Advancing engineers

Engineering education evolves to prepare students for the modern workplace

Richard Humphreys
26 August 2020

5 min read

As society changes and technologies evolve, engineering schools must adapt and apply new methods to better prepare students for the workplace. Around the globe, societies devoted to advancing engineering education are facilitating collaboration between academia and industry to equip students with the skills to design a better world.

Climate change, burgeoning urban populations and a lack of basic amenities in developing countries are among the new and emerging challenges that universities must train a new generation of engineers to tackle. To do so, however, they must also train their students to think about challenges in new ways and to use the most advanced technologies in solving them.

Norman Fortenberry, Executive Director of the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) (Image © Norman Fortenberry)

“As a professional society, one of the biggest challenges is working with our members to provide learning experiences that mirror authentic engineering practice,” said Norman Fortenberry, executive director of the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE). Although that can be a challenge, he said, it is a requirement of engineering education’s top mission: preparing students to meet the labor market’s needs.

Work to expand and accelerate engineering education’s transition globally is an ever-shifting challenge, however. Each nation, or region within a nation, faces challenges unique to its culture and economy. And so, in engineering schools around the globe, engineering societies comprising university deans and professors, retired engineers and government officials are working with educators and industry representatives to adequately prepare a new generation for a new set of challenges than their predecessors encountered.

SOLVING REAL-WORLD ISSUES

One project that gave engineering students the chance to experience real-world challenges was developed at Campbell University in North Carolina. Campbell students visited a wildlife conservation camp in Botswana, where they tackled the problem of determining why the camp’s batteries – which powered its water pumps – drained of power so quickly.

Universities have to change something about their educational model if they want to survive. Otherwise, Generation Alpha will keep questioning why they need to go to the university.

Şirin Tekinay
Chair of the Global Engineering Deans Council

The students discovered that the battery acid water mixture inside the batteries was evaporating too quickly. Their solution involved replacing the mixture, but only after first testing to make sure it was de-ionized – a skill they had acquired by building a mini saltwater fish tank in class. All 24 of the batteries were salvaged and will now last for the full 10-year period. During the project, the students shared their methods with the locals so they can continue to maintain the batteries. 

This hands-on, project-based approach to learning – in sharp contrast to the engineering education’s long tradition of lectures – gave the students a chance to learn by doing, while providing valuable support to solving a challenge common in developing nations that lack well-established power grids.

In a similar vein, Fortenberry points to Boeing’s “Aerospace Partners for the Advancement of Collaborative Engineering” (AerosPACE) program, a 16-week capstone course that involves nine university deans and faculty and more than 90 students. With support from Boeing employees, they work together to design, build and fly an unmanned aircraft system that can tackle grand social challenges.

“The program brings together stakeholders from industry, academia and government to build core competencies for the next generation of aerospace innovators in a sociotechnical, collaborative environment founded in the learning sciences,” said Michael Richey, chief learning scientist at Boeing.

“Benefits to academia include preparing engineering students for the global world and closing the gap between theory and practice, while for industry, benefits include developing mentor-mentee relationships between current and future employees as well as decreasing hiring costs and increasing quality of hire.”

TEACHING METHODS

In many cases, however, educators need to change not only what they teach, but how they teach it. Şirin Tekinay, chair of the Global Engineering Deans Council (GEDC), points out that employers aren’t the only ones pushing for change; students, too, are sick of lectures rich in theory but devoid of an opportunity to practice.

“Universities have to change something about their educational model if they want to survive,” she said. “Otherwise, Generation Alpha [those born after 2011] will keep questioning why they need to go to the university.” As a result, she said, “I believe we will see more student-orientated education models where you have students in project teams.”

Like Alphas, members of Generation Z (those born from the mid-1990s to 2010) are digital natives accustomed to easy and free access to information. Generally, students in this age group don’t want to be spoon-fed concepts by lecturers, Tekinay said; instead, they want a chance to learn concepts by applying them in real-world situations.

