How to train 21st Century engineersRyan Clancy | August 16, 2021
As time has passed, the speed at which technology has progressed means that it has now surpassed education in technology. There is such a vast volume of techniques, concepts and tools in the modern world that an engineer should know, but there simply is just not enough time to learn them all. This gap is just getting worse as more time goes by, and it could have some serious repercussions down the line.
Students who are leaving universities will be less motivated when they recognize the size of the gap in what they are learning and the technology they will use once in the engineering field. Employers are also becoming frustrated that graduates are coming into the working world without relevant knowledge of design methodology and the latest programming languages. In fact, it can be said that the engineering curriculum has not really changed at all over the last 30 years. Laboratories have become more modern, and older programming languages are not being taught anymore, but the core of the course is very similar.
Core of the curriculum
The curriculum stayed the same for a good reason, the core/basics of engineering still must be taught to all students. Education could take a turn toward market demands and teach only the very latest and relevant programming languages or force students to commit trendy buzzwords to memory, however this would be a great disservice to the students. While this may prepare them to enter the working world immediately and would probably last them around five years, it would prevent them from growing and evolving after that. University level education is intended to prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed to continue learning over their entire life, which is the only way to keep up with advances in this very technological world.
The trick is to strike a balance between these two very important aspects of engineering education, strong foundations and market demand. There are two ways to attempt to balance them.
How to learn
First, the way that students learn must be changed. Students have to be included in mentoring and research toward continuing their education. As mentioned previously, the engineering curriculum has not changed much over recent years, but the inclusion of pedagogical approaches can definitely make a difference to that. The engineering world is moving toward a future where faculty/student interactions are not just strictly limited to the classroom. The Discovery Center within Carleton University in Ontario, Canada, gives undergrad students the opportunity to take part in research and work with communities of other fields and disciplines to tackle common, real life problems. This gives them a great perspective of these issues from their particular area of expertise and provides the students with a diverse learning experience.
What to learn
Second, it may be common knowledge in this day and age, but it cannot be stressed enough that an engineering undergraduate degree is not enough to prepare and train the engineers of tomorrow. More masters programs are being designed almost every day to try and provide more advanced training spread across a multitude of sub-fields, from mechanical engineering all the way to embedded systems. With the inclusion of masters programs like these, the educational path to engineering does get a little less linear and more complex, which is a good thing when you are trying to become more specialized in a certain field. Undertaking a masters program will ensure that students develop a fine-grained knowledge and expertise in whatever sub-field that they happen to choose. These programs also make sure that the students have a even stronger knowledge of the foundations of engineering, which will prepare them for even more growth through their career.
Connecting the dots
Engineering education is moving toward a place where all of the various aspects of the curriculum are coming together and becoming one large comprehensive curriculum, as it should be. The invisible boundaries that once existed between learning and teaching, outreach, research and engaging within the community are finally starting to disappear. This new path that 21st century engineers are on will have to educate them in order to develop the technology of tomorrow. This will not be a simple task, we now live in quite a complex social fabric, where the likes of autonomous cars and bitcoin are the focuses of a lot of time and effort.
However, the social aspects must also be dealt with as they are so often forgotten about, the personal and economic strain on students that will have to keep taking more and more advanced degrees and technology progresses. This means more years of their life and longer hours spent studying the latest trends. This important side-effect of the evolving world will need a huge joint effort from the government and universities to manage the load on prospective engineers. For now, we are still teaching very similar to what we were doing over 30 years ago. While the content of the education is for the most part the same, the way students are learning is beginning to change and that is what will make a great difference moving forward.
Technology is still steaming away from education, but we won’t stop trying to work toward a better pedagogy to try and close the gap. We will get there!
So, what do you think about the ever-evolving methods that the engineers of tomorrow are being taught by? Do you know of any methods that are not mentioned here that could be of benefit?