Education has a key role to play in the furtherance of sensor technology, according to speakers at a Sensors Expo & Conference panel on the topic. Panel organizer and industry consultant Roger Grace said, “If this industry is continue in prominence and importance, we need to have well educated people coming in to fuel the design engineer roles needed to create sensors and sensor based systems.”
Nadine Aubry, Dean, College of Engineering, Northeastern University, delivered the session’s keynote address. She commented on drivers of change, noting that knowledge access and transmission is cheaper and easier than ever. Nevertheless, a skills gap exists between knowledge and competency, with the skills of graduates not meeting what industry needs. This situation is true for all majors, she said, but particularly in engineering.
Aubry noted that employers once hired employees for life, but they are now hiring employees to complete a specific task. That task might be better served by an employee with a certificate in a narrow field of 21st century expertise rather than a B.S. or M.S. degree.
Universities, she said, will have no monopoly on education going forward. With technology advances, it’s no longer enough to consider the educational environment to be a limited number of students having access to a professor in a classroom or lab. The U.S., producing only 3% of the world’s science and engineering graduates, vs. 37% for China, will need to leverage educational technology.
Aubry commented, “There is no way we can come up with fancy technology without graduates able and capable and who can look beyond the technology itself.” Those graduates, she said, will need to put technical competence in context with other skills, including entrepreneurship, interdisciplinary knowledge, global leadership, and business savvy.
As an example of how to build technical competence in context, Aubry cited Northeastern’s co-op program, with students alternating periods in the classroom and in industry. She added that 100 years ago, the program supported students and industry in the Northeastern United States, but it now extends worldwide.
Panelists ranged from an industry CEO to an engineering undergraduate. There were many points of agreement, and the following points stood out:
- Short product life cycles eliminate the time that would be needed for on-the-job training.
- Employees need the ability to communicate effectively with a technical and nontechnical audience—including management—and communication is one of the most overlooked aspects of engineering.
- Education doesn’t end at the university, and fundamentals are basic, but not sufficient.
- Employers look not just for skillsets but also drive—which might be evidenced via a project to optimize your home or vehicle.
- Employees should be self-motivated but realize they can’t do everything alone—you are not the best in every field.
- Employees should share ideas and inspire others, keeping in mind that engineering has a strong sales function—you need to sell your ideas to your manager or a venture capitalist.
- Engineering is increasingly multidisciplinary—consider bioengineering, for example.
- Mentorship is critical for students.