“There is already an evolution toward more problem-based learning, and I see workforce education becoming more purpose-orientated and experiential,” she said. “The purpose-oriented, project-based education model motivates students by providing a sense of meaning, a sense of impact. They now ‘pull’ the information they need, in order to serve the greater good. Ultimately, they want to see that they are contributing to generating socio-economic and environmental value; in turn, making life on the planet sustainable, healthier, safer, and happier.”

"Climate change, burgeoning urban populations and the lack of basic amenities in developing countries are among the new and emerging challenges universities must train a new generation of engineers to tackle."

Michael Auer
General Secretary of the International Society for Engineering Education (IGIP)

Students also want to be prepared to use and build on the advanced digital technologies they will encounter in the workplace.

“The pace of technology is changing; it is going ever faster,” said Yolande Berbers, president of the European Society for Engineering Education (SEFI). “There is a large shift to digital, to things like big data and artificial intelligence (AI); even a mechanic should know something about AI. I think most engineering curricula have courses on programming, on statistics. But few – outside the engineers in computer science – have courses on AI or big data. This is changing, but at a very slow pace.”

COLLABORATION IS KEY

Collaboration among societies, education, industry and government is central to addressing such challenges, the educators agree.

The Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, for example, has launched a new learning center, giving engineering students access to digital engineering applications, plus the opportunity to work in teams, share data and manage a project.

“I wanted to keep our students competitive and ready to thrive in the fast evolving digital-driven work environment,” said Natacha DePaola, dean of engineering at Illinois Tech. “I was interested in getting students to use digital tools in an effective way that prepares them for their careers.”

Co-curricular and extracurricular programs at the center provide students with opportunities to practice what they learn in the classroom, DePaola said.

Natacha DePaola, Dean of Engineering at Illinois Tech (Image © Natacha DePaola)

“Students work with faculty and corporate mentors on problems that are designed to reflect the needs of the industry,” she said. “We try to build on our corporate relations by identifying opportunities for mentored projects for students. That is a key component today in keeping education current as to being knowledgeable and understanding the use of digital tools.”

DePaola said the new learning center is making great progress. “Students have been involved in various activities that has helped to get the learning center up and running, including using the business platform for learning; participating in the development of instructional materials; working on a project; and advancing their research,” she said.

UNITING EDUCATION AND INDUSTRY

To succeed, innovative programs require active support and participation from industrial companies, Fortenberry said – and that participation extends beyond giving engineering schools projects their students can do.

“A company needs to explain to students how its work relates to the students’ societal concerns and how incoming employees contribute to making the world a better place, which is what a lot of students are really concerned about,” he said.

The 2019 IGIP workshop at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China, was a workshop on the topic of “Engineering education for sustainable development.”(Image © IGIP)

Employers also expect engineering students to be able to work with specialists in other fields, Fortenberry said. Benjamin Goldschneider, a doctoral student in engineering education at Virginia Tech, tackled that challenge head-on, helping to establish a pilot course where students work on four-person teams in search of an interdisciplinary approach. “I believe it was a successful pilot run,” he said. The concept helped students break out of their silos and gain “better preparation for the work they will do in industry.”

Participation in societies helps engineering schools recognize that no single entity can have all the answers, said Krishna Vedula, president of the Indo-Universal Collaboration on Engineering Education (IUCEE). “The problems facing society are so complex that collaboration is the only way we can hope to address them,” he said. ”The only way to get schools to see the big picture is for them to step out of the comfort zone and visit other institutions, meet people from industry and society.”

Learn more about 3DS education and training opportunities

Transparent supply chains

Consumer packaged goods companies pursue farm-to-table visibility

Rebecca Lambert
19 August 2020

5 min read

Today’s consumers are increasingly health-conscious and socially conscious about their food choices. As high-quality, fresh and sustainable produce gains popularity over processed convenience food, the pressure is on consumer packaged goods businesses to be transparent about how their products make their way from farm to shelf. For many, this means transforming their operations and completely rethinking their supply chains.

When the British-Dutch consumer packaged goods (CPG) business Unilever, maker of US mayonnaise powerhouse Hellmann’s, announced in 2010 that it would use only certified cage-free eggs by 2020, it upended the entire US supply chain.

