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Engineering Education Struggles to Keep Up With Industry

Education is always a relevant issue for those of us in the electronics industry. It affects not only our technological status in the world but also the availability and competency of qualified graduates to fill job openings. If you aren’t paying attention to education, now is the time to give it some time.

I recently attended the American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE) annual conference in San Antonio. This was the organization’s 119th annual event and it was well attended by about 4000, according to ASEE director of communications Nathan Kahl. The society has been around since 1863.

While the attendees were mostly professors and other academics there were a few hardy souls from industry, but not nearly enough. This year, the conference focused on increasing and improving the contact between industry and education—a great objective.

Having spent time in both academia and the industry, I can say that education mostly is a step or two behind the industry in what should be taught. This lag has always existed, and the attitudes and practices of the colleges, universities, and accrediting bodies make it difficult to change.

“The stresses in the university operations model are showing. The institutions can no longer let fees drift forever upwards, but there are no easy answers to improve efficiency when faculty and administrations have other priorities,” said professor John Robertson of Arizona State University.

“On one side, the need for research often takes priority over investment in teaching. On the other, we create ever-narrower specialists in a world that needs system integrators. That’s a difficult operating space,” he said.

From The Conference Floor

In the plenary session, Keeping It Real: Preparing Students for Industrial Practice, a panel comprising members of the industry and academia expressed their views that reflect a growing realization that closer industry-university collaboration is essential.

Most of the panelists believe that the modern engineer needs more than just theory and technical knowledge. Suggestions included communications, collaborative skills, team building, leadership, time management, entrepreneurship, innovation/creativity, ethics, and a global view—things they don’t usually teach you in school. Should we leave these valuable factors to on-the-job training?

Three of the four industry panel members in the plenary indicated that they still could not find all the engineers they needed to fill current openings. One panelist indicated that a joint mechanical-electronic major would be a big help as many of today’s openings require both electronic and mechanical knowledge.

A key issue at most schools is student retention. Actual graduation rates are only in the 22% to 56% range. Colleges are attracting students to engineering, but most of them are not completing an engineering degree. Many switch majors because of the heavy math and analysis that engineering requires. Financial issues play a role too. It almost appears that we could meet the needs of the industry if we could find a way to hold on to the students that colleges do recruit.

The industry and academia both support the creation of more industry-college partnerships, internships, and industry participation. Meanwhile, STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education in the K through 12 grades is ongoing, but more needs to be done to attract more students to fill the pipeline to employment in engineering.

The idea of more online education came up many times at the conference. Recent successes at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University have those schools and other big-name universities exploring the increased use of this approach. Online education is generally distasteful to most faculty but some pioneers are pushing for it. It is a better fit for the youth of today than the lectures that still dominate universities.

Another frequent topic of discussion was the high price of education. The costs and the technical difficulties of engineering programs are keeping students away, experts said. No solutions were forthcoming.

An underlying theme was also the need for a more “systems” oriented approach to electronics. Most engineers work at the system level today anyway, and that’s in conflict with the heavy math and circuit analysis of most degree programs. The world is also more software-heavy than hardware.

At the universities, research and publication are the primary concerns. Students seem to be lower on the priority list. An overwhelming internal focus keeps students from getting the attention they pay for.

Looking Ahead

A 2000 study by Canadian professor Timothy Lethbridge indicated that many college program subjects were no longer as important and are overtaught, such as calculus, differential equations, linear algebra, physics, and chemistry. VLSI, robotics, Laplace and Fourier transforms, analog electronics, and artificial intelligence also are less important, he said.

I agree that most of these topics are no longer as important, except for robotics, Fourier and analog electronics also are still critical. Add statistics to that needed list too. Lethbridge wants more software education on programming languages, data structures, software architecture, and design and user interfaces. This is hard to dispute, but how do these subjects get taught within an already heavy curriculum?

The 134 exhibits at the conference were a good representation of the organizations that support education. Vendors from the electronics industry included Agilent, ARM, Cypress Semiconductor, Freescale, HP, MathWorks, Microchip Technology, National Instruments, Renesas, Tektronix, Texas Instruments, and Xilinx. All the major publishers and the IEEE were there too.

The annual ASEE conference is an important event for the industry as well as academia. While the academics dominate this event, industry representatives are welcome to participate in the sessions, panels, and other presentations. There’s always a chance each year to submit papers as well.

So if you’re interested in helping to mold education for the future, get involved. The colleges and universities are in need of a constant barrage of input from the industry about degree programs and course content. Let them know what you need in a graduate and what they should be teaching.

ASEE

www.asee.org

 

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