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Education models need a 'major shake up' to produce future engineers

19 September 2017 (by admin)

Smart factories, robots, virtual reality, gesture control, haptics and 5G. Engineers are building, shaping, crafting the future – but they are already “a different breed of people than the engineers we educated in the 20th century”.

Smart factories, robots, virtual reality, gesture control, haptics and 5G.


Engineers are building, shaping, crafting the future – but they are already “a different breed of people than the engineers we educated in the 20th century”.

That’s James Plummer’s opinion, anyway. And Plummer should know what he’s talking about – he’s an engineering professor and former dean at Stanford University, California. “I used to tell students it doesn’t matter what we teach you because it will be obsolete when you graduate, so go out and have a good time,” he said at a recent engineering summit in San Francisco. With increasing automation, he added, education must focus on producing engineers who do what computers can’t. And on keeping students interested and engaged for the whole degree course – which isn’t easy.

“We send new undergraduates off to take maths and science and tell them to come back if they survive, so dropout rates are 50% or more,” said Plummer. “This kind of education, which shuts out opportunities to explore the liberal arts, is structured so that most students say, ‘Why do that when I can do more interesting things in life?’.” So they leave. Or they leave after they get a diploma.

C for 'creativity'

In the UK, fewer than half of all engineering students become professional engineers after earning their degrees, according to last year’s Royal Academy of Engineering report.

So there’s a dearth of suitable job candidates. Universities, meanwhile, often lack forward-looking degree programmes, while their training is less and less relevant as product cycles shorten. Little wonder that ever more people argue for a radical shift in engineering education, towards more interdisciplinary qualifications and clearer, more consistent roadmaps for apprenticeships.

In the UK alone, estimates suggest that 1.8 million new engineers and technicians are needed by 2025, but a recent report from the Pew Research Centre predicts that education programmes are incapable of making adjustments within the next decade to meet the needs of job markets.