engineering skills,” said Villanova's dean of engineering, Gary Gabriele. They learn to find their way through a project, define the problem, and ask if they’re tackling the right problem.

Students develop a hands-on feel for engineering experiments, too, taking protractors and measuring tape to measure angles and forces on pool tables in the student union. They reach the senior-level multidisciplinary design lab prepared to work on real problems, with real mentors, both supplied by industry.

Many of the most popular and effective methods of developing skills depends on “inductive learning,” which is defined in a 2007 PRISM article by Richard Felder and Michael Prince as presenting students with problems before they have been taught everything they need to know to solve them and then teaching the required material once the students can clearly see why they need to know it. There are many variations of this approach, with different names and somewhat different emphases. They include problem-based learning, inquiry-based learning, discovery learning, need-to-know learning, and just-in-time learning.

For teaching to be effective, learning must occur. Thus, assessment forms an integral part of instruction. How do we know whether the learning opportunities we provide are having the desired effect?

William Lucas, who formerly directed the MIT-Cambridge Institute, was the lead author on a 2005 paper that did an assessment at the institutional level. He and his co-authors found that a close relationship between an undergraduate's course of study, instructor feedback, and frequent interaction with an industrybased role model increased a student's confidence in launching new technological ventures. The study was based on data gathered from more than 400 third- and fourth-year engineering undergraduates at four United Kingdom universities.

More practical assessments for classroom use by individual faculty also exist. Sherril Gelmon, recently featured in the Chronicle of Higher Education, received the 2011 Thomas Ehrlich Civically Engaged Faculty Award from the Campus Compact, which promotes community service by colleges and universities. The organization in 2001 published a book, Assessing Service-Learning and Civic Engagement: Principles and Techniques, on which Gelmon was lead author, that assesses service learning and includes sample assessment tools.

A Web site, the Field-tested Learning Assessment Guide (www.flaguide.org/intro/intro.php), initiated with support from the National Science Foundation gathers and catalogues classroom assessment techniques that emphasize capturing the ability of students to think analytically and to understand and communicate at both detailed and “big picture” levels.

Concept inventories have been developed by a number of sources. They are very short but profound assessments that seek to determine a student's most fundamental understanding of technical concepts. Creating a concept inventory involves defining the concepts covered by a subject and devising means to test students’ grasp of the concepts.

The Dynamics Concept Inventory, for example, was developed by the DCI Team, a group of researchers from several universities (www.esm.psu.edu/dci), who worked with as many as 25 educators to frame an inventory for sophomore-level rigid-body dynamics. One of the tests involves the movement of a box of mass on a frictionless surface. To gauge their understanding of the equations of rigid-body mechanics and their ability to apply the equations, students are asked to predict the movement of the box reacting to a constant force applied some distance from the center of mass.

Purdue University maintains a compilation (engineering.purdue.edu/SCI/workshop/tools.html) of concept inventories for an array of engineering disciplines.

Have any schools found a magic combination? The Worldwide CDIO Initiative (www.cdio.org) brings together many of the elements of effective instruction, skill-building, and practice. CDIO stands for “conceive, design, implement, and operate.” Launched in the late 1990s, it provides participating schools with a core syllabus, course materials, tools, models, and templates, as well as assistance with implementation. Its materials are now used by 50 institutions in 25 countries.

The program also has a standards-based tool for program adoption, evaluation, and continuous improvement; details evolve over time according to participants’ experiences and insights.

The National Academy of Engineering recognized CDIO's valuable contributions by bestowing the Bernard Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering and Technology Education on its founder, MIT professor Edward Crawley.

The initiative's global success suggests that the rest of the world will not stand idle while U.S. schools surge ahead in producing Renaissance engineers. If we are to retain our top tier standing, we should stop lamenting the passage of “the good old days” and quickly adjust to the practical realities of engineering's present and future.

Copyright © 2011 by ASME
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