By Oscar Barton, Jr., PE
Dean, Clarence M. Mitchell, Jr., School of Engineering
Morgan State University
Engineering schools must provide tomorrow’s problem solvers with the skills to address societal challenges.
Colleges and schools of engineering, like the one I serve, are charged with an awesome responsibility: educating the future engineers who will solve humanity’s most pressing societal challenges. Note the use of the word educating as what many would say is the primary function of institutions of higher learning. Yet there is a natural tension between education, which teaches the student how to think, and training, which instructs a person in how to do.
This distinction is brought to mind by “Training the Future Technical Workforce,” the thoughtful and well-argued cover story in the December 2022/January 2023 issue of this magazine. The article presented results from the Future of Manufacturing research report, jointly published by ASME and Autodesk in September 2022, and recommended a deeper collaboration between academia and industry to better prepare tomorrow’s engineering workforce to meet the rapidly evolving demands of Industry 4.0.
THE LINE BETWEEN EDUCATION AND TRAINING IS BLURRIER IN STEM DISCIPLINES THAN IN OTHER FIELDS.
The line between education and training is blurrier in STEM disciplines than in other fields—we train physicians and data scientists, for instance, but not our historians and poets. Most educators would argue that a university exists to create knowledge and not to serve as the de facto training department for private industry. Yet if an applied science degree doesn’t equip the graduate with the technical skills to solve real-world problems, how exactly can that technical knowledge be applied?
I pose the question not to take the reader down a philosophical rabbit hole, but to express agreement with the proposition asserted in the article that engineering education must provide tomorrow’s problem solvers with the knowledge and skills they’ll need to address societal challenges. It needs not only to be up to date with trends in current technology but also to equip students with the ability to anticipate next generation breakthroughs. It must encourage creative thinking even as it teaches disciplined problem-solving.
The Future of Manufacturing report investigated and identified the workflows and skills needed for mechanical engineering, manufacturing engineering, and CNC machinist roles over the next decade. One of the most actionable recommendations offered in the report is the need for impactful dialogue between industry and academia to ensure that both engineering and technical schools are producing career-ready graduates without compromising their mission to comprehensively educate their students.
Fortunately, there are existing venues for that dialogue, such as ASME’s annual MEED Conference, with the mission of examining mechanical engineering curriculum to ensure that it is current with state-of-the-art engineering. The Mechanical Engineering Education Summit, which receives support from the ASME Foundation, will be held in San Juan, P.R., from March 23 to 25. It convenes educators, businesspeople, and representatives from government to explore the intersection of education, employment, and public policy.
As a frequent participant in this conference, I can attest to its value and urge an even more robust industry presence at future events to deepen the interaction that already exists and is recommended in the Future of Manufacturing report.
Another potential avenue for strengthening this dialogue is ASME’s Industry Advisory Board, composed of a wide variety of engineering-related employers, from small consulting firms to mammoth manufacturing concerns. While this group tends to focus more on training and development of working engineers, among a wide range of other topics, its purview could expand to include industry’s perspective on engineering education and vice-versa.
The truth is that industry and academia have a lot more in common than not. Both are invested in developing engineers and engineering to advance technology and through it, our understanding of the world. Both believe that a more diverse, better-prepared technical workforce is necessary to build a more sustainable future.
To the extent that our interests diverge, dialogue is the bridge that leads to the best possible outcome.
OSCAR BARTON, JR., P.E., is dean of Morgan State University’s Clarence M. Mitchell, Jr., School of
Engineering, and a member of the ASME Foundation’s Board of Directors. To learn more about the ASME Foundation’s workforce development and sustainability initiatives, visit www.asmefoundation.org.