The future of engineering education hinges on reform. Our outdated education model needs to suit the digital age and what employers want.
Imagine shelling out a fortune for your education, only to find yourself struggling to apply those skills in the real world. I get it—engineering education aims to provide a well-rounded foundation across various subjects. But let’s be real, the current model is far from perfect.
The world keeps changing, and with the internet, knowledge isn’t just limited to those fancy ivory towers anymore. But universities seem stuck in the past, stubbornly holding on to outdated curriculums and teaching methods from the 19th century. To make matters worse, some professors, lacking practical experience, try to teach students how to think.
Honestly, I’ve learned way more on my own than I ever did within the ivory towers. And I know I’m not alone—countless new engineers feel like deer caught in headlights at their first job. This simply shouldn’t happen.
The future of engineering education calls for a serious overhaul; otherwise, it risks becoming disrupted or obsolete.
The old employment model for teaching junior engineers
Remember the good ol’ days when junior engineers could count on senior colleagues to show them the ropes in real-world engineering? Inspired by the age-old apprenticeship model, experts would teach a skill in exchange for labor. Sadly, that kind of relationship is scarce these days. Companies just don’t have the budget or resources for mentorship programs. Instead, they expect junior engineers to hit the ground running—even if they’re floundering like headless chickens.
Sure, learning from failure can be a great way to grow, but that doesn’t mean it’s the ideal approach.
I mean, if that’s the case, why spend years in school at all? Maybe two years of college would be enough…
Important Note: Some companies do an amazing job of nurturing the careers of fresh engineers. They’ve nailed the art of grooming new talent. But let’s face it, they’re few and far between.
Elon Musk’s take on college degrees
Take a moment to consider Elon Musk’s views on college degrees. With his success and leadership, his opinions are pure gold—worth way more than most professors.
Back in 2021, he had almost 100,000 employees at Tesla alone, and he wanted to drop the college degree requirements from their recruiting materials. He called it “absurd.” And he didn’t stop there, saying, “I think college is basically for fun and to prove that you can do your chores, but they’re not for learning.”
He even went as far as saying, “I don’t consider going to college evidence of exceptional ability,” using Bill Gates and Steve Jobs as examples.
Now, I know, those guys are the exception, not the rule. But it does highlight how inefficient college has become. Musk put it perfectly: “everything is available, basically for free. You can learn anything you want for free.”
In a nutshell, universities are dropping the ball when it comes to prepping students for the 21st-century workforce. They’re more focused on flexing credentials than actually teaching. Throw in some credential inflation, and it’s a real mess.
So, let’s dive into the 8 changes we need to see for the future of engineering education.
#1 Tackling real-world problems
Students need to tackle real-world problems that even seasoned, salary-earning engineers face on the job. Forget those neat, textbook examples; we need messy, complex challenges that make clients whip out their checkbooks. These problems push experienced engineers to the brink of their creative limits.
The ultimate goal? Plunge students headfirst into the nitty-gritty of real-world projects and spark creative thinking without someone constantly holding their hand. This involves:
- Using industry standards for drafting, assembly, and design
- Asking clients the right questions to better understand a project’s scope
- Analyzing scarce project data and hunting for extra information
Learning from real-world industry problems
Real-world issues shape your mind, teaching you self-management, research, and quick learning. Plus, as you dive into a new project, you can’t help but explore every angle. You’re driven to understand why things work the way they do. This hands-on experience perfectly complements the theory found in engineering textbooks.
For me, theories finally clicked when I saw their real-world applications. Those ‘ah-ha!’ moments, when everything made sense, were priceless.
So, it’s a no-brainer that universities should encourage these ‘ah-ha!’ moments in their students. It’ll also help banish that dreaded imposter syndrome many new engineers, myself included, experience.
#2 Soft skills and team projects
Universities often neglect to teach technical communication, and team projects are few and far between. When they do happen, you usually just team up with a buddy.
Instead, randomly pairing students in both small and large groups is far more impactful. It pushes everyone out of their comfort zone, especially introverted engineers, and helps develop social skills.
Many engineers graduate without solid writing and public speaking abilities. I know I struggled with technical communication at first, which left me feeling insecure when drafting emails or chatting with colleagues.
I’d go so far as to say that technical communication should be woven into every engineering course. Simple writing assignments or crafting mock real-world social scenarios between students (customer-engineer, manager-engineer, journalist-engineer, engineer-engineer, or vendor-manufacturer-engineer) would seriously help build good social habits. After all, many real-world engineering issues spring from lousy communication.
To supplement the shortcomings of formal education, check out my following articles:
- 12 engineering writing tips you need to know
- 12 ways to improve public speaking skills for engineers
- Engineering writing style guide – 6 things to know
Just for perspective, I write roughly thirty technical emails and take five technical calls daily.
