How to bridge the gap between engineering school and the real working world

Workplaces will have work with academia and do some of the heavy lifting to better prepare young engineers for work

By R. Russell Rhinehart

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This is Part 2 of a two-part article related to the gap between the preparation of graduates for engineering practice, specifically in control engineering, and the real-world working conditions they will face. Part 1 described the problem and its origins. Now I will tackle some possible solutions. My solution will not be grounded in the idea of industry and alumni providing university financing. Don't send money. If you do, we will use it to attain our aspirations, which you may likely find to be a misguided use.

Education is important. The role of professors is to develop human resources, professional knowledge and infrastructure through which engineering can contribute to human welfare. Item 1: Developing human resources is more than just teaching the engineering sciences; it implies full-person preparation for career and life. To properly direct human development, teachers need to understand the practice context. Item 2: Developing professional knowledge is the creation of a body of knowledge, tools and procedures that are useful. Developing something useful requires application understanding, validation within context and creative exploration to unveil new and practicable. Item 3: Developing the infrastructure means creating instructional materials, agencies, societies, etc. And sustainable systems must be grounded in the reality of all constituencies.

Utility within context is essential. Scientific perfection and intellectual knowledge are important, but those are academic values. Those are enabling tools, not the goal. The problem is that a professor's focus is on the enabling tools, not the context of their application.

Also read: "Is a college education enough to get young engineers ready for the workforce?"

The Situation

To review briefly, there is a gap in skills learned in school and those needed for practice. But a four-year program cannot prepare every graduate with every skill that every diverse career will need. Education can prepare them to be able to learn those skills. I think we do that well and do not believe that the gap is related to skills. I believe the gap is related to the differing perspectives of industry and academe.

There are dozens of solutions for bridging the gap, but to be sustainable they need to be grounded in the reality of both academe and industry.

Although graduates enter industry with fundamental skills, their perspectives are academic. They are aligned with learning, not doing; with perfection, not sufficiency; with knowledge, not fruition. Their perspectives about their role are not aligned with the way of business. Accordingly, industry must invest in coaching, training and activities to redirect new hires. The gap costs employers time and money, and delays new hires from rapidly attaining functionality.

A second aspect of the gap deals with full utilization of faculty creativity and insight. Faculty members are skilled in understanding details and seeing possibilities. They are creative, energetic, intellectually select and grounded in critical thinking and logical mechanistic analysis. One would think that they are capable of helping industry solve problems, but they have little inclination or skill to solve a problem within a confounding context. They are good at analyzing one idealized portion of the issue. The gap means that the potential for faculty to contribute to the practice is not fully used for the greater good.

The gap is especially significant in the field of automation and control. Not only does it include the academic to industrial perspective contrast, but it also has a skill component. Undergraduates in the U.S., primarily in chemical, electrical and mechanical programs, have one course in control. Usually it is taught by a professor with no control practice experience and from a textbook chosen by the instructor for its content-compatibility with the professor's inclinations. Mostly, the control course is comprised of lessons in mathematical analysis of dynamic systems and the glorious magic of solving ordinary differential equations with Laplace techniques. Since there is no automation or control undergraduate program in the U.S., just one course in the underlying mathematical analysis, industry must invest significant post-graduation training to prepare new hires for instrument and control systems.

This is not a new problem. And, it is worldwide.

What can be done to bridge the gap?

The gap is systemic. It is caused by disparate aspects of the mission and modus operandi of academe and industry. Having worked in academe for 29 years, with 13 as a school head, it seems to me that academe cannot act alone to bridge the gap. Education needs to teach the essentials of engineering to the masses and test for individual performance within institutions that are marginally funded. We like teaching, but it is a secondary aspect of the reality. And we teach what we know, which is normally the isolated science and math of our research.

Some have said, “We should mend the gap”, but to make the gap disappear, universities would need to change into for-profit development (not research) labs. I don't think there is a big enough incentive to generate an economic force to make such a change. If it did, we would lose the attraction and benefits of the undirected creative investigation of the current university system. It took a long time for education to find a sustainable way. I suspect if there were better paradigms, they would have evolved. I believe that we are doing it right related to creation, validation and dissemination of knowledge. I believe that we are doing it right in best practices for teaching novices with the right fundamental skills.

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