Electronic Design

What’s Wrong With Engineering Education?

I recently spent a couple of days at the annual conference of the American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE) in Austin, Texas. This event draws roughly 3000 attendees from colleges and universities, mostly from the U.S. While the temperatures outside soared past 100°F, the convention center kept most of us shivering in our boots.

I’ve been to this event several times, but this year I presented a paper related to my advisory work on a National Science Foundation grant project focusing on updating university electronics curricula. Mostly, though, I went to observe what’s happening with the electronics side of engineering education. Here is the big picture as I saw and heard it.

Dearth of Industry Participation

You would think that since the products of our educational institutions are the graduates who go into industry that these companies would be more interested in the educational content and process. I did not see any actual industry representatives at the conference, although surely some must have been there. I cannot help but think that industry would want to be more visible and want some say in shaping the product it ends up paying so dearly for.

Yes, it does take time to participate in education, and most industry folks have precious little spare time to do so, even if they are interested and concerned. Yet participation is necessary. As the old saying goes, if you keep doing the same old thing, you’ll get the same old result. So it is with education.

I fear that we are getting the same old things in our graduates, despite the fact that the industry and technology have moved on and only increased their rate of change. Sadly, the academic community does not usually proactively seek industry input. Most colleges and universities have industry advisory committees, but in my experience schools pay only minimal attention to what these advisors say or want.

Faculty Arrogance

There is more than a bit of arrogance in the attitudes of faculty in most institutions, which is easily detectable in their presentations and in casual conversation. I suppose that most professors feel this way because of their advanced degrees and, I have to admit, superior (in most cases) IQs, knowledge, and competence. There is an overall attitude of “we are smart and know what is best to teach.” Maybe to an extent that is true.

When the goal is to teach fundamentals and basics, it is probably a good idea to let the academics decide. But when it comes to knowing the current needs of industry, I am skeptical of this attitude. The fundamentals do not change, of course. But as technology moves on, some fundamentals become unnecessary, others can just be mentioned, and new fundamentals need to be added. This is where industry advises on content and approach as well as what to emphasize and what to ignore.

Self-Absorption

Academia is focused on itself and less on the students. I will probably hear from angry professors on this claim, but I know I am right. The institutions are so wrapped up in their own issues, problems, and politics, not to mention personal pursuits, that they often forget the students and the industry they serve.

Many professors no longer actually teach. I am not kidding. They get graduate student assistants to teach many classes or conduct labs. What do the professors do then? They write papers to further their own careers and develop and apply for grants—or actually do grant work that brings in big bucks to the department and institution. Students suffer a bit for being denied access to the real teaching talent originally hired for the job.

Another example is the incredible amount of time spent in trying to recruit more women and minorities to engineering. I am not criticizing the effort, as we surely do need to find more ways to attract high school grads into engineering. This effort does not seem to have had much effect, yet the institutions seem determined to produce a student body more aligned with the “correct” quotas or some perceived inconsistency than with students who are interested and capable.

Dated or Skewed Curricula

I have the sense that some of the electronic programs aren’t as up to date as they should be. Most professors tell you they teach and stress fundamentals, and that’s good. But you still need to introduce the latest in components, techniques, and methods so graduates don’t enter the industry without some sense of the current technology. That is almost criminal.

Most graduates still have to go through some on-the-job training when they’re first hired, but they shouldn’t be so ignorant of modern practices that they look bad. That to me means keeping a program up to date, which needs to be done on a course-by-course basis. In a dynamic industry like electronics, it should be ongoing.

Most professors appear to fight against change. Change is hard. It takes time. Most teachers like to keep teaching the material as they learned it one, two, or even three decades ago. Yes, I know that fundamentals don’t change, but you should at least try to teach them in the context of the current technology.

I wish professors would be more open to adopting the latest information and techniques. Yet since they don’t work in industry, I fear that they have a very vague knowledge of what’s new, important, and only nice to know. It’s a subtle thing. Many professors have never worked in industry, or if they did, it was many years ago.

In a way, I fault the institutions more than the faculty, as many professors would like to be more up to date. But few colleges and universities will fund continuing education activities of any kind, such as seminars and conferences, or allow for time off. It’s funny how the institutions want the latest knowledge and tout their pre-eminence but won’t support it unless some government grant funding is paying. Again, what is wrong with this picture?

How to Fix Things

In my talk at the conference, I suggested a list of changes I would like to see in courses. One of the professors summed up the situation with, “Lou, those kinds of changes scare me to death. You are probably right but we will not be changing anything soon.”

First, we need more lab work. Over the years, colleges and universities seem to have cut back on actual hands-on lab work. In some cases, it makes sense as the way engineers design today relies more on computer-based work like math analysis, automated design, simulation, verification, and so on.

There is less breadboarding and more validation by computer. Yet engineers on the job design and build hardware. It seems like there should be more of a hands-on component to the educational process. However, labs are expensive, they eat up vast amounts of time, and most professors hate lab work and have graduate assistants do it.

Most students do get a decent dose of embedded controller and FPGA design, but so many other areas are neglected. Analog, RF, and wireless seem to have less labwork, and there is a real shortage of test and measurement knowledge. All of that gear is very expensive, but that is what students will encounter in industry. I’ve interviewed BSEE grads that could not find pin 1 on any IC, find the cathode on an LED, or measure the frequency of a signal on an oscilloscope. But, they could really use the computer and do high-end math.

