Mechanical Engineering

The future of engineering

Recently, I was asked by the University of Wisconsin to share my thoughts on the future of engineering education as the keynote speaker at their 2016 Engineering Innovation Showcase.

By teaching at the UW and through our design practice, I’ve developed a pretty good perspective on what makes young engineers successful – or not – early in their careers and how that might map back to aspects of their education. But the chance to formulate those ideas into a cogent speech – and present it to a group of academic leaders – was both an honor and a bit terrifying.

In preparing for the speech, I did some research into the history of the modern engineering education from its origins at Echole Polytechnique in France in the 1790s through the U.S. Land Grant universities, the rise of complex mathematics and Cold War research. I found many things that haven’t changed; the tension in engineering education between hands-on and analytical and the balance between scientific research and practical application seem to consistently loom over the pedagogy regardless of the time. Although it’s tempting to claim that the problems facing young engineers are more dire – and opportunities broader than ever before – a careful study of this history reveals this probably isn’t the case. To claim both is disingenuous and somewhat naïve, and perhaps misses the lessons a glimpse at the past can teach us.

I don’t mean in any way to downplay today’s problems, which are indeed deeply complicated and troubling. Neither am I a pessimist. The potential and opportunities facing today’s graduating engineers are broad and inspiring. But a study of the history of engineering education reveals that engineering has ALWAYS reflected and influenced the challenges and opportunities of the day. This is true from mechanization in the industrial revolution, transportation and infrastructure during the intra-war period, atomic energy and weapons during the Cold War, power and energy in the 1970s, to computing in the Information Age.

So if these things haven’t changed – what has? Well, in the first place, engineering education is a whole lot more expensive these days. At the turn of the former century, in-state tuition was free! Beyond that you find:

  • Highly integrated problems and systems that cross conventional disciplines with unprecedented complexity.
  • Frictionless global commerce including worldwide resource allocation, competition and opportunities.
  • Radically differing levels of early exposure and acumen for incoming students.
  • New modalities and outlets for gathering, learning and disseminating information.
  • An unprecedented speed and pace of innovation

So fundamentally, while the basic underpinnings of engineering education remain familiar, the environment and context within which engineers will need to practice reflects challenges and opportunities that are unique to today. Challenges and opportunities that like all periods range from the mundane to the truly wicked.

Engineering has and always will shift its focus between applied and theoretical, hands-on and analytical to meet the needs of the day.

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