Liberal Education Way Forward for Engineers

In my last post Educating Engineers to Meet New Job Demands, I wrote about how required job skills for engineers are changing and how colleges across the United States need to catch up to industry. Well, here’s a little twist to the tale:

How many MIT engineers does it take to switch on a lightbulb?

Way too many, based on a test that some were given on their graduation day by interviewers who handed them a battery, a wire, and a bulb.

This video is pretty funny. But it suggests a bigger question. How do we prepare our young engineers for today’s workforce? Can a highly technical education fail to emphasise important skills like problem-solving, decision-making, creative thinking, and written and verbal communication? And are these skills highly valued in industry?

“I’m sure all these kids are genius, but the outcome is they can’t light a lightbulb,” says Wayne Johnson, assistant vice president for corporate relations at the California Institute of Technology and a former consultant to the National Science Foundation, the Government University Industry Research Roundtable, and Hewlett-Packard. “There just isn’t enough room to teach everything.” So guess what’s expendable? Practical skills.

Yet those are exactly the things employers, when pressed, say they need. In a survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, 89 percent of corporate executives said they wanted colleges to put more emphasis on verbal and written communication and 70 percent on creativity and innovation.

Universities and colleges are trying to meet both of these demands. They’re adding mandatory internships, real-world case studies, and co-op programs. But many are also responding with a campaign to promote liberal education—even for science and engineering majors—called Liberal Education for America’s Promise (LEAP).

“This notion that you have to focus on either knowledge or vocation is a false dichotomy,” says Ronald Crutcher, president of Wheaton College in Massachusetts and co-chair of LEAP. “What employers are looking for are the same kinds of analytical and problem-solving skills that we in colleges and universities are inculcating in our students.”

Especially, he says, at a time when the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the average college graduate will have a dozen different jobs before they’re 38. “If you’re not focusing on those other knowledge-based skills, you’re going to be doomed to entry-level jobs,” Crutcher says. “You have to be an agile learner.”

And that, says Lester F. Goodchild, an emeritus professor of education at Santa Clara University, is the real reason employers are frustrated with their workers. It’s not that they don’t understand how to do the basics of their jobs, he says. “It’s when someone says, I have this person who graduated with such and such and they can’t write a sentence.”

Another member of the LEAP committee says that this was driven home to her not from watching engineers at MIT fumbling with batteries and lightbulbs, or from having to decipher mangled memos. Her moment of epiphany came at the end of a meeting with Virginia technology-company executives.

“Whatever you do,” one said to her on the way out the door,” could you please teach the engineers to write?”

Photo: No, don’t take that! by Thanakrit Gu on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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One thought on “Liberal Education Way Forward for Engineers”

  1. Himanshu saxena says:

    Thats very good piece of information and advice,thank you for sharing.I also personally think that communication is very much needed apart from the knowledge as it cannot be learnt from the books but by going out there and expressing yourself fully sometimes just wrapping yourself in a nice gift pack filled with etiquettes and order at the same time being cool and humourous.

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