Addressing the ‘Fatal Flaw’ in Engineering Education

May 15, 2013
At The Automation Conference, Purdue’s Gary Bertoline explained the problems with a theoretically based higher-education system in the U.S., and gave solutions to bring it back in line with manufacturing’s needs.

There’s seemingly no end to the discussion about the state of engineering education in this country. If there’s one topic that gets engineers fired up, it’s typically this one, and today’s conversation was no exception—attendees of The Automation Conference in Chicago more than willing to push out the start of lunch to chime in with more comments and questions.

The keynote topic was what was Gary Bertoline terms a “fatal flaw” in engineering higher education. The U.S. struggles to hire the people needed to fill technical positions. At least part of the problem: The engineering education system in this country has been built around scientifically oriented engineering curricula, producing theoretical engineers who have little knowledge of how to apply skills to real-world engineering jobs.

The problem grew out of a post-WWII mentality in which engineers thought if they didn’t get their hands dirty, they would be taken more seriously as professionals like lawyers and doctors. The movement created curricula with a lot of math, a lot of science, and a lot of theoretical representation of how to go about solving problems; unfortunately, not a lot of practical knowledge about how to work in today’s manufacturing industries.

But Bertoline, dean and distinguished professor at Purdue University’s College of Technology, thinks he has a solution, and is on a crusade to create and promote applied engineering programs at his own college and elsewhere to create a new generation of innovative, problem-solving engineers. “The idea that theoretical research always precedes new knowledge is bunk,” he said. “We have to correct it.”

Until it’s corrected, it will continue to be more difficult for the U.S. to compete globally in manufacturing. This country’s workforce education efforts are inadequate to fully support our manufacturing-based economy, Bertoline said, making it difficult to hire the workforce necessary to compete globally.

“I hear it all the time—we don’t have enough and we don’t have the right people to do manufacturing in this country,” he said.

He contrasted the situation with that in Germany, which graduates twice as many applied engineers as it does theoretical engineers. The U.S. does just the opposite. “We need a different kind of engineer thrown into the mix to correct the flaw that we have in this nation right now,” Bertoline said.

According to Bertoline, of some 108 top-ranked, very high-intensive research universities in this country, only five actually teach applied engineering: Arizona State University, Purdue, Texas A&M, University of Cincinnati, and University of Houston. “Yet Germany has a whole system throughout the nation of universities with applied science,” he added.

The right mix of applied and theoretical science falls somewhere on the higher-education continuum between pure applied and pure theoretical. At the far left is technical career education, he explained. “Those are all gone, primarily. We’re forcing everyone into this academic track like everyone’s going to be academic scholars, and that’s just not working.”

On the other end of the spectrum is engineering science, which is good and important in itself. But there are horror stories, Bertoline said, of very reputable four-year institutions producing graduates who couldn’t even identify what kind of machine they were standing in front of. As one Brazilian conference attendee put it, “If I stayed only four years at college, I wouldn’t be able to tie my own shoes.” (Brazil has five-year programs that require practical internships.)

Here are the attributes that Bertoline says the Renaissance engineer should possess:

  • Rigorous engineering education
  • Business and entrepreneurship (“You’d be surprised how many college juniors and seniors don’t get that they have to make money for their companies.”)
  • Arts, humanities and social sciences
  • Hands-on interdisciplinary approach
  • Experiences that reflect actual engineering practice

At Purdue, they are building a system around student learning experiences. “Did you know you can actually teach students to be more innovative?” Bertoline noted “A human being by nature is extremely creative. It’s why we’re able to survive. But it’s been basically slapped and knocked out of you in our K-12 system. And we need to bring it back. That’s what we’re working to do.”

Bertoline advocates a system similar to K-12 charter schools rather than trying to change the country’s entire education system. “In higher education in this nation, we need to have a charter-like transformation of our engineering programs,” he said. “We need to do that with everyone willing to take that on. We’ve taken it on at Purdue.” They’re also starting to work with other universities around the nation, he added.

“We cannot wait any longer,” Bertoline said. “We create the best engineers in the world. We just don’t create enough of the type that we need to compete internationally.”

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