In 2010, only 2% of egg-laying hens in the US were cage-free. “The sheer number of eggs that go into Hellmann’s products – 331 million a year in the US only – means we had to completely rebuild our supply chain in order to make our goal a reality,” the company’s marketing director, Russell Lilly, said at the time. Still, the company achieved its goal three years ahead of schedule, working its partnerships with suppliers and animal-welfare organizations to transform the US egg-production business.

Hellmann’s scramble for responsibly sourced eggs is increasingly typical of how growing health- and social-consciousness on the part of consumers is driving change in the CPG supply chain – and the supply chain is responding by applying digital technologies to the challenges of achieving farm-to-table transparency.

“As consumers increasingly make purchasing decisions based on brands’ sustainability efforts and values, grocers are putting pressure on CPG companies to act responsibly,” said Lindsey Mazza, an expert in Consumer Products and Retail, Supply Chain at French consulting business Capgemini. “Adoption of product management systems is growing in the CPG space so that suppliers can drive critical supply chain and sourcing information to the retailer, providing traceability all the way back to the farm.”

DATA PROVES QUALITY

A 2018 report by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and Boston Consulting Group, titled “How CPG Supply Chains Are Preparing for Seismic Change,” found that 78% of CPG companies are prioritizing end-to-end data visibility—from point-of-sale data to GPS tracking data on shipments.

78%

of CPG companies are prioritizing end-to-end data visibility—from point-of-sale data to GPS tracking data on shipments.

Source: 2018 report by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and Boston Consulting Group

“They use predictive analytics for demand forecasting and capacity modeling, and scenario modeling to optimize manufacturing and distribution,” the GMA report said. “Geo-analytics help them improve logistics flows and route planning and build a control tower to create end-to-end visibility in the supply chain. New data architecture, built partly in the cloud, can link data seamlessly, enabling companies to leapfrog costly and lengthy ERP deployments.”

US-based Amy’s Kitchen, a pioneer in organic food production, is just one CPG company that has turned to supply chain optimization software to gain full visibility into all aspects of its supply chain. “Our goal is to make the most delicious food with the best quality ingredients, and this brings complexity into our supply chain,” said Nigel Batchem, Senior Director of Planning at Amy’s Kitchen.

Amy’s Kitchen was using Excel spreadsheets, which were becoming less effective with each passing day. Response times were too slow to meet changes in demand, and worse, monthly planning cycles could take as long as six weeks to complete. Amy's Kitchen's systems were simply unable to cope with the rising level of complexity. Suboptimal planning processes were actively holding Amy’s Kitchen back from further growth.

“We required a supply chain planning and optimization platform that could accommodate our intricate scheduling requirements, which stems from our unique approach of assembling and cooking products simultaneously,“ said Andy Berliner, co-founder of Amy’s Kitchen. “Using [a] software platform will enable us to maintain the high quality and fulfillment standards our customers have come to expect.”

“We required a supply chain planning and optimization platform that could accommodate our intricate scheduling requirements, which stems from our unique approach of assembling and cooking products simultaneously. Using [a] software platform will enable us to maintain the high quality and fulfillment standards our customers have come to expect.”

Andy Berliner
Co-founder of Amy’s Kitchen

The result? Amy’s Kitchen is very happy with how digital planning has enabled it to meet its planning goals, cut costs, increase visibility and improve its ability to adapt to disruptions. In addition to business benefits, Amy’s Kitchen employees experience improvements as well. The optimized scheduling means that Amy's Kitchen can now improve the work life of its employees. For this company, it is not enough to simply produce high-quality food; the quality of the work experience of those producing the food has to match.

ANALYSIS DRIVES INSIGHTS

The data needed to drive these systems also is going digital. Sensors track factory processing information, temperatures during shipping, times and dates of pickups and deliveries, sell-by and use-by dates and a host of other metrics. To move quickly if a shipment is delayed, if temperatures are out of range for too long, or if a recall is needed, however, CPG companies need reporting systems that can access, cleanse, analyze and highlight data in real time to deliver critical insights. And that means that artificial intelligence (AI) has an increasingly important role to play.

