It’s the talk of the classroom, corporate boardroom, factory, and faculty lounge: the shortage of qualified engineers. In the United States, engineering programs experience a 50 percent attrition rate, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. Elsewhere, the problem is not numbers, but quality. The head of India’s National Association of Software and Services Companies, for instance, says only 25 to 30 percent of his country’s engineering and science graduates are “suitable” for careers in their chosen fields.
As a former public school teacher who now leads worldwide education programs for Autodesk, I share this concern. My company, a global, multi-billion-dollar design software firm, has a stake in solving the problem for a simple reason: Future engineers will be our customers.
So far, efforts by organizations and within disciplines haven’t succeeded in overcoming the shortage. Should everyone just keep toiling away like Sisyphus, repeatedly pushing his boulder uphill? I believe the answer is no. There are other and better ways to get the boulder to the top of the mountain.
Success requires, first, understanding what kind of engineers are needed in today’s world. They are not simply those skilled in setting up formulas and completing complex calculations. Engineering work demands investigation, analysis, and response to changing and conflicting priorities. Engineers seek multiple, creative solutions to open-ended problems.
Some industry professionals call this “designerly” thinking. Engineering instructors are beginning to introduce techniques that use this approach, such as Building Information Modeling (BIM) in architecture and engineering, and Digital Prototyping in mechanical engineering. These techniques depend on visualizing and analyzing the aesthetic and functional aspects of an idea; refining it; and then gauging how changes will affect form and function. The aim is to find the best answer—not the only answer.
To keep more students in engineering, we need to take our cue from designerly thinking. The design process is an integrative one. It incorporates tangible materials and intangible ideas. It offers many points of entry to a problem. What’s more, designerly thinking is an approach in which educators, institutions, industries, and policymakers can participate, no matter where we are.
At the Colorado School of Mines, an instructor has built a curriculum around this approach. He is Associate Professor David Muñoz, who was part of a team that developed the Humanitarian Engineering (HE) program with help from a Hewlett Foundation grant. A mechanical engineer by training, Muñoz isn’t bound by civil engineering conventions in education, and neither are his students. Muñoz’s undergraduates are designing and building a water distribution system for a rural Honduran community. They’re working with social anthropologists to understand the project’s cultural impact and to collaborate effectively with the community. And they’re coordinating logistics with non-governmental organizations to transport donated materials to the site.
Launched in 2004, the HE program charts a retention rate of 100 percent. Other universities are taking notice.
I believe the solution to our retention conundrum requires more than just helping kids who are flunking calculus. It means attracting more students—even in early grades—to design and engineering majors, and then keeping them engaged until their education is complete.
I’m trying to practice this designerly thinking in my post at Autodesk: We are partnering closely with ASEE. We’re collaborating with universities to help them make the most of their software to enhance instruction. We launched a Web community for students and instructors to work together.
But this is a work in progress. What do you think? How can educators, professionals and others around the world join to attract and retain the engineers of the future? Send an email to email@example.com.
Paul Mailhot is senior director of the Worldwide Education Program at Autodesk, which works with educators, faculty and administrators in the Americas, the Asia-Pacific region, Europe, the Middle East and Africa.