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The Proper Approach for Designing Curricula: Keep Industry Needs in Mind

Sherif El Wakil 






By Sherif El Wakil
Chancellor Professor of Mechanical Engineering
University of Massachusetts - Dartmouth

By Kareem El Wakil
Senior Management
Siemens AG

Because industry is the prime employer of university graduates, a strong university/industry relationship is vital to both groups' success. Designing curricula that do not effectively leverage this relationship can yield graduates who do not measure up to employers’ needs. As a result, the initial training periods have to be increased to compensate for entry-level skill gaps. In fact, a recent survey by the McKinsey Center for Government indicated that more than a third of employers believe recent graduates do not measure up to their expectations in terms of skills. The proper approach is therefore to involve industry representatives as full partners when designing a curriculum.

As problem solvers, engineers need coursework to equip them with basic tools like mathematics and fundamental engineering sciences. Nevertheless, these fundamental courses should not dominate and congest a curriculum, and instead should be balanced with applied engineering coursework. Through effective industry collaboration, universities can better define this balance in a way that effectively prepares graduates for immediate on-the-job impact.

Though the aforementioned survey shows many employers do not believe graduates have job-ready skills, educators continue to rate students more and more highly. This gap is likely due to academia either partially or totally ignoring key skills required by industry when developing curricula. These include teamwork, verbal communications, hands-on, in-discipline training, written communications, and problem solving. They should be supplemented by discipline-specific skills, e.g. mechanical engineers require intensive graphical communications skills. They must be able to read and prepare blueprints as part of the design process' documentation phase and should also be able to ensure design for manufacturability. Thus said, let us now focus on the five key skills and how best to incorporate them into the curriculum.

In most engineering colleges nationwide, the only time students form focused, collaborative work teams is when preparing their capstone senior design projects. This is definitely not enough. Rather, team-based learning should start in freshman year and occur throughout the curriculum. Small projects in common, mandatory freshman courses like graphics or introduction to engineering would help students understand the importance of teamwork and learn to work together.

Similarly, students' oral presentation experience is often limited to 10-20 minutes for their teams during the same capstone senior design project. This means that each student typically presents his/her work in only 5 minutes. This, again, is a significant deficiency considering that professional engineers need to be able to present effectively to their superiors, peers, and/or subordinates, this should not be the case, and there have been persistent complaints from industrial advisory boards to this effect.

Hands-on training is often delivered to students through laboratory sessions spread throughout the curriculum. Since laboratories are expensive to outfit and operate, however, they are often the first casualty of budget cuts and spending freezes. This shortsighted thinking tangibly impacts graduates' industry preparedness. Graduate hires with deficient or outdated hands-on experience require longer training periods before they can adequately perform their jobs.

Poor communication skills are another graduate deficiency often cited by industry professionals. This is in spite of the fact that a technical communications course is taught in almost all engineering curricula. What creates the deficiency is inadequate integration of report writing into the different courses within the curriculum.

True problem solving is about using engineering sense to effectively gather information, make reasonable assumptions, and find the optimal solution to problems with multiple unknowns. Design professors nevertheless face fierce resistance from students who struggle with this concept and expect design problems to have a single fixed solution, much like a textbook mechanics of materials or thermodynamics problem.

A good approach has been adopted by MIT. It has stressed problem solving by blending courses at all curriculum levels to provide greater flexibility and widened scope for real-world design projects. For instance, MIT replaced the two traditionally separate "machine design" and "manufacturing processes" courses with a two-semester "design and manufacturing" course. This widened scope enabled the inclusion of project-based design problems while emphasizing the importance of manufacturability in design. Other engineering courses were also combined to similar effect. By emphasizing industry needs when revamping their curriculum, MIT was able to better prepare students to tackle the real-world problems demanded by prospective employers.

Published Date : 3/13/2014

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