Monday, March 25, 2013

Insight to a "T" in Mechanical Engineering

It's that time again when I extol the virtues of some articles in Mechanical Engineering magazine (this time the April 2013 issue).

First comes The Psychology of Insight, an article about three relatively simple things that engineering professors can do to keep students from changing majors out of Mech Engr. And they do seem relatively simple but have been shown to actually work.
  1. Use everyday examples in lectures. Because students will likely have had experience with these things it keeps them more engaged and promotes understanding. This idea also addresses a complaint of employers, that new graduates lack practical knowledge.
  2. Develop 3D spatial/visual reasoning skills. There's something called the Purdue Spatial Visualization Test that serves as a predictor of student success in courses like graphics or CAD. Furthermore, work by students to improve their PSVT score has a direct influence on grades.
  3. Ensure faculty-student interaction outside the classroom. This information interaction not only provides positive feedback but helps students see the professors as members of the profession.
Second was To a T: Recruiters Finding Breadth Outscores Depth in Engineering in which we learn that engineers with a broader skill set (the horizontal line in a letter "T") are more prized by companies than those with a deeper skill set (the vertical line in a letter "T"). Part of the reasoning is that a broad skill set promotes system-wide thinking and breaks down barriers to working with other disciplines. Personally, I believe it's paramount that an undergraduate engineering education provide students with a significant breadth of capability.

Just so that you don't think I'm a blind Mech Engr fan boi, I'll cite a letter to the editor in this issue that may be one of the most depressing things I've read about the profession. It starts out "It is true that a tiny fraction of engineers are allowed boldly creative work. The rest of us make careful calculations to effect small modifications." It's as though the author thinks most engineers are Milton from Office Space. The author believes that engineering is oversold by professors who are able to consult on the most challenging industry problems and are accordingly blinded to what most engineers actually do. (Which is contrary to the old adage that those who can, do; those who can't, teach.) Perhaps the most damning part of this letter is the statement that engineering careers can become obsolete as opposed to a psychologist who can keep practicing for an entire career based on their university education. I doubt the latter is true. And if you become obsolete, you only have yourself to blame. The author also (mistakenly, in my opinion) believes that companies are more likely to pay for entry-level engineers who have been "trained in all the hottest new methods" as opposed to someone with 30 years experience. Repeat after me - an engineering undergraduate education is not a trade school that results in training in "hot" methods. (See above about breadth.) Also, an engineer with 30 years experience should be able to learn new tools. [Hmm, why did I write more about the article I didn't like than the two that I did?]

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