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ASEE PRISM
  American Society for Engineering Education
American Society for Engineering EducationNOVEMBER 2007Volume 17 | Number 3 PRISM HOMETABLE OF CONTENTSBACK ISSUES
FEATURES
COVER STORY:  ‘PATCH AND PRAY’ - BY THOMAS K. GROSE
FEATURE: GM SHIFTS GEARS - BY MARY LORD
FEATURE: EYE ON THE WORLD - BY PIERRE HOME-DOUGLAS

DEPARTMENTS
COMMENTS
BRIEFINGS
DATABYTES
REFRACTIONS: Thinking Simple - HENRY PETROSKI
CLASSIFIEDS
LAST WORD: Don’t Overlook Industry - By DONALD A. KEATING & EUGENE M. DELOATCH

TEACHING TOOLBOX
TEACHING TOOLBOX: Knowledge Builders - WITH ‘ELECTRIC PICKLES,’ SPACE-SHUTTLE TILES AND OTHER ATTENTION-GRABBING STRATAGEMS, COLLEGE AND GRADUATE STUDENTS SEEK TO INSPIRE A YOUNG GENERATION OF POTENTIAL ENGINEERS. BY BARBARA MATHIAS-RIEGEL
JEE SELECTS: The Habit of Learning - SCOTT JIUSTO AND DAVID DIBASIO
ON THE SHELF: Our Town, Our World - ROBIN TATU


BACK ISSUES







 
FEATURE: GM Shifts Gears - SHEDDING OUTDATED DESIGN PRACTICES, THE AUTO GIANT ENLISTS THE UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN TO DEVELOP A WORLDWIDE POOL OF ENGINEERS TRAINED IN CROSS-CULTURAL TEAMWORK. BY MARY LORD - ILLUSTRATION BY STEPHEN ROUNTREE - www.ROUNTREEGRAPHICS.com  


The golden age of tail fins, whitewalls and chrome, General Motors housed its marquee auto designers under one top-secret roof. There, propelled by longtime chief Alfred P. Sloan’s vision of dynamic obsolescence, stylists like Harley Earl, the legendary “da Vinci of Detroit,” applied cosmetic flourishes to dream machines that, year after model year, tempted buyers to trade up.

International competition and soaring gas prices shattered Sloan’s profit model and the kind of local engineering design that went with it. GM and other American carmakers struggled to stay afloat as pressure to cut pollution and boost fuel economy created demand for lighter materials and hybrid engines. At the same time, GM’s single-location design shops prevented it from capitalizing on one comparative advantage: The auto giant had a worldwide network of technical talent, people who could, if trained, collaborate on innovations with the click of a mouse.

Enter the University of Michigan, tapped by GM to create a high-quality, interactive training program that fosters virtual teamwork by bridging time zones, geography, culture and language. The goal, says Diane Landsiedel, senior manager of GM’s Technical Education Program, is “to create the best engineering anywhere in the world.”

The result is the Global Automotive and Manufacturing Engineering master’s program. Launched by Michigan’s College of Engineering in 2005, it uses the Internet to rev distance education to high-octane levels.

“It’s the model for a master’s education in engineering,” says mechanical engineering professor Jack Hu, Michigan’s associate dean for research and graduate education, who co-led the project’s development. While designed with GM’s needs in mind, it is open to all UM students, and offers a roadmap for automotive, aerospace and other multinational manufacturers working in complex distributive environments.

Despite its traditional leadership in employee education, GM had been slow to adopt Web-based instruction. “We were one of the last holdouts,” acknowledges Landsiedel. “Low tech was working very well.” Long after laptops became campus staples, GM learners at locations outside Detroit still watched videotaped lectures and snail-mailed their completed assignments. Many lagged weeks behind classmates closer to headquarters.

Now, instead of talking-head videos, 170 online learners from Warren, Mich., to Melbourne, Australia, watch lectures souped up with streaming video, annotated PowerPoint slides and other engaging features. Legions of technical staff—supporting classrooms that look like sets from the David Letterman show—can produce recorded lectures for worldwide distribution in two days. And both on-campus and overseas classmates enjoy similar academic benefits: They can peruse PowerPoint presentations before class, review the professor’s jottings on the electronic tablet and replay answers to on-campus students’ questions. “I always tell the students, ‘Don’t hurry to take notes,’” says Hu, who avoids e-mail overload by posting answers to generic technical questions on his manufacturing course’s Web site and advises students to check before asking the same thing. “That represented a milestone!” he adds, laughing.