“AI will be used to augment people,” said Simon Ellis, who leads the Supply Chain Strategies practice at analyst firm IDC Manufacturing Insights. “As CPG companies process more and more data, they will need eyeballs to look at and act on the information that brings. AI will provide the additional resource they need; if not, that data is wasted.”

How CPG companies collect and use data will become a point of competitive differentiation, Ellis predicts. “Those that will have access to data better will perform better,” he said. “Total supply chain visibility cannot be achieved without data.”

BACK TO BASICS

As the demands on CPG companies continue to grow, some are taking a back-to-basics approach tackling supply chain complexities, becoming more sustainable in the process.

“Larger multinationals are being squeezed in the market by new independent CPG companies that appeal to consumers with their strong ethics, total transparency and sustainable business models,” Capgemini’s Mazza said. “With a simplified supply chain, they are able to bring products to market much faster and react to the pulse of what consumers want.”

UK smoothie brand Innocent Drinks, for example, has built its reputation on making simple, natural, healthy drinks. Innocent’s company mission is to make products that taste good and improve consumer health. To reinforce that commitment, the company recently became a certified B Corporation, a voluntary audit carried out by global non-profit organization B Lab, which assesses companies’ impact not only in terms of food quality, but also on employees, customers, community and environment.

“We’re trying to be a good company and demonstrate that you can grow successfully doing it the right way, and we want others to follow,” Innocent CEO Douglas Lamont said in a recent interview with the London Evening Standard. That’s also why the company favors suppliers certified by independent environmental and social organizations, including the Rainforest Alliance, and pays a premium for certified fruit.

TRUST BUILDS LOYALTY

By establishing trust with consumers and helping them to be more socially responsible themselves, businesses can put people and the planet on the same footing as profits, and make sustainable capitalism work.

“Today, when it comes to their food, consumers want speed, honesty and transparency,” Mazza said. And so CPG businesses must demonstrate – with certified data delivered in real time – that they use sustainable ingredients and practices across every aspect of their supply chain.

”It’s up to CPG companies to clearly express their brand values, demonstrate how they are helping the planet and communicate their product attributes to consumers,” Mazza said. “Using technology, they can get a better grasp of their supply chain, creating products that are sustainable, traceable and desirable.”

Discover more about drivers for CPG and Retail companies that are leading to long-term health and growth

Embedded electronics

Touch technology replaces buttons with sleek, invisible control panels

Rebecca Lambert
12 August 2020

4 min read

Consumer products are smart, connected and tactile–and soon, surfaces ranging from car armrests to front door locks will be, too, thanks to injection molded structural electronics (IMSE). IMSE makes electronic circuitry and functionality part of the 3D structure itself, enabling sleek, elegant product designs that eliminate the need for mechanical buttons and switches. 

Homeowners will soon be able to open their doors with a touch, thanks to smart-lock maker PassiveBolt. The company, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, used automotive-grade technology to convert existing deadbolt hardware into a touch-activated device. After winning a Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2020 Innovation Award in the Smart Home category for engineering and design quality, PassiveBolt’s Shepherd Lock is scheduled to hit the market this year.


PassiveBolt's Shepherd Lock keyless entry system won a CES 2020 Innovation award in the highly competitive smart home category. The smart cover cosmetic surface for both structure and electronic functions includes capacitive touch control, contact pads for external connectivity and LEDs to show lock status. (Image © TaktoTec)

Like keyless car entry, the Shepherd Lock lets a homeowner lock and unlock a door by simply touching its smart surface, provided they have their virtual key on a smartphone or fob they carry with them. Owners also can check the lock’s status via a mobile app, and the device alerts the owner and freezes the lock if an intruder tries to break in or disable the lock.  