The technology schools do a better job at more practical hands-on engineering—I mean engineering technology (ET) as opposed to engineering. Many schools offer a BSET that pretty much covers what is in a BSEE, but with a bit less math and science and more practical design courses. If you are looking for a new engineer that can hit the ground running in a lab, I recommend a recent BSET grad as your best bet.

Second, help retain students rather than weed them out. I see and hear this on a regular basis, especially for those who teach the early electronics courses. The goal seems to be eliminating students in the early circuit analysis courses if they don’t do well. Schools deliberately make the courses too hard to kill off a huge percentage of students who want to be EEs. The result is fewer engineering graduates.

I can’t help but feel that doing more to aid retention of current students will boost the number of graduates more than external recruiting efforts. Yes, I know that some of those students who are weeded out probably should be, but not all. Most just need a little more help or time. Again, this is either an attitude problem or bad teaching. Professors don’t want to give that extra time and feel that if the student can’t make it so be it. Goodbye and good riddance.

How many students who really want to be EEs would be saved with a little more help and a better attitude from professors? Note to professors: Your goal is not to weed out; it is to help students learn. Why not try to save the students instead of dismissing them? Or could it be that you are just carrying out some higher-level policy at the institutions to limit enrollment for lack of funds?

Next, there’s a mixed picture when it comes to textbooks. All of the major publishers were at the conference, of course. There are many textbooks available for most courses. And there are some smaller publishers now addressing some of the niche or more exotic areas that the larger publishers won’t touch.

The big publishers work from a business model that thrives on high volume for profit. With declining enrollments and more specialized subjects, that volume will never occur. Yet a good book is usually necessary for a course. Thankfully, the smaller publishers seem to be addressing all sorts of these low-volume needs.

I also saw that many basic texts have not been changed in years. Again, I know that the basics do not change, but they could be presented in a way more suitable for the current technology. And many still emphasize the wrong topics or omit newer technologies. For instance, many books still teach you 1001 ways to bias a bipolar transistor while the industry has moved on to predominantly MOSFET design by software. Many texts still seem to omit switch-mode power supplies when most of the electronics gear today is predominantly switch-mode.

Another observation is that no one from industry writes the texts. I wish they would, as we may get a more practical, real-world feel for engineering and design that is missing in the books written by faculty. Given that we could get industry authors, would the faculty adopt new books?

And when are we going to get textbooks by the chapter as publishers have been promising for years? A few will do this if the volume is good, but otherwise, no. Again, it is a money/profit thing. I bet many professors would love to cherry-pick a book and use only what they want and need.

Also, publishers should push on through and give us electronic books—whole and chapter by chapter. They would be cheaper for students, and faster and easier to update. Most students were brought up with the computer and don’t mind reading from a screen. It is what this generation does. Excellent e-book readers and lower prices show that it is time.

Furthermore, no one mentioned continuing education at this conference. It used to be a hot topic in industry and academia. Did we abandon it? Industry hates to support it because it costs dollars and time, but it would benefit from bringing engineers up to speed.

Continuing education is an often indirect and long-term benefit, but technical obsolescence is a certainty and comes on you faster than you perceive. All we need is for the institutions to offer more courses geared for continuing education purposes. Price them right and you will get some industry participation.

In talking to some engineers about continuing education, most say the same thing. If they need to know something, they just Google it, and voila, instant knowledge. There’s big-time truth in those comments, but you do not always get the depth you need. It’s no wonder continuing education faded away. That point of view, more than ever, highlights the need for colleges to teach their students how to learn.

Finally, schools need to quit teaching the history of electronics, update their programs, curricula, and courses, and get more industry input. Meanwhile, industry should get more involved. So many of you in industry are afraid of academia. But in most cases, you know more than they do. They assume the ivory tower position, but only you industry people know what is really needed today.

Additionally, the accrediting bodies should give more credence to real industry experience over academic credentials. Even people with PhDs don’t know it all or even what’s best. Neither does a degree ensure that a person is a good teacher. That PhD grad is mostly academic, with a very narrow focus on some research topic that is not applied. It is the applied part that is missing in engineering, which by definition is truly an applied discipline. I’d rather have a student taught by a smart MSEE with industry experience than a PhD with little or no real experience.

Try to remember that not all EEs are alike. There is more than one type or level of engineering. Those who do go on for graduate work and the PhD need somewhat different courses to support research and greater subject depth than those who just want to do product engineering, test engineering, or manufacturing. A one-size curriculum does not always fit every job out there. Adjust accordingly.

Okay, so I have been critical, but it is needed. I can defend my opinions, as I have been a professor and have seen how it is. And I still teach as an adjunct professor every now and then. But that said, I do think that despite their faults, American institutions and faculty are still the best in the world. They could improve their efforts, however, at staying in tune with the industry they serve.

We need a strong educational system to keep this country in the forefront of technology. The institutions need to be less self-involved and more outward-oriented. They say all the right things in altruistic verbiage but often do not practice it. Instead they focus on tenure, benefits, grants, political maneuvering, and other internal, self-serving efforts to the detriment of the student. Just prove me wrong.

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