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Changes Afoot in Engineering Education

In one of the most ambitious education initiatives undertaken, ASME is implementing a multi-faceted program to close the gap between engineering education and industry.

“We are generating very competent engineers,” said ASME VP-Education Mohammad Hosni, professor of nuclear and mechanical engineering, Kansas State University. “But we do want to know that the needs of industry and the [competencies] of engineers are intersecting at the right place.”

The initiative serves as the implementation phase of “Vision 2030,” a multi-year study that surveyed engineering managers, early career mechanical engineers and university department heads of mechanical engineering to assure that newly graduated engineers are prepared to immediately add value when they join the workforce. Over time, there are expected to be major changes in the undergraduate curriculum as well as in the faculty training future engineers.

Changing Curriculum

The study makes recommendations for more design-build-test, practice-based activities; changing the mechanical engineering curriculum to allow more flexibility for these hands-on activities; adding more faculty with practical industry experience to balance those currently with strong research capabilities; greater cultivation of innovation and creativity; increased emphasis on developing students’ professional, non-technical skills; and encouraging greater diversity among students and faculty.

Source: ASME Vision 2030

By forecasting future requirements, “We can be ahead of the needs so that our graduates will be ready for the future,” Hosni said.

One major action is a revision in the ABET accreditation for undergraduate engineering programs to require an institution provide degree programs to produce students with proficiency in either mechanical systems or solid systems rather than equal proficiency in both, as has been required until now. The new standards start taking effect in 2015.

“We have already been able to work on some low-hanging fruit,” said Thomas J. Perry, director of education programs at ASME, referring to the revision in accreditation and a re-focus of ASME’s Ben C. Sparks Medal to honor outstanding achievement in practice-based engineering education.

The award helps gain visibility for the initiative as well as recognizes those supporting it. The first honorees, named last year, were the three project leaders of the task force spearheading Vision 2030: Scott Danielson, associate dean for academic programs, College of Technology & Innovation, Arizona State University; Allan Kirkpatrick, professor of mechanical engineering, Colorado State University; and Robert Warrington, director, Institute for Leadership and Innovation, Michigan Technological University.

Danielson observed, “When you think about all of the action steps in the larger sense, they actually form a coherent whole.” For example, problem-solving through hands-on activities can help cultivate greater innovation and creativity as well as improve soft skills. Warrington said one desired program outcome for universities is to encourage all mechanical engineering students to design and build a machine or product fully working by the time of graduation and solidly based on engineering principles as evidenced in both oral and written reports.

Another goal is to expand the kinds of problems that students are asked to address innovatively and creatively beyond cars, planes, and the like, particularly into what are termed the “grand challenges” in energy, water, health and poverty.

“That’s what will attract people who aren’t interested in engineering now [because they] think about it as [producing] a ‘thing,’” said Danielson. The “grand challenges” are what interest people because of the value, worth, and personal satisfaction of being a part of effective solutions, he added.

Practical Setting

To do all of this successfully, engineering colleges must have more faculty members with industry experience in product development, manufacturing, and management to balance out the predominant research focus. That’s the reason for the recommendation for creating more “professor of practice” positions. The number of research positions has grown due to considerable government subsidies to universities since it’s in the national interest to remain a global leader in technology. The hope is that industry will begin funding professors of practice positions through endowments and other means, Perry said.

Professional, nontechnical skills are also better assessed in a practical setting. “We are saying they are just as important as the technical skills,” Danielson noted. “Mistakenly called the soft skills, they should be called the ‘hard skills,’” he quipped, because faculty members say teaching and assessing skills, such as conflict management, effective communications, interpersonal skills, leadership, teamwork, are very hard compared to math and science. “You can’t practice those in a lecture class. But in projects, all of those have to be practiced.”

Members of the task force are enthusiastic about reception to the recommendations and foresee an ongoing evolution. Warrington predicts a “spectrum of change” taking place over time with design starting at least in the second, if not the first, year of college, beginning with work on problem formulation, open-endedness design and later on design/build. “We have to get away from traditional lecture and back of the book problems,” he said.

Nancy S. Giges is an independent writer.

We do want to know that the needs of industry and the [competencies] of engineers are intercepting at the right place.Prof. Mohammad Hosni, Kansas State University

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