In two months spent as a participant in the Boeing A. D. Welliver Faculty Summer Fellowship, I observed that there is more to the development of an engineer than just formulas and lectures.
In spite of the recent downturn in the economy, the demand for engineers in the workforce has remained fairly strong. Yet the enrollment in the nation’s engineering programs has been flat and retention of students low, with less than half of entering engineering students receiving engineering degrees. Prospective engineers are attracted because of their curiosity about the way things work and their problem-solving creativity, but they often drop out of engineering programs because of dry theory that is disconnected from real life and rigidity in evaluation. In addition, engineering professors are recruited and rewarded for their prowess in research, while the majority of undergraduate students pursue careers in industry. We in engineering education are challenged to inspire students to creativity while requiring precise thinking, preparing them for a wide variety of careers. In two months spent as a participant in the Boeing A. D. Welliver Faculty Summer Fellowship, I observed that there is more to the development of an engineer than just formulas and lectures.
The Welliver fellowship’s objective is to provide faculty with an understanding of the practice of engineering, in the environment of a global corporation, in order to influence the content of undergraduate education. The approach is to expose a small group of faculty from targeted universities to the real-life activities of professional engineers in a variety of settings by “looking over their shoulders.” In the summer of 2001, I and 11 other professors from 11 different institutions were invited to participate. The institutions were chosen as those that provide significant numbers of engineers to the Boeing workforce.
The eight-week program was divided into three sessions. For the first week, all of the Welliver Fellows were brought together at a Boeing facility in Seal Beach, California to learn of the company, to get to know each other, and to have the program requirements clarified.
For the next six weeks, we each moved to a Boeing facility that was appropriate to our areas of expertise. As a structural engineer, I spent my time primarily with the commercial airplane portion of the enterprise in the Puget Sound area.
I worked closely with a Boeing mentor to work out a schedule that was coherent and complete. I visited all relevant locations in the area, including research laboratories, production facilities, engineering groups, and upper management. Each assignment generally included a tour and opportunities to present myself and meet with engineers and managers.
Wherever I went within the company, engineers were eager to discuss engineering education, both from the perspective of their own education and from their experiences with recent graduates. Several common themes on desirable attributes of engineers emerged.
• Recent graduates are generally perceived as being bright and skilled in computational techniques. While it is generally agreed that students are currently proficient in the basic engineering subjects, their biggest weakness is seen to be their lack of ability to perform reality checks and understand the “big picture.”
• Engineering is now practiced in teams. To be successful, engineers must develop communication, team building, and leadership skills.
• Desired attitudes include integrity, flexibility, curiosity, self-motivation, and social skills.
• All engineers will have to adapt to changes in technology during the course of their careers. The confidence and the flexibility to tackle new assignments are important attributes in engineers.
• One of the two paths of advancement for engineers within Boeing is in management. Indeed, project management is required to some degree of engineers at all levels. Engineers must be able to define the objective of a problem, lay out the required steps and define a schedule, work in a multidisciplinary team, and make decisions.
• Within Boeing, cost and the need to consider the business case have increased in importance over the past few years. While most engineers noted that business coursework in the undergraduate curriculum is not feasible, an awareness of business issues is desirable.
• Many engineers noted that their education was too theoretical and that they would have liked more practical insight and assignments.
I have concluded that, in my courses, I will place increased emphasis on the learning of concepts and acquisition of basic understanding as opposed to computational techniques. With increased understanding comes the ability to adapt to technological advances. In addition, term projects in my classes will now require consideration of cost, management, and teamwork.
Although creative techniques in the classroom are helpful in stimulating the intellectual growth of students, there is no substitute for practical experience. Many students participate in summer internships or more informal jobs in an engineering setting. However, the benefits are often hampered by a lack of true mentoring and appropriate activities on the job, a lack of opportunity for freshman and sophomore students, and the emphasis on productivity rather than student development. The experience could be improved by coordinating programs with the university, providing assessment of student performance and employer processes.
The development of successful engineers must be a partnership between universities and industry. With increased understanding by educators and industrial feedback, engineers will be better prepared for successful careers.
William Cofer is associate
professor of civil engineering.