Published: May 31, 2015
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:
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.
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:
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.
To help students make the jump from the classroom to current technology, they need exposure to real-world industry.
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.
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.
“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.”
Line van Nieuwstadt
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.