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by Andy Lau

It Takes an Engineer

Experience in practice matters more than a Ph.D. in teaching undergraduates.

STUDENTS BENEFIT WHEN THEIR INSTRUCTORS HAVE FIRST-HAND KNOWLEDGE AND UNDER-STANDING OF WHAT MATTERS IN THE WORKPLACE.If you want to prepare undergraduates to practice engineering, then most engineering faculty should have significant experience as practicing engineers. As obvious as this sounds, it is seldom the case.

During the past century, and particularly after World War II, undergraduate engineering education changed from a practical, applied, and experiential discipline to a mathematical, scientific, and theoretical one. The faculty, too, went from being professionals and practitioners to academics with Ph.D.’s but little or no experience as practicing professionals. Just look at the Prism classifieds for what universities are seeking in their faculty hires: research funding and a Ph.D.

I confess that like old-school faculty, I have only a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. I do, however, have substantial experience as an engineer and have been a professional engineer (P.E.) for 26 years. I worked in engineering for five years between my B.S. and M.S. and have served as an engineering consultant for 25 years, including 10 years in a green building consulting partnership. I’ve been at Penn State for 26 years, having started in engineering technology when experience was valued more than a doctorate.

In fairness to my colleagues, many of them are good teachers, and some worked as engineers prior to grad school. Some also do research for industry. I don’t deny that this is engineering too, but the work one does as a Ph.D. engineer is different from the engineering done by the majority of engineers without advanced degrees.

Undergraduates benefit from engineering faculty members who are good teachers and who have a first-hand knowledge and understanding of what matters in the workplace. Many learners need context that makes sense and is representative of what they will be doing as engineers. In its 2010 study, "Enabling Engineering Student Success," the Center for the Advancement of Engineering Education reported on a survey of students who had some co-op or internship experiences during their education. It found that “40 percent of seniors didn’t see school experiences as contributing to their knowledge of engineering practice.”

A further benefit of having experienced practitioners as instructors is that we may attract or retain a lot of students who would make great engineers but are turned off by an emphasis on theory and science.

Not long ago ago, Richard Felder, the Hoechst Celanese Professor Emeritus of Chemical Engineering at North Carolina State University and a well-known scholar of engineering education, spoke at Penn State about how we can really improve undergraduate engineering education. Felder, too, calls for a more professionally diverse faculty. Yes, we need researchers to teach graduate students and do cutting-edge research. That is one thing we do well, and it is the predominant model for engineering faculty.

But Felder went on to say we also need other types of faculty. One cohort would be those with significant experience as practicing engineers, maybe as signified by a P.E. license and an exemplary portfolio of accomplishments. We also need faculty whose interest, skills, and scholarship are in teaching and learning.

There is no educational reason to require a Ph.D. of all faculty; it may even detract from the relevance of the education that universities seek to provide. If we want to demonstrate that we really do care about the quality of undergraduate engineering, we need to change the type of faculty we hire and nurture.


Andy Lau is an associate professor of engineering at Penn State, where he is also coordinator of first-year seminars for the College of Engineering and the first-year engineering design program.




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