The program stresses flexibility and practicality. While other university programs typically allow only six transferred credits, Michigan students can fulfill up to 12 of the minimum 30 credits in pre-approved courses from nearly two dozen of the world’s top universities. And all students are required to enroll in a long-distance seminar in cross-cultural communications offered by the University of California, Los Angeles. The course helps students hone communication skills key to effective Web-based, multicultural teamwork.

The global master’s program illustrates how university-corporate collaborations can reach beyond the traditional “customer-supplier” model, says Edward Borbely, director of the College of Engineering’s Center for Professional Development (CPD), which assisted the Michigan faculty in designing the degree. As the only engineering master’s to bring together specialists from both manufacturing and product development, the program augments regular Michigan courses with instruction from experts inside and outside GM.

The approach is multidisciplinary. Two Michigan engineering core courses—one in product and manufacturing quality, the other in design for manufacturability—provide the critical ingredients for fast-launch initiatives that move quickly from design to production, while a two-course sequence in systems integration outlines how vehicle development and manufacturing processes and systems work together. Margaret Wooldridge’s Auto 501 brings in such champions of industry as David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research, as well as chief engineers to provide the big picture. The point, says Wooldridge, who is director of Michigan’s automotive engineering program, is to “get people making vehicles to talk to each other”—so that the noise-and-vibration specialists, for instance, understand the power-train shop’s needs.

The point, says UM’s Margaret Wooldridge, is to “get people making vehicles to talk to each other.”


Team Projects

To deepen their expertise, students choose a vehicle-related engineering specialty in consultation with a supervisor or mentor. They then pursue three related technical courses and two in management systems.

Virtual collaboration is both encouraged and required. The degree culminates in a global team project with real-world business applications. One such project recently resulted in a patent application for a rear cargo management system—GM’s first ever for a multinational team.

The radical new learning environment prepares students to work in what Borbely calls the new sociology of multicultural virtual teams. “It’s not just teaching how to be an engineer in a global environment, but how to work together and interact with instructors and foreign teammates,” observes Wooldridge, who teaches two online courses and sees mainstream education following suit. “We have these wonderful tools—why not take advantage of them?”

While technology has opened vast learning opportunities, it also presents logistical challenges. Can senior faculty recruited to ensure top-notch course content abandon chalk-and-board for electronic tablets—all the while remembering to face a camera? And how can the school accommodate computer firewalls, or reach students with slow or no Internet access? Time zones can create other inequities: Hu revised a final exam deadline after students in Australia noted they would have 16 fewer hours to prepare than their on-campus peers.

“Tech support is very important,” Hu cautions, noting that the CPD production team helps instructors “think about the logical flow of their lectures” and to structure content for a digital audience. In addition, instructors have had to adjust their practices to match the warp-speed transfer of information offered by the Internet. “You have to force yourself to throw in speed bumps,” says Michigan’s Wooldridge, who can “cover a lot more ground” electronically than students perhaps can absorb. To provide time to “pause and think,” she seeks regular feedback, asking the class to pose a question or propose a method for reducing energy consumption in a plant with certain parameters, say.

To make his 80 online learners feel included, Hu tells his 25 to 40 on-campus students to ask at least one question a week. He then repeats each query on camera for the benefit of the distance learners. The process “definitely helps make my teaching better,” Hu says, noting that his online students keep clamoring for more questions.
Yet online students often want to ask their own questions, not just wait for others to pose them. According to Landsiedel, the first and biggest concern of prospective students—often seasoned engineers in their late 20s—is how to communicate with their instructors. E-mail is necessarily the main vehicle, although GM will set up a teleconference if problems arise. “That really relieves their mind,” says Landsiedel. But “faculty response is still the most critical facet to the employee’s experience, and we hear pretty fast” if queries go unanswered—a familiar and perennial student peeve.

Complications are inevitable as the Global Master’s expands to India, South America and other areas where students may have insufficient English skills and irregular Internet access. As a partial solution, Michigan’s English Language Institute helps support non-native speakers. The program also provides guidelines for both the minimum and comfort-level fluency students will need for courses. ”We don’t want to set them up for failure,” notes Wooldridge.

Still, accents and slang can flummox students and instructors alike. Wooldridge learned that a “slug of gas”—a term liberally sprinkled through her Australian students’ exams—did not indicate a slimy invertebrate, but a mass of gas that travels down the length of the line—familiar gas-dynamics lingo Down Under. Various shops have their own shorthand and acronyms. “Body-in-white” is American auto industry-speak for sheet-metal exteriors. At GM, subject matter experts are SMEs.


