Future of Engineering Education – 8 Changes Needed!

The future of engineering education needs reform to fit today’s employment environment. Plus, to adapt to today’s internet age.

To point out right off the bat, I’m not too big a fan of formal education. There are many issues with today’s education system.

The most obvious is, you pay a boatload of money and you come out with little real-world skills.

I get it, engineering education is set up to give you broad exposure to many topics. All the while, teaching you the fundamentals.

But this doesn’t mean the existing formal education model is ideal. Far from it!

EVERYTHING in the world evolves. Knowledge is no longer locked away in the ivory towers, with the emergence of the internet.

These universities are stuck in the 19th-century. They use the same old curriculum and teaching methods. There’s not much modern about today’s education system.

Further, the way to think isn’t something you can only learn from professors.

I’ve learned much more on my own than I ever day in the ivory towers. Even more, I know countless new engineers who were deer caught in the headlights in their first job.

This shouldn’t ever be the case!

Without a doubt, this is a problem that needs a solution. The future of engineering education needs reform, or it’ll eventually become disrupted.

The old employment model for teaching junior engineers

Decades ago, after you graduated, a senior engineer at a company would take you under their wing.

In other words, they’d show you the ropes. Teach how to do engineering work in the real world.

It’s like the old age apprentice contract model. This is where the expert of a trade would teach someone a trade, in exchange for labor.

This relationship model isn’t as strong as it once was. It’s not promoted and senior engineers frankly don’t have the time.

It’s because companies are going leaner. They don’t have the resources for mentorship-type programs.

Plus, they can’t wait 6 months for a junior engineer to get up to speed. They want the engineer to hit the ground running to start printing money.

Even if the junior engineer is like a chicken with its head cut off.

I know, just starting and failing are great ways to speed up your learning. But this is far from ideal.

So why even waste so many years in school then? Maybe 2 years of a college education would be enough…

Important Note: some companies do a fantastic job of kickstarting the careers of newly minted engineers. They’ve mastered how to groom new engineers.

Still, they all would prefer to have more ready-made engineers enter their doors. 

Elon Musk’s view on college degrees

Elon Musk and Chris Anderson at TED 2017
Photo Credit: Jurvetson

I want to dive into Elon’s view on college before I start my list. I think it’s important, given he’s leading the bleeding edge of tech.

At the same time, he knows what it takes to become successful in the real world. I’d argue more than any professor.

What’s more, he employs over 48,000 people at Tesla alone. That said, he wants Tesla’s recruiting material to not have college degree requirements. He called the prerequisite “absurd.”

Elon didn’t end there. He added, “I think college is basically for fun and to prove that you can do your chores, but they’re not for learning.”

To top it off, he stated, “I don’t consider going to college evidence of exceptional ability.” He then continues with examples of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.

Sure, Bill and Steve are exceptions to college being unnecessary. But it also highlights how inefficient college is today. Without a doubt, you can excel to amazing heights without a degree.

Even more, this shows how universities still operate in the old way of teaching from decades ago.

Musk elaborated on this stating, “everything is available, basically for free. You can learn anything you want for free.”

In short, universities don’t prepare students for 21st-century work. These institutions have become more about signaling.

Signaling that’s becoming more hollow with every passing year. In return, this also causes credential inflation.

Elon’s strong feelings on this subject come from how inefficient schools are today.

With that out of the way, I’m going to go over 8 ways the future of engineering education needs to change.

1) Real-world problem solving

Set up real-world problems for students. No different than a problem an employed salaried engineer would tackle.

And I’m not talking about doing problems from textbooks that resemble real-world problems. I’ve seen plenty of those, and most are too out of context compared to real-world problems.

They’re only a small slice of a real-world problem, missing the overall picture.

I’m talking about a complete real-world problem a customer would pay you good money for. This puts you in the thick of things as an engineer.

So, students would receive all the real project information. Then, they’d need to design around what the customer wants.

Whether this is a drawing set, technical narrative, technical specifications, or whatever else.