The sleek, simple design is possible thanks to in-mold electronics (IME) technology developed by TactoTek of Oulu, Finland. TaktoTek calls its IME technology IMSE (injection molded structural electronics), and it brings electronics to places traditional electronics could never go, encapsulating functionality within thin injection-molded plastic that responds to touch. The result: sleek, elegant, smart surfaces that are protected from vibration, debris and moisture and significantly cut down on thickness and weight.

“The only way to achieve such a seamless design was to embed the touch sensor and feedback LEDs into the surface of the cover,” said Kabir Maiga, co-founder of PassiveBolt. “IMSE was the solution that unlocked this design option.”

NEW DESIGN POSSIBILITIES WITH IMSE

If you have ever tried to clean your toddler’s cracker crumbs out of the spaces around car window buttons, the disadvantages of traditional mechanical controls are obvious. Designers hate them, too, because they interrupt and visually clutter spaces that should be smooth and flowing. IMSE eliminates crumb-collectors and visual clutter by hiding touch-activated controls under a thin, smooth surface. This transforms vehicle door trims, cover panels, and other locations that were once too thin for traditional electronic structures into beautiful surfaces that become controls for lighting and other electronic functions when touched.

“IMSE parts are smart, molded structures, meaning that the electronics are part of the structure itself,” said Dave Rice, senior vice president of marketing at TactoTek. “They are typically 2 to 3.5 millimeters (0.07 to 0.13 inches) thick and injection molded into a single 3D piece.”

IMSE allows manufacturers like PassiveBolt to create previously impossible, innovative products that deliver on both style and functionality.

“IMSE provides the ability to simplify a mechatronic design,” PassiveBolt’s Maiga said. “It makes it possible to combine electronic and mechanical parts into a unified piece, thereby rendering mechanical stack-ups significantly less complex, cutting down on the number of parts we need to manufacture and giving us far more design options.”

THE INDUSTRIALIZATION OF IME

After years of development IME technology–the generic industry term for integrating electronics circuitry with thermoforming or molding–is finally making its way into consumer goods, home appliances and vehicles.

“The ability to design, produce or integrate IME-made parts will become a strategic know-how and competency for many firms worldwide,” UK market research firm IDTechEx said in its 2019 report, “In-Mold Electronics 2019-2029: Technology, Market Forecasts, Players.”

IMSE technology automotive overhead control panel with capacitive touch controls, passive haptics and illumination, in a seamless molded package 3.5 mm thick and weighing only 200 grams. (Image © TaktoTec)

Before that can happen, however, designers and engineers must learn how to design successful integrated parts, TactoTek’s Rice said.

“To be successful in the marketplace, IMSE technology must be predictable, reliable and economical,” Rice said. “Those qualities require a deep knowledge of the materials and electronic components used in IMSE parts and how they interact during IMSE manufacturing processes, as well as design rules for using them.”

To help, he said, TactoTek has developed an offering called IMSE Builder. “Through tests and analyses, we create and document validated design rules, materials and components, manufacturing process controls, testing and quality assurance methods,” Rice said. “TactoTek licenses the patents and know-how to other manufacturers that mass-produce IMSE parts. We help them understand what’s possible with IMSE technology; they use their design vision and creativity to bring it to life.”

APPLICATIONS ON THE INCREASE

As a result, original equipment manufacturers and designers are beginning to use TactoTek’s technology to develop innovative new products and high-value, differentiated user experiences.

“The dominant use cases from our customers are control panels: touch buttons, linear and circular slider controls, proximity sensors to ‘wake up’ a device, lighting to illuminate icons, show status and for styling,” Rice said. “From coffee machines to dishwashers, industrial controls to vehicle overhead control panels, these man-machine interfaces are very popular.”

Finnish sports watch maker Suunto, for example, uses TactoTek’s IMSE technology in its Movesense activity tracker – a sensor that is 36.576 millimeters (1.44 inches) in diameter, weighs 9.92 grams (0.35 ounces), and can be embedded into clothes, shoes, sports equipment and even dog collars to track movement. Suunto chose IMSE for its thin structure, durability and cost effectiveness.

“Suunto specified that the part had to withstand 10,000 flex cycles – our test fixture broke after the part survived more than 70,000 cycles – and 50 washing machine cycles,” Rice said. “It shows some of the creativity engineers are bringing to the technology.”

