While politicians and economists wrangle over solutions
to the perceived problem, engineering educators wrangle over how to
respond. The debate over this complex issue boils down to some simple
choices. Namely, should U.S. engineering education continue to provide
the basic science foundation for its students that encourages innovationwhatever
that might beor should engineering schools tweak their curriculum
to provide their students the necessary nonscience skills to compete
in the global economy?
We have a tendency to overreact to the immediate
crisis, says Nino Masnari, dean of the College of Engineering
at North Carolina State University, and a professor of electrical
and computer engineering. We have to continue to give our students
the best scientific education. But we must always re-evaluate what
an engineering education is all about. It boils down to the question
of whether we are adding enough value to our students so the American
companies will see that value and hire our students. Adding that value
is key to re-evaluating our programs.
The situation facing engineering educators is how to
view the outsourcing problem. On the one hand, a variety of factorsthe
economic slowdown, vastly improved communication, routine IT work
becoming commoditized have led to the outsourcing boom. On the
other hand, many engineering educators feel universities need to better
emphasize the skills used in the new global economyteamwork,
systems over specific knowledge, and marketing.
When I talk to CEOs from industry, they say they
will observe young engineers that reach a career plateau relatively
early, usually within about five years, says Richard Miller,
president of the Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Massachusetts.
It is not because they are deficient in some technical way.
Instead, it is because they have problems in relationships with people.
They may be working on a team where they have to deal with marketing
and manufacturing people. They will be dealing more and more with
the business office or a client.
The people skills needed to work overseas are
more important than ever before, Miller continues. Our
graduates have to learn to be willing to accommodate and not offend.
That's hard enough to do when you're sitting across the
desk from someone. It's even harder to do when your contact is
primarily by phone or e-mail.
Miller suggests that American engineering schools must
play to the strengths of our system in the new global economy. American
engineers, he says, lead the world in two fundamental ways: innovation
and the ability to recognize and improve systems. While India may
be good at writing specific computer code, Germany excels at precision,
and Japan at continuous improvement, American engineers excel at creativity,
Miller says. About the time we begin to lose jobs overseas,
we change the game, and it makes the argument irrelevant, Miller
says. The business of being creative is fundamental to our long-term
economic health. This creativity needs to be nurtured, needs to be
emphasized, needs to be measured.
The cultural and ethnic diversity foster this
creativity, Miller continues. This diversity is not replicated
anywhere else around the globe. A diverse group of people has a better
chance of recognizing opportunities. We need to encourage diversity,
from within our own country, to having students from other countries
study here. That flow of incredible talent really enhances the rate
at which we innovate.
It is clear the globalization trend is affecting the
job market for engineers in several ways. The first is that graduates
with specific, individual skills will more than likely find that their
jobs can be done as well and cheaper in emerging labor markets. For
example, a student whose expertise is to provide improved ways to
apply paint coats to an automobile may find that an engineer in Russia
can provide the same service at one-third the cost. The second trend
is that the traditional job promotion track, where an engineering
graduate may spend his entire career with one company, is a thing
of the past.
John Anderson, dean of engineering at Carnegie-Mellon
University in Pittsburgh, says these trends make it necessary to change
some of the ways that engineering is taught. In September 2003, Carnegie-Mellon
convened a panel discussion of industry leaders and educators to discuss
what specific recommendations might help students in the global economy.
The conclusions were that students must be more multidisciplinary
in their skills, and that working in partnerships within teams was
a skill that most American companies prized.
We're still ahead of the world in innovation,
Anderson says. And U.S. students still integrate science and
engineering into systems better than anyone else. But we can do a
better job in bringing a global awareness through business and humanities
courses. The constraint is that we still have to provide a good, solid
Anderson suggests the general education requirements
be changed to reflect the global marketplace. For example, some schools
might require a course in economics but do not allow a business or
marketing course to fulfill the requirement. Anderson also thinks
studying abroad for a semester or two should be encouraged. In addition,
partnerships with foreign universities, where students collaborate
in teams via the Internet (Carnegie-Mellon has such a program with
Technical University at Delft in The Netherlands), should be implemented.
Students need to have an appreciation of markets,
what customers of technology really need, Anderson says. Increasingly,
for U.S. companies, those customers and markets are in foreign countries.
When we are talking about creating new technologies, we cannot only
think in terms of the U.S. market.
North Carolina State's Masnari agrees that changes
should be made in general education requirements to better meet the
needs of students. In the past, accreditation of an engineering
program has been a bean-counting exercise, he says. With
the new global marketplace, we need to have the flexibility to use
the general education requirement to better serve the students. We
should be able to better define what our programs offer. The onus
should be on the institution to do this.
Masnari also believes that teamwork is essential in
the global economy, and that engineering schools can do a better job
of teaching that skill. We used to be very compartmentalized,
everyone had their specific niche, he says. You basically
worked within your own discipline. Today, the trend is toward larger
and more complex projects. It is critical that students learn the
skills of working within teams.
The U.S. Department of Commerce, in a report released
in June 2003, suggests that many companies want computer science and
IT workers to have a better understanding of the business side of
the business. Employers, according to the report, are stepping up
their recruitment of people with M.B.A.s or master's degrees
who also have technical skills. Overall, 12.3 percent of IT workers
hold a business degree. The ability to understand the business side,
according to the report, provides a deeper foundational'
knowledge' that is likely to prepare them for technological
change and learning new technical skills when needed, rather than
just knowing the skill of the day.'
The challenge for engineering educators is to provide
some of the softer skills required for the new global
economy, without sacrificing the necessary hard science
that drives innovation. At Olin College of Engineering, the curriculum
is being bundled in ways that combine different courses
within a team project. Students participate in a team-based project
every semester for eight semesters. In one bundle, students
study biology and business while completing an engineering project.
Another bundle unites history, materials science, and engineering.
This teaches students how to work and use the resources of the
team, across disciplinary boundaries, says Olin's Miller.
We have quite an interest in entrepreneurial thinking
and business, Miller continues. It is a practicum that
is overlayed in much of what we do. Starting with freshman, we emphasize
the ability to recognize opportunities. We want them to think about
business opportunities and the relationship with technology. We're
trying to weave that into the engineering curriculum.
The strategy might be better not what to teach,
but how they learn, Miller says. You cannot teach every
chapter in every book. You cannot cram sufficient knowledge covering
everything into four years. It's certainly a matter of balance.
We need to look at how students learn, instead of perhaps what they
learn. How to answer questions, how to integrate within systems, how
to work in teamsthose skills are important but aren't taught