The point is, the student should become familiar with all the nuances of a real project. This includes the following:

  • Learning industry standards for drafting, assembly, and design
  • Asking questions to the client to better understand the project scope
  • Knowing how to analyze limited project data and then gather necessary additional data

Learning from real-world industry problems

Real-world problems shape your mindset, teaching you how to do the following:

  • Self-management
  • Research information
  • Learn quickly

What’s more, I find when you’re going over a new project, you naturally dig into all elements of the work.

You want to find out why certain things operate the way they do. Also, why it’s best to design something a certain way.

In other words, you dive down many rabbit holes.

These real-world projects perfectly complement the theory found in engineering textbooks.

I found I appreciated my textbooks MUCH MORE after I did real-world work. When I revisited my old textbooks, I had many ‘ah-ha!’ moments.

Everything finally made sense to me, when I saw the real-world application of theories. I was able to finally connect the dots.

So, it’s a no-brainer for university courses to encourage these ‘ ah-ha!’ moments in students. It baffles me why it’s not done more often.

Instead, in school, you’re taught how to solve for Z, when you’re given X and Y variables. In the real world, problems aren’t this black and white.

So, forcing students to work with real-world design requirements is highly beneficial.

Plus, it’ll help eliminate the imposter syndrome newly minted engineers have too.

I was a victim myself. The imposter syndrome hit me strong once I started first working as an engineer.

2) Soft skills and team projects

Technical communication is not properly taught in universities.

Also, you do very few team projects in engineering. And the little you do, you can pair up with your buddy.

Randomly pairing students in small and large groups are more impactful. You’re forced out of your comfort zone, especially for engineers who are introverts.

By doing team projects, you not only can learn more, but students can flex their social skills.

Many engineers lack great writing and public speaking skills when they graduate.

I struggled with technical communication myself when I graduated. My lack of skills made me insecure when I drafted technical emails and spoke to other people in my field.

I’d go as far as to say technical communication should be a part of every engineering course. Even if it’s short writing assignments.

To support this shortcoming from formal education, I’ve written the below-listed articles:

Yes, you can argue and say go take a communication and writing class, which engineers do take.

But, in these communication classes, you’re not forced to speak and write in a technical style. It’s very important for engineers to learn how to speak and write in a technical form.

Also, to learn how to speak to non-engineers on technical subjects. Thus, knowing how to dumb your technical subjects down.

Universities can pull this off by creating mock real-world social situations between students. The following are some example:

  • Customer and engineer
  • Manager and engineer
  • Journalist and engineer
  • Engineer and engineer
  • Vendor/manufacturer and engineer

This would go a long way in instilling good social habits in students. Because many engineering problems in the real world start from bad communication.

Also as a perspective, I write at least ten technical emails a day. My point is, writing is common and important!

3) Field trips

space x falcon heavy demo mission
SpaceX Falcon Heavy Demo Mission (Photo Credit: SpaceX)

When you’re in elementary school, you go on all types of field trips. In these field trips, you learn so much, as you get to see and touch so many things.

Unfortunately, the older you get, the fewer field trips you go on.

I find seeing things in the real world, ALWAYS beats out only reading theories from a textbook.

So, universities should coordinate with vendors, manufacturers, public departments, and private companies. Then set up field trips that relate to a given engineering subject.

Seeing how things operate in the real world is highly beneficial. Your mind can better connect the dots with all the engineering concepts you learn.

I always talk about how working engineers should not coop themselves up in the office. You never reach your full potential if you don’t physically see things.

In fact, an untold skill in engineering is doing hands-on work.

So, getting students out into the real world while they’re in school would be a step in the right direction.

Plus, it’s just so cool to see certain things in person. Imagine a field trip for aeronautical engineers to SpaceX.

Seeing the Falcon 9 or Starship rockets in person would be so awesome!

What’s more, you’d become super excited about your engineering work. You’ll see where your engineer homework will one-day take you.

This is a huge win for companies like SpaceX too. They’ll aim to make young engineers interested in their company mission. Then they’ll have a future of bright engineers to tap into.

This is clearly a fantastic investment for a company like SpaceX. So, universities partnering with different outfits would benefit everyone.