Soon, a TactoTek customer in the automotive market will reveal an IMSE part slated for millions of vehicles. “That use case, and several others that are very different, will likely be seen in production vehicles in the next two to three years,” Rice said. “The vast majority of these solutions are man-machine interfaces that include lighting for function and styling, capacitive touch controls, circuitry and, in several cases, printed antennas for connectivity.”

ENCOURAGING FUTURE

Look for even more IMSE designs in the near future. CAD developers have begun to build support for the technology into their design software, making it easier for designers and engineers to incorporate IMSE into their products and further raising awareness of the technology.



IMSE technology brings surfaces to life with capacitive touch control and illumination on a wooden surface. (Image © TaktoTec)

PassiveBolt, for one, continues to explore how IMSE can help it disrupt the smart home market and differentiate its products.  

“IMSE allows us to easily customize the smart surface with our customers’ branding without any tooling change, which saves time and money,” Maiga said. “We also plan to leverage smart surface designs in several upcoming products. IMSE makes for simpler designs and improved user experience.”

Learn more about 3DS ISME solutions

Braid your business

Coordinating a purpose-driven organization improves performance

Alex Smith
5 August 2020

3 min read

In a fast-moving digital world, large organizations with strict hierarchies can struggle to respond with the agility of a small startup. With the release of his book Braided Organizations, Michel Zarka, CEO of Theano Advisors, advocates for more open structures that reject formal rules and processes in favor of purpose-driven collaboration.

COMPASS: What do you want readers to learn from your book?

Michel Zarka: Firstly, I want readers to realize that a successful company is driven by a purpose, not just by targets or figures. People fight for a purpose, not for a numerical target. We’re currently working with a company that wants to reduce its environmental impact. In working to achieve that eventual goal, it would be a disaster for the company to say that the project must reach an exact place at an exact time. Instead, they must manage a flow of contributions from both specialists and non-specialists, delivering results that demonstrate the fulfillment of the overall purpose.

What is the braided way of working?

MZ: Any given organization has more or less a hierarchical structure consisting of silos. Because of this, solving or addressing certain problems becomes very difficult and takes a lot of time, because the right people are not always involved at the start of the process.  

Braids provide a solution to this problem. A braided organization is one in which data and information is shared across the company, ensuring the right people – no matter their seniority or expertise – contribute to building a solution. We do not consult an organization on its structural side; instead, we reorganize people according to a given purpose. The purpose can come from anywhere, but it needs to be clear and generally accepted by the community. 

In a fast-moving digital world, larger and more established companies need to compete with agile startups. Does the concept of braids offer a way for larger companies to meet this challenge?

MZ: The founders of a startup are united by a shared purpose; it’s a natural braid. However, when the organization becomes more complex, it becomes difficult to maintain that initial unity of purpose. Braids are, therefore, a way for complex organizations to become much more agile. The idea is that a complex organization becomes driven by a purpose, and these purposes are achieved through braids.

Can you give us an example of an organization that has adopted braids?

MZ: One example we had was in an organization in the nuclear industry. Due to the constraints of regulation, the system was designed in such a way that if you had a problem, it was taking 14 months to close the loop. This was because you would have to communicate with the nuclear safety authority, then you would have to call the quality system of the client, then you would have to call the engineering division, and so on. So, we tried to put all the stakeholders into a larger ecosystem to which they could all contribute – a braid – with the purpose of improving the response time to a problem.

By doing that, we pushed people to think differently about the production process, to think differently about the quality process. We also pushed the authority to think differently about the procedures, and most importantly of all, we pushed everyone to think differently about the documentation that is necessary to safely deliver a component. In the end, we reduced the response time from 14 months to 1 month, on 30% of the problems that arose.

Once you create a braided way of working, how do you continue to repeat the process?

MZ: If you want it to become a natural way of working, then you need a business experience platform that supports a collaborative way of working but also embeds the knowledge within the platform so the process can be repeated. A cloud-based experience platform instantly enables such collaboration from anywhere in the world, with the capability to perform deep analysis, data analysis or knowledge analysis, all operated through the platform. It allows for the development of a new cultural and managerial approach.

