Category Archives: Engineering and Society

Future of Engineering Education

How engineer’s are educated in an increasingly complex world is of great importance to developing nations. STEM participation rates are also dropping which will have a big impact on their future competitiveness. Education budgets are under pressure as funds are being directed towards supporting an aging population. At MIT’s Sociotechnical Systems Research Center (SSRC) Professor Daniel Hastings, the Cecil and Ida Green Education Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Engineering Systems at MIT, recently presented Beyond The Engineer of 2020 giving his views on the past, present, and future directions of engineering education in the US which is largely applicable to all developed countries.

Specialism vs Systems Holistic Thinking

The biggest challenge for educating future engineers in a world with rapidly expanding knowledge, complexity, and uncertainty is balancing the tendency to focus in narrower specialty engineering disciplines while still maintaining the a practical understanding of the ‘big picture’ system in a real world context – the “T” shaped person. Industry requires “T” shaped engineers to sustain competitive advantage.  In support of this trend Hastings’ described that the attributes of future engineers should include:

  • Strong analytical skills
  • Practical ingenuity and creativity
  • Good communication skills
  • Business management and leadership skills
  • High ethical standards, professionalism
  • Dynamic, agile, resilient, flexible
  • Lifelong learner
  • Able to put problems in their socio-technical and operational context

Engineering programs are constrained in time, cost, and faculty experience so fully developing a “T” shaped engineer has and will continue to be challenging in a four-year degree without fundamental change. Hastings provides several examples of how change is being implemented at several US universities.  Hastings also described recent recommendations to: introduce engineering students to the iterative design-build-test paradigm earlier in the program (think Lean Startup); hire more industry experienced faculty; and professionally develop existing faculty.

Hastings’ diagram of skills-attitudes-knowledge capture very well how modern engineering education has moved away from skills based practical application to knowledge or science based emphasis degrading most new entry engineer’s practical skills. The trend towards more research oriented universities has supported this trend and expanded the gap between engineering university programs and technical college programs who are much better prepared to enter the work force and be productive from day one.

New Learning Tools

The broad use of digital and mobile technologies has made the mankind’s collective knowledge available to everyone with an internet connection levelling the world’s playing field. The importance of on-line learning as an enabler of change is beginning to make impact.

Less structured and decentralized learning methods were recently explored by Joshua Davis in Wired magazine.  Davis observed that traditional school emphasis on reading, writing, and arithmetic was not preparing students for modern work that place high importance on developing teamwork, problem-solving, and interpersonal skills. Davis also observed that new teaching methods are oriented towards knowledge building from curiosity-fuelled exploration.

Hastings looked at the impact of on-line learning tools on engineering education in terms of rethinking the pedagogy of engineering education, opportunity to share knowledge world-wide, and opportunity to change the cost of engineering program delivery. Hastings observed that on-line education enables alternate pathways for student learning, modular learning packages that does not necessarily fit the semester structure, and increased interaction. He also talks about the seamless integration of learning from under grads to alums, blended education, and demand pull learning.

The importance of reading, writing, and arithmetic will never decline because cases of poor writing skills are well-known in most industries. The key challenge is how to efficiently and effectively develop a broader set of skills in the time and budget available and certainly on-line learning is clearly making this possible.

Gender Demographics Remains a Challenge

Finally, the continued  under representation of women in engineering remains a challenge. Hastings presents some interesting historical trend data (slides 48, 49, 55) suggesting the best ways to improve participation rates are: role models; summer programs; research experiences; professional development activities; academic support & social integration; and mentoring.

Budget pressure on education, global competition, and falling STEM participation rates suggests that engineering education is at a tipping point requiring faculty leadership to chart a radical new course for change based on new approaches, greater interdisciplinary collaboration, far greater industry collaboration, and balanced gender participation if new engineering graduates are to be properly prepared for an increasingly complex world.

Millennials View On Innovation

Deloitte recently conducted a survey of millennials (born 1982 or later) and their views on innovation. The survey was conducted in 18 countries including developed, BRIC, and developing countries with a sample population of 4982 people.

The study is interesting as it illustrates how the next generation of leadership differs from the current with respect to innovation, how local societal challenges are seen as drivers for innovation, how governments in some countries are holding back (or unable to fully establish conditions for) positive change, and the millennials view of value of competition in solving social challenges.