#3 Field trips
Elementary school days were jam-packed with awesome field trips, where I got to explore, learn, and actually touch the things I was learning about. But as I grew older, those exciting field trips faded away.
I’ve always believed that hands-on experiences beat reading about things in a textbook any day. That’s why I’m all about young engineers breaking free from their desks and getting their hands dirty in the real world.
Universities should join forces with vendors, manufacturers, public departments, and private companies to design unforgettable field trips tailored to specific engineering subjects. I mean, we’re dropping tens of thousands of dollars on our education!
Imagine the sheer excitement of aeronautical engineers exploring a SpaceX rocket factory, getting up close and personal with the Falcon 9 or Starship rockets! Such experiences would ignite the passion of budding engineers, showing them the amazing possibilities their hard work could unlock.
This is a win-win situation and a smart investment for companies like SpaceX. They’ll grab the attention of young engineers, who’ll be eager to contribute to their mission. In turn, they’ll have a bright, motivated talent pool to choose from. So, forging partnerships between universities and various organizations is a no-brainer for everyone involved.
#4 University partnerships
Universities need to forge alliances with engineering firms involved in real-world design projects. These firms could share their completed work with students for hands-on practice and invite experienced speakers to share their insights. That way, we students can dive straight into the industry and learn from the pros.
I can’t recall attending a single guest lecture during my college courses. Although guest speakers appeared at engineering group events, most students didn’t even know about these gatherings.
These partnerships would also grant engineering firms direct access to the talent of tomorrow.
#5 Encouraging curiosity: Embracing questions
Sure, office hours exist, but many of my professors seemed standoffish. When I asked questions, they acted like I was a burden, which is not the attitude you’d expect from someone paid to teach.
The only other chance to ask questions was at the end of lectures, but most professors bolted out of the lecture hall the moment class ended. It happened every day.
This created a terrible learning environment, especially considering the hefty price tag on our education. It felt like I might as well learn everything on my own.
To make matters worse, some professors were terrible at lecturing. Combine that with the inability to ask questions, and you’ve got a recipe for a dreadful learning experience. I’d go so far as to say that some lecture sessions were a complete waste of time.
#6 Embrace cutting-edge software tools
Picture this: the industry swears by software ‘A’, but your classroom is stuck with software ‘B’. Sounds frustrating, right?
I’ve seen too many universities cling to outdated software just because it’s familiar. Professors recycle the same ol’ material, and students suffer for it. Honestly, it’s a waste of everyone’s time, but students don’t always know they’re missing out.
Instead, universities should level up and teach the software that’s actually popular in the field.
Imagine shelling out $10,000 for a mechanic course only to learn how to fix wagons instead of cars. You’d be fuming!
#7 Add a dash of business and management skills
Sure, there are graduate programs to sharpen your management chops. But why not make these essential courses in undergraduate engineering?
I’d have happily traded those history classes for a taste of the business side of engineering. You know, mastering stuff like:
- Purchase orders
- Budget management
- Setting up meetings
- Resolving customer disputes
The only business course I took was a mandatory engineering ethics class, which was honestly pretty pointless. It was simply a laundry list of obvious “don’ts” for engineers, regurgitated from a textbook.
But I digress.
Every engineering job involves some project management, especially as you climb the ladder. As a born entrepreneur, I had a bit of business know-how. But even I faced a steep learning curve when diving into the business side of engineering. Managing a project worth hundreds of millions of dollars comes with loads of checks and balances, and things can easily go haywire without the right skills.
#8 Miscellaneous pointers
Here are some extra nuggets of wisdom for universities to help the future of engineering education:
- Teach students how to read technical product specs.
- Drive home the fundamentals, like Ohm’s Law (V = IR), or students will struggle in advanced courses.
- Connect the dots between classroom theory and the real world at all opportunities.
The more of these tips a university tackles, the more value students will get from their education.
“The future of engineering education” wrap up
Universities can choose to revamp their education model or not. But either way, technology is revolutionizing the future of engineering education. Just take it from Elon Musk, who said about hiring someone:
“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, universities better adapt to help engineers thrive in the working world. Otherwise, they’ll watch their student enrollment and revenue plummet year after year.
What do you think about the future of engineering education? What changes to formal education do you believe are crucial for engineers?
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Koosha started Engineer Calcs in 2020 to help people better understand the engineering and construction industry, and to discuss various science and engineering-related topics to make people think. He has been working in the engineering and tech industry in California for over 15 years now and is a licensed professional electrical engineer, and also has various entrepreneurial pursuits.
Koosha has an extensive background in the design and specification of electrical systems with areas of expertise including power generation, transmission, distribution, instrumentation and controls, and water distribution and pumping as well as alternative energy (wind, solar, geothermal, and storage).
Koosha is most interested in engineering innovations, the cosmos, our history and future, sports, and fitness.