The Engineer of 2020 –
Preparing Students for the Fast Lane of Advancing Technology

Published: May 31, 2015

Interview with Line van Nieuwstadt, Associate Professor of Engineering Practice at UM-Dearborn’s CECS

The year 2020 is only five years away, but in this short window of time, monumental technological developments are expected to materialize. In the news, you can already see the future unfolding with self-driving cars, genetically-engineered food crops, and body organs grown from stem cells, just to name a few examples.

Technology is growing at a phenomenal rate and transforming so many aspects of everyday life. Consider the smart phone. The technology that sits inside this handheld device has more computing power than NASA used to send two astronauts to the moon!

The brainstorm behind so many of today’s modern innovations stems from the creative ingenuity of engineers, who are the mindset of the future and are setting the course for tomorrow’s technology.

To ensure that the next generation of engineers is positioned to adapt to new trends in technology and contribute to its ongoing evolution; universities are putting their curricula under the microscope. They are analyzing program offerings in order to answer the following questions:

  • What skills will be essential for the next generation of engineers?
  • How can tomorrow’s engineers be better prepared for the future?
  • How can we reduce time for graduating engineers to become productive in an industrial setting?

In 2001, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) launched an initiative to envision the future and predict the roles that engineers will play in the 21st century. Their findings were documented in the book, “The Engineer of 2020: Visions of Engineering in the New Century.” The release of this report triggered many universities to review their own curricula and take steps to improve their engineering education programs.

The University of Michigan- Dearborn’s (UM-Dearborn) College of Engineering and Computer Science (CECS) is one higher-learning institution that is continually assessing, exploring, and evolving its engineering curriculum. For more than half a century, CECS has offered opportunities for students to gain experience in engineering while completing their education including incorporating senior design or capstone into their curriculum, encouraging students to participate in cooperative education, and in the last few decades, student led teams such as Formula SAE.

Line van Nieuwstadt, Associate Professor of Engineering Practice at UM-Dearborn’s CECS, is currently conducting research to determine the best methodology for teaching engineers. For the past several months, she has been meeting with professors teaching first-year classes and senior-level classes to gain a better understanding of the state of the curriculum so she can assess what CECS is doing well and what can be improved. The cooperative education program is one such area. CECS utilizes this program as a primary avenue for its students to gain hands-on experience in the real world, yet this program will be strengthened as a result of this evaluation process.

Grand Challenges Facing Next Generation Engineers

Van Nieuwstadt said there are many engineering challenges in the world, and the next generation of engineers will be facing a lot of very important issues with a far-reaching impact.

So what kinds of issues will the engineers of 2020 encounter? According to the National Academy of Engineering, grand challenges for the engineers of the future will include:

  • Making solar energy economical
  • Providing energy from fusion
  • Developing carbon sequestration methods
  • Managing the nitrogen cycle
  • Providing access to clean water
  • Restoring and improving urban infrastructure
  • Advancing health informatics
  • Engineering better medicines
  • Reverse-engineering the brain
  • Preventing nuclear terror
  • Securing cyberspace
  • Enhancing virtual reality
  • Advancing personalized learning
  • Engineering the tools of scientific discovery

Bridging the Gap between the Classroom and the Real World

One of the greatest difficulties facing young engineers is the gap that exists between principles learned in the classroom and experiences that can only be gained through exposure to real-world applications.

Freshmen, now enrolled in university programs around the globe, will be the engineers of 2020, and the dynamics of the classroom have changed a lot over the past 20 years.

As the undergraduate population continues to grow, the intimacies of a small classroom setting are disappearing. Lecture halls have become extremely large. In fact, it’s not uncommon for professors to be lecturing to class sizes of 120+ students.

“In a classroom with a ratio of say 1-to-8, you can find out your students’ strengths and weaknesses and you can guide them,” van Nieuwstadt said. “1-to-120 is a challenge.”