How does braiding change the role of leadership in an organization?

MZ: I would like to emphasize that braids completely change the role of leadership. In the book, I have developed the concept of “pollination leadership.” This involves people that, wherever they are in the organization, will be able to listen, balance and feed other people with ideas, which are not necessarily coming from their specific expertise. The more of these people you have, who have the capability to braid together different areas of knowledge, the better the braided organizations work.

For example, if you have an urban mobility project, you will have people taking on different roles, with some designing the infrastructure and others addressing the regulations. If you think that any one group will solve a problem alone, it won’t work. They must braid among themselves, and they must braid without anybody looking for the power along the value chain. It is an approach which requires a different mindset to that which has been used in an organization’s operation up until now.

Ready to work

Accreditation's new focus on real-world experience makes engineering graduates more employable

Rebecca Gibson

5 min read

For years, some employers complained that the engineering graduates they hired were not adequately prepared for their post-graduation roles, requiring months or years of expensive on-the-job training before they could make meaningful contributions at work. Colleges and accreditation agencies responded with an increased emphasis on experiential, project-based learning. So, is the transition working? 

If a student graduates from an engineering school and cannot apply the theories they have learned to the job they are hired to do, are they really an engineer?

Over the years, engineering employers worldwide have asked this question with increasing frequency and volume. Why, they wondered, were they forced to invest months or years of additional, expensive training in their new hires? Why weren’t universities teaching their students how to apply the theories and formulas of engineering to the kinds of hands-on work engineers do in the real world?

In response, universities and accreditation agencies took a hard look at what engineering schools were teaching and how they were teaching it. What they discovered has changed accreditation standards and reinvented college curriculums, creating happier customers among both students and employers.

“When we dug deeper into this, we discovered that the most common teaching method – long lectures where a professor talks at a large group of students – was actually highly ineffective,” said Michael Milligan, executive director and CEO of ABET, a nonprofit, non-government organization based in Baltimore, Maryland that was founded in 1932 and accredits applied and natural science, computing, engineering and engineering technology programs. “Multiple studies showed that only a small percentage of what most students were learning came from these lectures; they understood and retained more information when they were actively engaged in the learning process.”

Consequently, ABET in 2000 transitioned to accreditation criteria that focused on what “outputs” student engineers were trained to deliver. Rather than tracking how many credit hours a student has completed in a host of required courses, the standards now focus on ensuring that graduates can apply what they have learned. “ABET’s accreditation process led the way in radically transforming how students are taught in the classroom, and now engineering schools that use it are producing more knowledgeable and better-prepared graduates,” Milligan said.

REAL WORLD EXPERIENCE

Dan Walton, a graduate of an accredited mechanical engineering program at the University of Warwick in England, believes that his college-level project experience played a valuable role in helping him secure paid employment immediately after graduation.


Dan Walton, graduate of University of Warwick, England (Image © Dan Walton)

“My post-graduation experiences have shown me that a high caliber graduate is measured by their pragmatic and hands-on approach to problem solving,” Walton said. “Thanks to the practical teaching methods at university, I already had the ability to apply everything I’d learned to real-world examples. I’m now three years into a career at the same firm where I did a voluntary placement during my degree program.”

Grant Saunby, a research engineer at the Manufacturing Technology Centre in Coventry, England, which has an extensive graduate recruitment program, endorses Walton’s perspective. “Accreditation gives companies the confidence that graduates have a fundamental understanding of engineering concepts and that they have been educated to an established standard, which is particularly useful now that there are so many engineering courses,” Saunby said.

KEEPING TRACK OF EDUCATION SUCCESS

Pursuing outcome-based accreditation provides universities with an easy, unbiased way to verify that their teaching methods are – or are not – working well, said Elisabeth Crepon, president of Commission des titres d’ingénieur (CTI), the Paris-based agency responsible for evaluating and accrediting engineering education programs in France. In turn, accreditation reassures graduates and employers that the schools are delivering high-quality education.