High Marks from Students

Such cultural road bumps have not dampened enthusiasm for the program, which has won two awards since its 2005 debut, including the prestigious Sloan Consortium Program Profile Award. Both distance and on-campus students give high marks to instructors and content, and students like previewing PowerPoint presentations before class and not having to take notes. One woman commented in her evaluation that she appreciated being able to review the material. “In a traditional class, if I didn’t hear what the professor was saying, I couldn’t hear it again,” Hu points out. “I couldn’t go back and watch him writing it on the board.” Though non-native speakers may sometimes find lectures hard to understand, as Saul Cardenas, an engineer at GM de Mexico, notes, “the good news is, we can listen to the lecture as many times as we need to.”

A current student in the Michigan program, Cardenas says it has helped considerably in his day-to-day work as a product engineering supervisor at GM’s Toluca Regional Engineering Center. His duties include making sure all engineering change proposals are properly reflected in the Master Parts List for four different vehicle programs. Deeper understanding of the vehicle systems gained from his courses gives Cardenas “a better understanding of the engineering changes.” Moreover, the program’s emphasis on communication has helped him work with various designers, manufacturing engineers, buyers, planners and other customers. He is able to “explain to my people in a more clear way the impacts of such changes as well as the steps to follow to ensure the best possible execution.”

Cardenas particularly appreciates the Michigan global emphasis, and regularly puts into practice the tips he gleaned from the introductory cross-cultural communications course. “GM is now a true global company that requires true global leaders that can speak to each other no matter how far they are or how different their backgrounds may be,” he explains. Working with engineers from Korea, Canada and Mexico on vehicles or components built in Russia and the Pacific, Cardenas now finds it is easier to communicate and collaborate.

Blaine Karr, a maintenance supervisor in GM’s Oshawa Car Assembly Plant in Canada, and also a student in the Michigan program, concurs on its value. For Karr, the real-world examples that instructor Patrick Hammett injected throughout his core Quality Engineering Principles and Analysis course proved particularly instructive, and he applies many of the class’s Six-Sigma problem-solving tools to his chassis work.

Access to GM’s state-of-the-art plants and real-world experts is a big plus for faculty as well. Mechanical engineering professor Hu has updated his course seven or eight times and rarely covers the same ground each semester. His colleague, Margaret Wooldridge, hopes to explore joint research and team-teaching with alternative fuels experts at the University of Sao Paolo.

For GM, where education programs compete for funds, bottom-line effectiveness counts. Since 1999, GM training programs for employees have resulted in savings of nearly $250 million dollars. While the Global Master’s, which recently graduated its first two pioneers, has yet to generate similar results, GM clearly sees promise: Up to 30 students from India will start the program this fall, while a recent GM-Michigan trip to Brazil netted another 12 degree applicants.

Today, U.S. automakers face the toughest engineering, manufacturing and financial environment ever. Production and healthcare costs keep rising. And hybrid engines, tighter federal emissions standards and alternative fuels all vie for engineering solutions. “It’s a perfect storm,” says Wooldridge, a fuel-cycle expert.

By stressing virtual teamwork and teaching engineers to work with their global colleagues, the Michigan master’s program can help GM survive—even thrive—in this demanding market climate, says industrial engineer Jay Baron, president of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor. He points out that in business today, lean manufacturing, the Six Sigma methodology of eliminating defects, and other auto-industry practices all demand more collaboration across disciplines. New software makes it easier for virtual teams to brainstorm ideas and manage global processes. Michigan’s program matches new business realities in which an auto part might be designed in several places, manufactured in yet another and welded into a car somewhere else again. “It allows you to tap strengths across cultural lines and produce better products,” says Baron. “Part of this is teaching a narrowly focused group of engineers to have a broader bunch of skills and to work together with engineers from different cultures, which many never had to do before and, quite frankly, find difficult.”

“It allows you to tap strengths across cultural lines and produce better products.” Jay Baron, president of the Center for Automotive Research

Meanwhile, the College of Engineering and GM are plotting the next academic step: a new certificate in global automotive technical leadership aimed at refreshing mid-career engineers who already have a master’s degree. Focused partly on emerging technical skills and partly on virtual teamwork and other soft skills, the program “is something of a leap of faith,” says CPD director Borbely. The goal, he explains, is to figure out what it is going to take for GM to outdo rivals like Toyota in manufacturing technology. “When everyone is building cars efficiently, then you have to compete on what’s happening outside the box—but that’s America’s and our strength. It’s mettle.”

Mary Lord is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

 

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American Society for Engineering Education
ILLUSTRATION BY STEPHEN ROUNTREE - www.ROUNTREEGRAPHICS.com