When van Nieuwstadt was an engineering student back in the '80s, she had access to a lot of seasoned engineers and she could ask them questions. “I could find out why they decided to take a certain route on a design. I could ask how they determined which design was the least risky. I learned by understanding other’s trials and errors,” van Nieuwstadt continued. “This is what is difficult to teach.”

The gap between theory learned in the lecture hall and the real-world is getting even bigger when you factor in the exponential growth of technology. “The gap is getting so big for some students … some just see a Grand Canyon,” van Nieuwstadt said.

Making the Jump to Current Technology

To help students make the jump from the classroom to current technology, they need exposure to real-world industry.

“To prepare engineering students to become practicing engineers, first you have to teach them the fundamental principles. Then you have to help them make the jump to current technology,” van Nieuwstadt said. “It’s as if technology is sitting on the 150th floor, but you have to start your students on the first floor.”
To help students get to the top of the technology elevator, van Nieuwstadt said engineering students need to have the proper tools in their tool box before graduating, and this should include experiences that integrate learned engineering principles with technology. She said students need:
  1. Exposure to real-world problems facing industry,
  2. Opportunities to try and solve some of these problems via internships or corporate partnerships; and,
  3. Hands-on experience in using the same tools as industry (e.g. sponsorships, mentoring).
Van Nieuwstadt said extracurricular activities such as Formula SAE and the Intelligent Systems Club, which recently claimed the top two prizes in the Institute of Navigation (ION) Autonomous Snow Plow Competition (read Five ways technology can help us cope with blizzards) are great ways for engineering schools to bridge the gap between lecture halls and the professional world. Through these collegiate competitions, students are designing advanced vehicles and gaining exposure to problem solving through vehicle design, development and testing processes, including the simulating and testing of hardware and software.
“The students want to have fun and they want to win these competitions, but it also infuses strong design process disciplines,” van Nieuwstadt said. “These kinds of activities are also beneficial in guiding faculty on how to mentor students.”
Van Nieuwstadt encourages companies to offer internships and give students a chance to help solve current problems they are facing. She said students may only be able to contribute slightly to solving a problem, but it’s an economical option that can result in new, worthwhile ideas.

Sponsorships and/or the donation of equipment are also encouraged. This gives students the chance to gain real-world experience using the same tools as industry, and companies benefit because the students they help often end up as future customers or even future employees.

Return on Investment … More than Money

In addition to integrating engineering principles with technology, van Nieuwstadt believes it is also important to get students to think about the concept of return on investment (ROI) … and she isn’t just referring to profit.

She emphasizes to her students that they need to think about the effects that a product will have from conception-to-completion. If an engineer was tasked to build a new kind of solar panel, for example, van Nieuwstadt said the engineer should consider these kinds of questions: 
  • What will be the ROI be in terms of energy units?
  • What will make the solar panel economical?
  • What will happen if the panel breaks?
  • What if the product contains toxic materials? How will the waste be cleaned up?
  • How much energy will it take to make that solar panel in terms of water, waste, lights, machines, packaging, chemicals, etc.?
  • Once the solar panel is placed on a roof, how much energy will it actually collect? Will that be enough to make up for the energy that it took to manufacture the solar panel?

“A lot of people don’t necessarily think about the cradle-to-grave development of products,” van Nieuwstadt said. “Our future engineers need to push the envelope of what they can do to keep the Earth sustainable. I’m trying to make this type of connection in the curriculum.”


Beyond Graduation

The need for continual education is paramount for engineers. As technology continues to evolve, engineers need to keep up with current trends and methodologies.
“Once students leave the university gates, they have to learn continuously,” van Nieuwstadt said.
Reading technical articles, attending conferences, seminars and webinars, and doing research online are activities that need to continue throughout one’s career.


Line van Nieuwstadt

Associate Professor of Engineering Practice
UM - Dearborn

The engineer of 2020 and beyond will have to navigate through a world that is rapidly changing. To better prepare students, universities need to continually adapt their engineering curriculums to provide a well-rounded education that includes exposure to real-world applications and access to new tools that will enable the exploration of new ideas. 

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