“We’ve carried out three “focus” initiatives [one per year between 2016 and 2019], asking engineering schools to submit an analysis on the impact of the way they’re teaching specific aspects of engineering,” Crepon said. “Most said they have prioritized innovation and revised their teaching and evaluation methods with student-oriented approaches like project-based teaching. CTI’s accreditation standards largely contributed to this positive evolution in engineering education.”

Outcome-based accreditation has been particularly effective at helping engineering schools in emerging economies, where pedagogical methods have sometimes lagged behind those in the US and Europe, leaving graduates less prepared for professional engineering careers. Engineering education in India, for example, is making the transition.

“Engineering schools in India often focus on getting good exam results rather than on finding new ways to continually improve their teaching methods,” said R. Hariharan, Advisor-II in the Policy and Academic Planning Bureau for the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), which regulates technical education in India.

“However, striving to meet AICTE outcome-based accreditation criteria – and getting feedback from both us and the industry – has motivated many of them to experiment with new techniques to make their teaching processes more effective and engaging. It’s working because the quality of engineering education and graduates is gradually improving across India. The government has set a target for all engineering schools to achieve accreditation for their programs before 2022.”

INDUSTRY INSIGHTS

Gaining experience with the advanced digital engineering tools used by many employers is an increasingly important part of students’ hands-on training, accreditation experts agree. Digitalization is rapidly changing how the professional engineering industry operates and forcing engineers to continually develop new skills.

ASIIN Group, an accreditation agency based in Dusseldorf, Germany, helps engineering schools keep pace with these changes by involving representatives from professional engineering organizations in the accreditation process, alongside academic partners.

“Accreditation provides a valuable opportunity for engineering schools to seek advice from academic peers and industry-based representatives about how they can improve the way they’re teaching students and preparing them for entering the workforce.”

Iring Wasser, Managing Director, ASIIN Group

“Schools design the content of their own engineering programs, but our accreditation process enables them to ask industry-based representatives whether graduates will be sufficiently well prepared for an engineering career when they complete their courses,” said Iring Wasser, managing director at ASIIN Group. “This makes it much easier for engineering schools to regularly evolve their educational content and teaching methods to align them with current and predicted labor market requirements.”

And, as students work on projects outsourced to their universities by nearby employers, they gain first-hand-experience not only on the types of projects they’re likely to do if hired by that employer, but on the design, simulation and manufacturing applications and processes they are likely to use.

GROWING DEMAND

One testament to accreditation’s power to equip students with skills and competencies that align with the needs of engineering employers can be found in the growing number of engineering schools focused for the first time on securing accreditation.

The Belgium-based organization European Network for the Accreditation of Engineering Education (ENAEE), for example, has approved 15 accreditation agencies to award its EUR-ACE labels to engineering schools across Europe. ENAEE has also been involved in projects to set up agencies that will use EUR-ACE to accredit programs in Central Asia, Africa, the Middle East and South America.

“By developing a quality assurance system for engineering education worldwide, we’ll enhance the quality of engineering education and facilitate better academic and professional mobility between countries,” said José Carlos Quadrado, vice president of ENAEE.

A FUTURE VISION

Growing applications of digitalization and artificial intelligence, plus the world’s growing focus on multi-layered challenges that include sustainability and climate change, will keep up the pressure on engineers to become increasingly innovative, CTI’s Crepon predicts.

“Accreditation processes will continue to be key in helping engineering schools to constantly improve the way they teach engineering so they produce graduates who are capable of developing solutions to these challenges when they become professional engineers,” she said.

As the overhaul in how engineering is taught and how engineering programs are accredited demonstrates, there will always be room for improvement.

“We must increase collaboration between the different accreditation alliances to provide even better services for students,” Wasser said. “Plus, we need to keep training our accreditation experts so that we know they’re always asking the right questions and giving appropriate advice. Most accreditation agencies are already doing this well and we’re certainly on the right track to drive innovation in engineering education and create the successful engineers of the future.”

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