Changes in Engineering Lead to Growth and Change At SPSU
By: Dr. Zvi Szafran, Vice President for Academic Affairs,
Southern Polytechnic State University
A few months ago, Dr. Richard Felder of North Carolina State University wrote in the Journal of Chemical Engineering Education (Vol. 40, p. 96, 2006),
“Since the 1960s, we have concentrated almost exclusively on equipping students with analytical (left-brain) problem-solving skills. Both Friedman (author of The World is Flat, Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2005) and Pink (author of A Whole New Mind, Riverhead Books, 2005) argue convincingly that most jobs calling for those skills can now be done better and/or cheaper by either computers or skilled foreign workers-and if they can be, they will be. They also predict that American workers with certain different (right-brain) skills will continue to find jobs in the new economy…”
Among the winners in the new economy identified by Felder are creative researchers; designers capable of creating attractive (as well as functional) products; holistic, multidisciplinary thinkers; people with strong interpersonal skills; people with language skills and cultural awareness; and self-directed learners.
This focus on right-brain skills is but the latest in a series of changes that have changed engineering and related fields and will continue to change them in the future. Most of society’s understanding of engineering is rooted in the 1940’s, when an engineer was someone who solved problems by applying science to the public need—someone who designed and built bridges, chemical plants or electronic components. It was unusual for engineers to have a degree beyond the bachelor’s, and when they did, it was usually an M.B.A. With the advent of the cold war (and then the launching of Sputnik), engineers have become more theoretically focused. While many engineers continue to practice in the traditional areas, entry-level positions now center on research and development, and increasing fractions of engineers pursue advanced degrees. As the boundaries of traditional engineering have faded, more companies find themselves in need of engineers who focus on interdisciplinary areas such as systems design, electromechanical components, quality, reliability and life-cycle costing. The traditional jobs performed by engineers are often now practiced by engineering technologists. Adding to the confusion are the facts that both groups are often classified on the job under the single designation of “engineers”, and that licensure requirements for the two are quite different.
Changes in engineering and engineering technology have led to dramatic changes at Southern Polytechnic State University. Located in Marietta, Georgia, SPSU was originally founded in 1948 as a branch of Georgia Tech, becoming an independent college in 1980 and a full-fledged university in 1996. Originally, SPSU focused on Engineering Technology with engineering being offered only at Georgia Tech. Things began to change in the late 1990’s, when SPSU added a number of engineering programs at both the bachelors and masters level, including Systems Engineering and Software Engineering. In 2006, the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia granted approval for SPSU’s first “core” engineering program in Construction Engineering. Approval is currently pending for a second core engineering program in Mechatronics Engineering, an interdisciplinary field that links mechanical and electrical engineering.
As SPSU adds engineering programs to our core strengths in engineering technology, we are compelled to take a fresh look at a variety of issues that have often been ignored or dealt with in incremental ways. A key question is: “What should the outcomes be for an engineering or engineering technology program?” Today’s cutting-edge technology is out-of-date all too quickly, and Felder’s right-brain argument seems increasingly pertinent.
To succeed, a graduate has to understand the current technology but also to have the flexibility to change with changing times. At SPSU, we believe that engineering and engineering technology programs will increasingly rely on the fusion of the liberal arts and technology to provide this flexibility. This can’t be done by taking a few courses on the side as done at most institutions—technology must be fused with the liberal arts throughout the curriculum, in order to get the full necessary background and understanding of how technology impacts society, to build artistic creativity, to reflect on how ethical issues relate to technology, and to appreciate what it means to effectively communicate in the electronic age. The old days of ultra-specialization (“Sorry, I’m not that kind of engineer”) and isolation from society (“What’s the difference between an extroverted and an introverted engineer? An extroverted engineer stares at your shoes”) are over, and never going to return. Engineering is forevermore an interdisciplinary, socially conscious profession.
A second key question is how to differentiate between our engineering and engineering technology programs. We have long prided ourselves on the fact that SPSU’s engineering technology programs are the “gold standard” for ET programs nation-wide. Unlike some programs elsewhere, our ET students take and apply mathematics to the level of differential equations, and incorporate a healthy dose of design in their courses. Our ET graduates find work as engineers, and many achieve professional licensure despite the impediments states place in their way. Employers in Georgia express a distinct preference for hiring SPSU graduates, due to their ability to “hit the ground running” and add value to the company from day one. As SPSU adds engineering programs, the outcomes for the two types of programs will have to be clear and distinct, as must be their degree requirements.
A third key question is a total rethinking of “Who is capable of becoming an engineer?” Many articles have recently been written arguing that there is an “engineering gap” developing between India and China on the one hand, and America on the other. Others have argued that the “gap” is greatly exaggerated. Regardless of current numbers, it seems clear that the world is becoming more technological rather than less, and that larger percentages of students will need a stronger scientific and engineering-based education.
Some sources for future engineering and ET students are obvious—only 25-30% of American engineering students are women, and even smaller percentages are African-American or Hispanic. That outreach programs are needed to broaden the pipeline of science and engineering students is well known, but less recognized is that these programs must start at the grade school level. Studies have shown that children as young as 10-11 are already making preliminary career choices and rejecting engineering for reasons that come down to a lack of understanding of what engineering really is.
Other potential sources of future engineers are less obvious. A student’s promise as a scientist or an engineer is often thought to correlate closely with their interest and ability in mathematics, and much less so with attributes such as curiosity and creativity. New ways of bringing creative and curious students into the field will have to be found, as will effective and innovative ways of having them learn calculus and physics. Another major problem is that engineering and ET programs are highly hierarchical, with no entrance points after the first semester of college. This rigid structure must change, in order to allow entrance to students who begin in non-engineering fields or at community and technical colleges, without having to start over again at step one.
A final key question is retroactivity. Many alumni have expressed a strong interest in returning to SPSU to obtain an engineering degree, in part due to the difficulty for ET graduates to achieve licensure in some states. SPSU is committed to working with ABET to find proactive ways of addressing this issue, whether through conversion programs or through a master’s degree.
Southern Polytechnic State University has enjoyed unprecedented growth and change in the past year, with our largest enrollment and broadest curriculum ever. Our future is bright and there are no limits—as long as we continue to squarely face and address issues of change in engineering and engineering technology.