4) University partnerships

Universities partnering with engineering businesses that do real-world design work would be great. These firms can funnel the work they do to universities for students to practice on.

Of course, the companies would remove all their client’s information for privacy reasons.

Further, these companies can send expert speakers to come and guest speak. This will become a direct outlet to the industry, which students will gain insight over.

I can’t remember ever listening to a single guest speaker in college.

Sure, there were guest speakers in engineering groups. But most people didn’t know about these groups.

5) Encourage questions

Yes, office hours exist. But I remember many of my professors were standoffish.

When I asked questions, they acted like I was burdening them. That’s not a good attitude as a professor when your sole purpose is to teach.

The other opportunity to ask questions was at the end of a lecture. But I had some professors who would race out of the lecture hall the minute after class ended.

This wasn’t a one-time thing either. It was every day. They weren’t racing to teach another class either.

This is a horrible learning environment. Especially when you’re paying tens of thousands of dollars for a learning experience.

Asking questions go in hand with learning new material.

What makes it worse, is how some professors lectured so poorly. A poor lecture without the ability to ask questions causes all types of student stress.

I’d go as far as to say some lecture sessions were a waste of time. In these instances, I found I’d be better off learning the material on my own.

6) Use the latest software tools

If the industry uses software ‘A’, don’t use software ‘B’ in the classroom.

I find many universities use outdated software to teach because they’ve used it for years. Plus, it’s easier for a professor to regurgitate existing material.

This doesn’t help students who will go into the industry using software ‘A.’

I know some industries use a lot of different software. In these cases, a university should choose the most widely used software.

Once students get the hang of it, they can probably learn all the other derivative software out there too.

7) Management and business skills

Yes, there are graduate programs you can take to boost your management skills.

But, why not make these mandatory courses in undergraduate engineering? This ties to providing students with real-world problems.

I would have taken these courses in a heartbeat, over the history courses I was forced to take.

I’m talking about learning the business side of engineering. This includes learning about the following:

  • Purchase orders
  • Invoices
  • Budget management
  • Setting up meetings
  • Resolving customer disputes
  • Marketing
  • Liabilities
  • Insurance

The only “business” related course I took was a mandatory ethics class. And frankly, it was pointless. It was a bunch of obvious things you shouldn’t do as an engineer.

The engineering code of ethics course would have been much more helpful with real-world examples.

But I digress.

Almost every engineering job will include some form of project and quality management.

And many new engineers don’t have the awareness of how to manage a project. As well as doing quality checks on their own work.

I’ve started businesses since I was a kid. So I had experience with business management and being detail-oriented.

But, I still had a learning curve when it came to the business side of engineering.

Even more, learning how to properly check a design that could possibly injure or even kill people. Because it’s quite different than reviewing and reconciling your restaurant’s inventory.

For this reason, I’ve written here how to best check engineering drawings.

These are lessons EVERY engineering education should teach students!

8) Miscellaneous pointers

high price of college education

The following are extra pointers to help the future of engineering education:

  • Learning how to read technical product specs.
  • Understanding the ins and outs of fundamental subjects deeply, like Ohm’s Law (V = IR). EVERY engineering course should focus on this. Because otherwise, students will then suffer in their higher-level courses.
  • Don’t limit learning to the walls of academia only. Make connections to the real world as much as possible. In other words, don’t make a class all about theory.

The more of these pointers a university addresses, the greater value a student will receive. Especially when education can cost as much as $40,000 per year!

“The future of engineering education” wrap up

Universities can decide to reform their education model or not. Regardless, technology is changing the future of engineering education.

This is most evident from the following quote from Elon Musk on finding someone to do a job:

“A PhD is definitely not required. All that matters is a deep understanding of AI & ability to implement NNs in a way that is actually useful (latter point is what’s truly hard). Don’t care if you even graduated high school.”

So it’s best universities adapt to help engineers better fit into the working world.

As I know universities can do a much better job preparing students. In the end, it will be a win-win for everyone.

Universities get their money, employers get better employees, and engineers come out ahead.

What are your thoughts on the future of engineering education? What formal education changes do you think are most important for engineers?

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