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Old School Ties PUBLIC ACCESS

When Practicing Engineers Return to the University, Theory Gets a Reality Check.

[+] Author Notes

Barbara Wolcott, a frequent contributor to Mechanical Engineering, is a freelance writer based in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

Mechanical Engineering 124(04), 44-46 (Apr 01, 2002) (3 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2002-APR-3

This article focuses on when practicing engineers return to the university, theory gets a reality check. The idea of schools and businesses working together to approach problem solving is well over 100 years old and has roots in the industrial revolution and the reconstruction of the South following the devastation of the Civil War. Partnership with industry illustrates the importance to future engineers of learning to cross pollinate their experience because the days of clear separation in engineering-mechanical from electrical, for example-are gone. Systems demand diverse technology. Automobile emissions control, for example, requires a working knowledge of chemistry, and mechanical engineers need to cooperate with professionals from other disciplines on a regular basis. Business partnerships with education try to ensure that this commingling of theory and practical values is part of basic preparation rather than a skill that must be learned in the workplace. Business also contributes to advanced curriculum, helping to continuously develop and improve the experience at school by giving students technically meaningful projects that industry actually needs.

The average college student rarely darkens the door of alma mater once a degree has been conferred, and it's likely due to the sharp difference drawn between getting an education and putting it to work as a professional. However, engineers are the exception to the rule. They not only return to the college where they earned their stripes, but do it in ways that can payoff handsomely in the marketplace.

Call it a concordance, a partnership, or a collaboration, but that engineer-school nexus is astonishingly broad based and is responsible for some of the finest leadership in American businesses. It's also responsible for a particularly vital part of the U.S. economy because it is at the creative origination of products and systems.

The idea of schools and businesses working together to approach problem solving is well over a hundred years old and has roots in the industrial revolution and the reconstruction of the South following the devastation of the Civil War.

Eight years after the establishment of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, one of its charter members, John Saylor Coon, went to Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, where he taught mechanical engineering for the next 35 years. During his tenure at the school, Coon reshaped the curriculum into a model that would direct the education of engineers for generations to come. Not only did he establish strict professional standards for academics, he also incorporated the idea of a hands-on education in which shops were used as laboratories with close connections to struggling industries in the South.

The engineering school had a significant impact on the region's ability to reconstruct its economy and to revive its battered commercial industry. It also fostered successful partnerships that were emulated at engineering schools across the country.

Georgia Tech was founded to put into effect the same set of concerns shared by ASME: that professionally trained engineers are a vital part of growing American industries. Coon stressed the importance of a continuum between the classroom and the shop floor and, by 1912, the school had formalized a program of cooperative education.

It was largely because of Coon's work at the school that ASME designated Georgia Tech a historical mechanical engineering heritage site.

The connection between education and industry has thrived for well over a century, and Harry Roman devotes his own time to ensure that the relationship remains practical in an economy that often changes at the speed of light.

A technology development and transfer consultant for Public Service Electric & Gas Co. in New Jersey, Romanargues that it's important for those who hire engineers and those who train them to talk to each other.

In the early 1980s, Roman went to his alma mater, Newark College of Engineering (now a part of New Jersey Institute of Technology), and asked about putting together a program to immerse students in real-life work prior to graduation. The result was the initiation of senior projects. "They solved problems, and their pay was their grade," Roman said.

The program cost PSE&G approximately $120,000 to support 33 collegiate engineering teams. Roman estimated that the value of the reports and work done by the students exceeded $500,000.

PSE&G also awarded several hundred thousand dollars to the college to develop some of the work initially done by the students. A joint patent was filed for work done under one particular project, and PSE&G hired students from several teams after they graduated.

The 33 completed projects done by students for PSE&G since the 1980s include design, installation, and performance analysis of a wind turbine; design of a thermal storage system for use in conjunction with a domes tic heat pump, and an inspection robot used in the containment of nuclear power plants.

"What a terrific way to preview collegiate students as prospective job hires," Roman said.

Hands-on professional training is intended to give students the confidence and independence necessary to put their skills and training to immediate use. The advisory board at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg includes Dave Glemming of Goodyear, who graduated from the school in 1964. Glemming is responsible for coordinating company activities for tire design, testing, and analysis at Goodyear's Akron, Ohio, office and at sites in Europe.

Goodyear has a target school program in which it looks to the top universities for its engineers, Glemming said. He has been active for a long time in recruiting at Virginia Tech.

"We also have co-op and intern programs that complement our overall hiring plans," Glemming said. "Contact with universities for research and learning is a must with the current rate of change in technology." In return, industry offers the university an understanding of the business and applications sides of engineering, he added.

The advisory board, according to Glemming, is a way to provide outside viewpoint, expertise, and assistance that is useful to the university for near-term programs as well as longer-term strategic issues.

Goodyear has flown Virginia Tech faculty, staff, and students to its technical center in Akron and also has sent Goodyear associates to the school. "We understand one another better and can offer support and efficiency that aren't possible with only casual relationships," Glemming said.

