Education for Next-Gen Engineers

Years of outreach focused on science, technology, engineering and math have more young people thinking about college majors in STEM fields.

JamieIn our coverage to close out 2016 and ring in the New Year, we focused on next-gen engineering technologies available now in the December issue and in two webcasts. Breakthroughs in augmented reality, artificial intelligence, simulation, optimization, 3D printing and high-performance computing are already capable of transforming the design engineer’s workflow. But we left out one important factor in our look toward the future: the next generation of design engineers.

After all, the latest innovations in software and hardware don’t mean much unless someone is using them. As more and more of the engineers who ushered in the age of computer-aided design and manufacturing turn their attention to the latest golf and fishing technologies they want to implement during retirement, the younger generation is facing massive technological disruption—both in the engineering tools they use and in the markets they will serve.

The word is out that engineers are in demand. Years of outreach focused on science, technology, engineering and math have more young people thinking about college majors in STEM fields.

“U.S. colleges and universities conferred 83,263 bachelor’s degrees in engineering in 2012—a 37% increase over the 60,605 degrees conferred in 2002,” according to the National Science Foundation. “The top four engineering subfields in 2012, in terms of the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded, were mechanical, electrical, civil and chemical engineering.”

But what were those undergraduates taught? Did they learn the theory and physics behind simulation? How to make use of the latest software to design for optimization or additive manufacturing? How to train software to build artificial intelligence into the products they design? All of the above? Technology is moving so quickly that it’s difficult for colleges and universities to keep up.

Practical vs. Theoretical Education

Designing robotic-driven factories, autonomous vehicles and smart, connected products may seem like a distant goal to the college freshman in his/her Probability Theory course, but an understanding of the math and physics behind simulation is essential to effectively using modern engineering tools. On the other hand, companies want to hire students who can hit the ground running with any number of simulation and design applications and specialized pieces of hardware.

Thankfully, engineering schools, engineering hardware and software vendors, and businesses hoping to hire proficient graduates all realize a solid foundation is critical, but there is more to engineering than understanding theory. Internships and student competitions have become part of the curriculum to provide the hands-on experience that equations can’t.

At DE, we’ve made a New Year’s resolution to cover these practical programs and explore the debate surrounding how best to attract and prepare students for engineering careers. In each issue this year, we’ll profile a new student engineering challenge—from designing race cars to submarines to planes and more—starting with this month’s coverage of the World Solar Challenge.

Training and Experience

Ultimately, a multi-pronged approach will be required for engineering departments to keep pace with technological and market disruptions. Companies not only need to hire the best and brightest next generation of engineers, but invest in continuous training for their employees.

To make sure all of that education, training and on-the-job experience isn’t lost, engineering departments should have a formal knowledge capture and retention process. Such a process may involve specialized software or be integrated into a company’s product lifecycle management approach. More importantly, employees have to use it. Too often, knowledge gained by experience is hoarded and lost as engineers retire or move on to other positions. It’s used as a form of job security, rather than a company resource. To get beyond that, managers have to institute a culture of job stability and incentives that reward sharing, contributing to the company’s knowledge base and mentoring incoming members of the engineering team.

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About the Author

Jamie Gooch's avatar
Jamie Gooch

Jamie Gooch is the former editorial director of Digital Engineering.

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