Future of Engineering Education – 8 Changes Needed!

The future of engineering education hinges on reform. The broken education model must better fit employer requirements and the digital age.

You pay a boatload of money and you come out with little real-world skills. And I get it, engineering education is set up to give you broad exposure to many subjects. While teaching you the fundamentals. But, this doesn’t make the existing formal education model optimal.

Everything in the world evolves. With the emergence of the internet, knowledge is no longer locked away in the ivory towers. Yet, universities are stuck in the 19th century, using old curriculums and teaching methods. Even more, professors with no real-world experience, teach students how to think.

I’ve learned much more on my own than I ever day in the ivory towers. I know countless new engineers too, who were deer caught in the headlights in their first job. This shouldn’t ever be the case.

The future of engineering education needs reform, or it’ll become disrupted or obsolete.

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. They’d show you the ropes, in how to do real-world engineering. This was a page out of the old-age apprentice contract model. An expert in a trade would teach you a skill, in exchange for labor.

This apprentice relationship model no longer widely exists though. Because companies lack the budget and resources for mentorship-type programs. They want a junior engineer to hit the ground running, making money. Even if the junior engineer works like a chicken with its head cut off.

And yes, failing is a great way to speed up learning. But this doesn’t make it an ideal employment model.

Heck, why even waste many years in school then? Maybe 2 years of a college education is 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. These companies are few and far between though. 

Elon Musk’s view on college degrees

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

Elon’s views on college are important. Frankly, his leading positions and successes, make his insight more valuable than any professor.

Even more, in 2021 he employed nearly 100,000 people at Tesla alone. And 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 said, “I don’t consider going to college evidence of exceptional ability.” He then continues with examples of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.

Both Bill and Steve are exceptions to college being unnecessary. But it also highlights how inefficient college is today. 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 than learning. Then throw in credential inflation, and it’s a hot mess.

We’ll now go over the 8 changes needed for the future of engineering education.

1) Real-world problem solving

Students should solve real-world problems, like what a salaried engineer would solve. These aren’t linear real-world problems from textbooks either.

Rather, they’re complete real-world problems, a customer would pay you good money for. These problems make practicing engineers stretch their creativity.

The goal is for students to become familiar with all the nuances of real-world projects. While also thinking creatively with minimal hand-holding. This includes doing the following:

  • Using industry standards for drafting, assembly, and design
  • Asking questions to the client to better understand a project’s scope
  • Analyzing limited project data and gathering necessary additional data

Learning from real-world industry problems

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

  • Self-management
  • Research
  • Quick learning

Even more, when you go over a new project, you naturally dig into all elements of the work. You want to find out why certain elements operate the way they do. This type of work best complements the theory found in engineering textbooks.

Theories finally made sense to me, when I saw their real-world applications. I had many ‘ah-ha!’ moments as I was able to finally connect the dots.

So, it’s a no-brainer for universities to encourage ‘ah-ha!’ moments in their students. Plus, it’ll help eliminate the imposter syndrome from newly minted engineers. I was a victim myself of the imposter syndrome as a newly fledged engineer.

2) Soft skills and team projects

Technical communication isn’t properly taught in universities. Also, you do very few team projects. The few you do, you team up with a buddy.

Randomly pairing students in small and large groups are more impactful. You’re forced out of your comfort zone, especially for introverted engineers. In the process, you level up your social skills.

Many engineers lack writing and public speaking skills when they graduate. I struggled with technical communication myself when I graduated. This made me insecure when I drafted technical emails and spoke to others 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. One step further, create mock real-world social situations between students. The following are some examples:

  • Customer with engineer
  • Manager with engineer
  • Journalist with engineer
  • Engineer with engineer
  • Vendor/manufacturer with 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. And to support this shortcoming from formal education, check out my following articles:

Also as a perspective, I roughly write thirty technical emails and take 5 technical calls a day.

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 cool 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 reading about them in a textbook. Your mind can better connect the dots between theory and the real world. Similarly, I always encourage young engineers to not coop themselves in the office. You’ll never reach your full potential without hands-on work.

So, universities should coordinate with vendors, manufacturers, public departments, and private companies. Then, set up field trips related to given engineering subjects. This should be part of the curriculum, given you’re paying tens of thousands of dollars.

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 up close in person would be so awesome!

In return, you’d become super excited about your engineering work. You’ll see where your engineering homework will one day take you.

This is a huge win and a great investment for companies like SpaceX too. They’ll make young engineers interested in their company mission. Then they’ll have a future of bright engineers to tap into. So, universities partnering with different outfits would benefit everyone.

4) University partnerships

Universities partnering with engineering firms, which do real-world design work, would be great. These firms can funnel their completed work to universities, for students to practice.

Also, they can send expert speakers to come and guest speak. This will become a direct outlet to the industry, for students to learn from.

I can’t remember ever listening to a single guest speaker in a college course. Sure, there were guest speakers in engineering groups. But most people didn’t know about these groups.

This also becomes an outlet where engineering firms can tap into future talent.

5) Encourage asking questions

Yes, office hours exist. But I remember many of my professors were standoffish. When I asked questions, they acted like I was a burden. This isn’t a good attitude as a professor when you’re paid to teach.

The other opportunity to ask questions was at the end of lectures. But most professors raced out of the lecture hall the minute after class ended. This wasn’t a one-time thing either. It was every day.

This is a horrible learning environment. Especially, when you’re paying tens of thousands of dollars for a learning experience. Might as well just learn on your own.

To make matters worse, some professors poorly lectured. Now combine this with the inability to ask questions, and the learning experience became horrid. I’d go as far as to say, some lecture sessions were a waste of time.

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. It’s easier for professors to regurgitate existing material. This doesn’t help students whatsoever though. Frankly, it’s a waste of a student’s time, but they don’t know any better.

Instead, universities should choose the most widely used software to teach.

Imagine paying someone $10,000 to teach you how to become a mechanic. But in the course, you’re taught how to repair wagons versus cars. You’d be irate!

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?

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 engineering ethics course. And frankly, it was pointless. It was a bunch of obvious things you shouldn’t do as an engineer.

But I digress.

Every engineering job will include some form of project management. Especially the higher you climb in the ranks.

I’ve started businesses since I was a kid. So I have business management experience. Yet, I still had a learning curve when it came to the business side of engineering. There are many checks and balances when managing an 8 or 9-figure project. There’s potential for a lot to go wrong if you lack business skills.

8) Miscellaneous pointers

high price of college education

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

  • Teach how to read technical product specs.
  • Deeply teach fundamental subjects, like Ohm’s Law (V = IR). Otherwise, students will suffer in their higher-level courses.
  • Make connections to the real world as much as possible, alongside teaching theory.

The more of these pointers a university addresses, the greater value a student will receive.

“The future of engineering education” wrap up

Universities can decide whether to reform their education model or not. Regardless, technology is transforming the future of engineering education. This is most evident from the following quote by 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. Otherwise, they’ll see their student enrollment and revenue drop year after year.

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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