Waiter O'Brien, the head of mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech, said, "All ME undergraduate projects are connected with industry in some way, and important interchange related to the students' education occurs."

Recently, Southern Co. sponsored a field trip for engineering interns from the University of Alabama at Birmingham to participate in NASA research at Houston.

The company coordinator for the special project, Steve Wilson, said that exploring an engineering problem through the weightless flight program was a very good way for industry to help students find opportunities to use their new skills in a meaningfull way before graduation.

" It also helps them to define their engineering interests or career directions they might pursue," he said.

The company's relationship with the university also works well for business recruiting. Two of the flight team members have been student interns. One of them, now graduated, is a full-time employee.

Wilson's support for student engineers also includes UAB's Industrial Scholars program. These student leaders are recruited from high school by the university with the prospect of working part-time in an engineering assignment during their junior and senior years. "We assign them challenging research work that meets business needs, and they deliver," said Wilson, adding that the interns come to the industry with two years of classes behind them and a real desire to see engineering in practice.

Wilson said that students are assigned to a variety of different projects that include research and participation in field demonstrations of new technologies, and developing technology transfer tools like Web sites and applications.

"We get such good value and fresh ideas from the students that when they leave, the first question is how soon the next intern will be available to help," Wilson said.

In addition to research assignments, Southern Co. effectively uses student engineers across the company in positions that include power generation and distribution.

The Association of University Technology Managers estimates that $33.5 billion of the U.S. economy is attributable to university licensing technology, which translates into nearly 300,000 new jobs and more than 2,500 new companies. More than three quarters of this growth remained in the state where the technology was researched. These figures do not include those companies begun privately by university faculty and students.

Advancements in engineering quickly translate into increased economic growth, and schools such as Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Pennsylvania State University, and Stanford University have profited from their business parks on campus.

Davis Olney of Endevco Co. in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., is active as a member of the Mechanical Engineering Advisory Board at California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo.

Olney is a product manager at Endevco, responsible for product development and marketing for sensor technologies in medical, industrial, and other commercial applications involving vibration and pressure measurement.

Mechanical engineers at Cal Poly tend to gravitate toward the hands- on aspects of the profession and Olney points out that since much of that is done in a laboratory, his company benefits by the exposure and the students gain real-time experience with the instrumentation that is actually used on the job.

"Improving their understanding of such equipment test methods will make them more effective engineers," he said.

At the very least, according to Olney, a necessity of engineers' training is that they be exposed to the impact of development costs and the need to produce a design that is functional and carries a reasonable price. "We are often taught to focus on design efficiency in terms of perfection and reliability, with economics or commercial viability cleft out of the equation," he said.

Jim Millen, a retired metallurgist from 3M Co., recounts an old saying that at some point you have to shoot the engineer and take the product to market.

Millen said that, in the 1950s when he entered the workforce, some managers felt any kid coming out of college would not be productive for a year. He said that at the time managers felt compelled to emphasize the practical side of a project.

"That meant the companies had to take the generic engineers out of college and mold them into specific engineers they required," he said. He pointed out that by getting involved in the curriculum, the managers could have reduced the time it takes to train a productive engineer.

At Cal Poly, a new research park called the California Central Coast Research Park, or C3RP, is taking shape to encourage the incubation of ideas for companies launched to commercialize university research. The mechanical engineering department at Cal Poly has an especially effective and active advisory council and is currently working to build a new $6 million facility for student projects and co-op education.

In the 2000 Future Truck Challenge, sponsored by the Big Three automakers and the Department of Energy, a Virginia Tech team repowered a donated Chevy Suburban with a fuel cell.

Grahic Jump LocationIn the 2000 Future Truck Challenge, sponsored by the Big Three automakers and the Department of Energy, a Virginia Tech team repowered a donated Chevy Suburban with a fuel cell.

The University of Detroit Mercy has partnerships with Ford, General Motors, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Rochester Institute of Technology, IBM, and Xerox through its educational consortium for Product Development Leadership in the 21 st Century. These companies and the National Science Foundation actively support the school's engineering programs.

UDM's steering committee for the partnership with Ford Motor Co. focuses on three on-site degree programs and a committee to specifically develop engineer designer-analyst competencies. The dean of engineering at the college, Leo Hanifin, said, "All of these groups have a profound impact on our understanding of the community of practice, and significant curriculum development and revision occur as a direct result of their input and collaboration."

Partnership with industry illustrates the importance to future engineers of learning to cross pollinate their experience because the days of clear separation in engineering-mechanical from electrical, for example-are gone. Systems demand diverse technology. Automobile emissions control, for example, requires a working knowledge of chemistry, and MEs need to cooperate with professionals from other disciplines on a regular basis

Business partnerships with education try to ensure that this commingling of theory and practical values is part of basic preparation rather than a skill that must be learned in the workplace. Business also contributes to advanced curriculum, helping to continuously develop and improve the experience at school by giving students technically meaningful projects that industry actually needs

Copyright © 2002 by ASME
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