The state of current and future engineering education was the focus of a panel of industry experts, engineers, and students at the recent Sensors Midwest expo. The panel, moderated by Roger H. Grace, president of Roger Grace Associates, represented a diverse array of life and educational experiences and skillsets. The common conclusion was that the engineering field encompasses a hands-on approach that may entail an internship to help better prepare students for real-world applications.
Dr. Eric Baumgartner, vice president of academics at Milwaukee School of Engineering, noted that when he first started teaching in the engineering field, he said he felt unprepared to educate others since he had no actual hands-on experience.
“I had imposter syndrome, and thought, ‘They’re going to figure me out,’” said Baumgartner. “I really hadn’t built anything, so I participated in a faculty internship.”
From this, Baumgartner got the opportunity to work with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, putting rovers on mars and driving them.
“After this, I felt prepared to be an educator,” said Baumgartner. “So I brought my experience back to education, and finally felt prepared to have the conversation on both sides—industry and academic.”
Today, Baumgartner helps prepare kids for life after school at the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE).
Amy Bridger, senior director of corporate strategy and external engagement at Penn State Erie, explained how her school’s engineering curriculum is preparing students by immersing them in real-world applications right from the start. In their Open Lab program and pilot production space, students are able to go in, solve a problem and come back out ready for the next opportunity.
“Anything we do has to have students involved,” said Bridger. “Interfacing with the industry is an extremely important part for undergraduates. You definitely see changes in their empowerment and ability to make a difference when they get out of college.”
Robert Atac, vice president and general manager at Thales Visionix,Atac said his engineering motivation came from a class in college. When he started his Advanced Digital Projects Lab, his professor immediately implored creativity.
“I walked in, and the professor asked me what I wanted to make and if I wanted to work in a group or by myself,” said Atac. “He gave us all the parts and equipment, but we made whatever we wanted to make. How wonderful is that for a young engineer?”
Atac said this somewhat unstructured class helped better prepare him for the future by giving him a necessary set of skills. Today, as a vice president at Thales Visionix, he looks for these same skills in his employees and interns.
“We’re looking for problem solvers in stressful situations and the ability for individuals to build on other people’s ideas,” said Atac. “Today, there are opportunities for youngsters to gain experience in those basic skills starting at a young age. Then, when they’re older and they walk in the door, I want them to be immediate contributors.”
Ozgur Yavuzcetin, assistant professor at UW-Whitewater, delved into specific skills that make a good engineer. He said a typical engineer takes classes, engages in different labs and graduates, but this doesn’t necessarily ensure they’ll be a good engineer.
“There are qualifications companies looks for in a good engineer, like being a team player and problem solving,” Yavuzcetin said. These qualifications are often learned through internships, but not all students get this opportunity.
“When students have hand-on experience, that’s when they learn,” said Yavuzcetin. “The students I work with, I can see their lives are changing because they get real experience as they are exposed to research work. It’s not just course work. They get a chance to apply course work into projects.”
Yavuzcetin said internships can be a vital part of preparing students with skills of an engineer they will be expected to have at their future job.
Representing the student view on the panel were Jaligama Sravani, doctoral student at Texas A&M University, and Bilge Altay, a graduate student at Western Michigan University. Both are currently graduate students.
Sravani, who received an engineering degree in India, and then went to the US to receive her doctorate, commented on differences in education in both countries.
“I noticed contrasting differences in the engineering degrees in India and the US,” said Sravani. “In India, there’s pressure on students to learn from the books and do well on exams rather than learn the skill. I also noticed in India that the quality of education is high, so we go deep rather than scratch the surface.”
While India focused on academia and prepared her to work in intense environments, she said education in the US prepared her to relate her academics to real-world problems. From this, she has learned that all students learn differently.
“What I have realized is there are different types of students,” said Sravani. “Students who learn fast, some who are not interested and some who really want to delve into the material. It’s a two-way communication between the teacher and the student, and I want to improve that skill and incorporate it into the industry experience.”
“We should also encourage students to explore and not just take classes for their major,” she said. “Engineers need to learn how to talk to customers and understand their problems.”
Altay agreed that education is a two-way street.
“Education has to be more collaborative,” Altay said.
In her field, she has learned about digital printing, sensors and creating certain devices. Altay said that with magnetic sensors she has to learn the language and address the needs of every element.
“It’s becoming a very diverse field,” Altay said. “Electrical students need to know the printing and chemistry of it all. The curriculum needs to be improved based on fundamentals.”