In the mid-1980s, my parents bought a book by Robert Fulghum titled “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” That was after it had gone viral (became a bestseller) by making it to the top of Reddit (The New York Times’ best-seller list) by generating millions of views (copies sold). After finishing that book, my parents asked me to justify the extra 21 years of post-kindergarten schooling I had just completed. I don’t think I gave them a satisfactory answer, which has kept me thinking about the value of an education ever since.
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If written today, Fulghum’s book could be titled “All I Really Need to Know is on Wikipedia or Searchable through Google.” But even though vast amounts of information are now instantly available, is that really enough to prepare one for life’s journey, particularly if that journey involves engineering? Students (and hiring managers) often ask, “What is important in an engineering education: skills or domain knowledge, experience or critical thinking abilities, and what does a lifetime of learning mean?”
Engineers as Problem Solvers
Before you can address the question of what elements of an engineering education are most important, you first need to speak about the value engineers bring to organizations. Many organizations take a narrow view when defining the engineering profession, focusing primarily on specialized technical areas usually aligned with R&D projects.
Engineers can and do impact organizations more broadly and in different capacities than is suggested by such a definition. Fundamentally, engineers are problem solvers. This is what makes engineering a great profession to enter and why it can provide a lifetime of career satisfaction. Despite what you may read about off-shoring, compensation issues, or long hours, all of which are part of today’s reality, the world will likely have more problems to solve than resources and people to solve them. Engineers with the right training and an innovative mindset can always find a place on an impactful problem-solving team.
Develop a Breadth of World-Class Skills
When it comes time to hire new engineers into our team, the first thing I look for is a breadth of learning and good problem-solving skills. While depth of knowledge in a particular domain can help an engineer in a particular role or project, engineers benefit from being able to work across domains. As those of us with years of experience in technology know, technology inflections rapidly shift what is considered “highly valued” experience.
My conviction about the importance of educational breadth stems in part from my experiences. I’ve been fortunate to have had broad exposure to a number of different markets and industries. This gave me the opportunity to see innovation and problem-solving in companies ranging from a three-person startup to Fortune 200 enterprises.
When armed with a broad base of skills, an engineer can quickly move to new projects and industries or pursue new challenges. It is easier for us in industry to teach specialized domain knowledge to skilled engineers as opposed to trying to teach domain experts how to analyze problems, apply logic, or communicate with others once on the job.
With this perspective, it becomes easier to have a discussion on the key elements of an engineering education. Many people ask me “What discipline should I study?” or “Which software language should I master?” These choices matter and should be aligned with one’s interests. My answer, however, emphasizes developing world-class skills. This is especially true in terms of problem-solving, which means a strong foundation in key problem-solving disciplines—math, the physical sciences, engineering basics, and communication. If you become known as exceptional in these skills, you will find a place in most organizations in various roles. You’ll also likely enjoy what you are doing every day and have a positive impact on your surrounding environment.
As part of developing a breadth of skills, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is for students to gain hands-on experience that allows them to apply book knowledge by solving real problems. A big part of engineering life is the ability to communicate effectively and work in teams to solve large issues. That’s why it is so important for those of us in industry to partner with educational institutions to provide greater opportunities for students to work on solving real-world problems.
Summing It All Up
Reflecting on my passion for education and my personal work experiences helps me frame what I believe are critical criteria in a 21st-century engineering education:
• Problem-solving skills
• A hands-on project orientation beginning in the first year
• A systems-engineering perspective that helps students understand real-world constraints such as cost or manufacturing capability
• Integration across courses and across disciplines
• Management of teams and projects, and learning how to innovate
• Design-at-a-distance projects, meaning how to work with teams across the U.S. or around the world
• The ability to quickly expand into non-traditional disciplines (biology, chemistry, etc.)
• Adaptability to change and instilling a lifelong passion for learning. Problem-solving skills!
• Problem-solving skills (Did I mention this one?)
I’ll add one more point that, although true historically, gains in importance as the educational process evolves. With new approaches such as Massively Open On-Line Courses (MOOCs) and a growing emphasis on a self-directed lifetime of learning while in the job environment, it’s critical to be able to validate personal career and learning decisions. One way to balance the remote and self-directed is to identify a mentor; someone who is willing to answer questions and provide unvarnished advice. I’ve had multiple mentors throughout my career and they have invariably saved me from making wrong turns I would have otherwise regretted.
We used to think that the human brain loses the ability to form new synapses as we age, but we now know that’s not true. Instead, it turns out that only thing holding us back is our attitude. If you want career satisfaction as an engineer, breadth of skills and a passion for lifelong learning are the approaches that will help ensure you achieve it. Also, having a mentor—and eventually becoming one yourself—will greatly facilitate achieving these objectives and challenge you to push your limits.
So, whether you are a first-year engineering student or a 30-year veteran, think about what you can do this week to learn something new. Then, go solve a problem in some new innovative way.