Global Millennial View

With respect to innovation the key views of global millennials are:

  • 78% of millennials believe innovation is essential for business growth;
  • 71% view innovations from business directly help to improve society;
  • Innovation is seen as one of the top three purposes of business along with improving society and generating profits;
  • Top six challenges facing society: resource scarcity (#1); inflation (#2); ageing populations (#3); unemployment (#4); social unrest (#5); and climate change (#6);
  • Top four business performance measures beyond financial terms were: employee satisfaction and retention (#1); customer/client satisfaction (#2); contribution to local communities (#3); and innovation (#4);
  • Sectors most in need of innovation were: government (#1); energy & resources (#2); and consumer business (#3);
  • Tomorrow’s innovators will be characterized by: creativity & design (#1); academic/intellectual ability (#2); ability to challenge technical skills (#3); being entrepreneurial (#4); and knowledge of specific ideas and techniques (#5);
  • 66% say innovation key to making the firm an employer of choice with 60% saying they work for an innovative employer;
  • 95% view it to be acceptable to make a profit that benefits society.

Gap in Creating Conditions Fostering Innovation

The largest gaps in the conditions seen as most important to foster innovation as viewed by the global millennials are in order of the gap size (# of most important condition):

  • Encourage & reward idea generation & creativity (tied #4);
  • Provide employees with ‘free time’ that they can dedicate to learning (tied #6);
  • Leadership encourages idea sharing regardless of seniority (#1);
  • Promote openness and the freedom to challenge (#7);
  • Commitment to successfully advancing innovative ideas (tied #4);
  • Strong inspirational leadership (tied #6);
  • Clear vision for the future (#2);
  • Encourage both formal & informal learning (tied #5);
  • Commitment to continual development/improvement internal processes (#3);
  • Commitment to continual development/improvement of products & services (tied #5).

These observations suggest that there is a gap between the priorities of current business leaders and the next generation beyond the typical focus of most business innovation on process and product improvement. Millennials see that their ideas are not being heard and they are not being given the opportunity to develop their own ideas to drive social good. This was also reflected in the views that it was easier to be innovative if you work by yourself than a large business and new businesses are seen as more innovative.

Barriers To Innovation

The top barriers to innovation viewed by global millennials are:

  • Lack of Money / investment / financial pressure (22%);
  • Internal culture / attitudes / stuck in ways / inertia (20%);
  • External economy, government etc bureaucracy / organizational (12%);
  • Poor leadership / management / lack of vision (10%);
  • Skill shortages no incentives / low pay (8%);
  • Poor working practices / lack of teamwork (8%);
  • Time / general pressure (5%);
  • Lack of creativity (2%).

Global millennials commented on the internal barriers, bureaucracy, ‘old school’ attitudes, as well as cultural restrictions on thinking that was holding back firms from innovating.

Solving Societies Top Challenges

The key take away from the survey suggests that global millennials see business as a force for social good, innovation as important to solving the world’s biggest societal challenges but still aligned with profit motive.

Necessity as the mother of invention was clear in the data from BRIC and developing countries. The degree of urgency behind the need for social good was illustrated with a very striking tendency for BRIC or developing countries such as South Africa to see innovation as very urgent whereas developed countries to be below the average on many measures.

The views of the top challenges facing society was also very different depending on the country with inflation being a big concern in Asia and US, ageing population in Japan/China, unemployment in Europe, and social unrest in Germany/Russia. This suggests in a globalized world that the perceived societal needs are very local/regional which has big implications on global and export firm market entry strategy looking to expand into BRIC or developing markets.

Finally global millennials view collaboration as important and business competition as actually hindering the environment for solving the biggest societal challenges.  The collaboration of businesses with one another was seen as the most likely method to succeed in solving societal challenges with collaboration with government, NGO, and universities as less successful but still better than direct business competition.

Engineering for Growth – Royal Academy of Engineering

The Royal Academy of Engineering has launched a campaign to show the value of engineering to the UK economy and society called Engineering For Growth.

The roles that engineering plays in all facets of our lives is often hidden behind product marketing and the media.  The results of engineering are often taken for granted.  The Royal Academy of Engineering summary does a wonderful job highlighting engineering contributions.

With economic growth slow in most developed countries the need for leveraging engineering talent is never more critical.