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Engineering School Grads - Tradesmen or Thinkers? 325

Posted by Cliff
from the do-we-want-our-graduates-in-or-out-of-the-box dept.
El Cubano asks: "ITworld is carrying a story (sorry, no printable version) saying that John Seely Brown (former chief scientist at Xerox and director of PARC, currently teaching at the University of Southern California) is encouraging engineering schools to change the way they educate. The article, quotes Mr. Brown saying the following: 'Training someone for a career makes no sense. At best, you can train someone for a career trajectory...'. What do you think? Should engineering schools be producing tradesmen (like an apprenticeship program) or should they be producing 'thinkers' (people who can cope with a wide variety of problem inside and outside their area of expertise)?"
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Engineering School Grads - Tradesmen or Thinkers?

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  • handle (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Lotharjade (750874)
    More hands on training would be nice. I find a tradional engineering program is more books than experience.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      Exarctly.

      I graduated the EDDT (Engineering Design and Drafting Technology) course at TRU, and so far I have not done ONE thing that have been trained to do there. Sure, I've got a skill base, but I have to find a job within those parameters, and then I have to learn almost everything about that job, before I can be halfway competent.

      Know what I learned the most doing in that course (as well as several people in my class?) The summer between first and second years, I helped build a 3000 sq.ft. house.

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Lotharjade (750874)
        In Mechanical engineering it is good to have a hands-on project that have specific goals. At my University [uaf.edu] there are a few yearly projects you can sign onto (rocket project, ice arch [uaf.edu], steel bridge project [uaf.edu]) but these are few, and only the ice arch is integrated with an course room instruction. I wish more projects like that were integrated with the curriculum and available. I expect to learn some similar structural information when I try to design and build my own cabin this summer.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by dawnzer (981212)
        It would be next to impossible for a civil engineering program to incorporate hands-on skills for ever imaginable subset. It would be too specialized. Besides, that is what the 4 years as an engineer-in-training is for. It takes a lot more than 4 years to learn everything you need to be an engineer.

        I don't know a single engineering employer that expects you to know anything right out of college. You said it yourself - you have the base for them to build on an train you on what they specifically need you
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by gripen40k (957933)
          I totally agree with you here.
          I'm a third year electrical engineering student at the University of Calgary, and I can say that classes are more about the knowledge base than about whether you can use them in a career. They teach you to learn quickly and efficiently, and that's what employers are looking for. To even become an accredited engineer [apegga.org] you need to have 4 years of on-the-job experience, because learning in class is only half of the actual education. There are also programs such as internship [ucalgary.ca] that a
    • Re:handle (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Tyr_7BE (461429) on Thursday January 18, 2007 @10:11PM (#17675296)
      That's why you take a co-op or internship program. I did 4 months of work for every 4 months of school I went through. By the end of my degree I had 2 and a half years of real industry experience.

      And contrary to what most people think, most places won't put you to work fetching coffee. I was developing firmware for embedded devices and working on operating systems for most of my co-ops.
    • Re:handle (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Jake73 (306340) on Thursday January 18, 2007 @10:23PM (#17675428) Homepage
      Couldn't disagree with you more.

      Schools have tremendous resources available for those that want to put down the beer and get hands-on experience. The next 40 yrs of engineering will be hands-on experience.

      What matters most for the 4 yrs is the density of education. And that comes from learning how to think, analyze, learn new methods, etc. Hands-on apprenticeships are typically little more than pattern-matching. A good education builds mental capability for a wide variety of pursuits.

      A decade later, that apprentice is worthless when the market changes and he no longer has a job. With a good education, one can easily come up to speed on a completely new style of engineering because he has the mental tools to be effective.

      In their efforts to woo corporations and become more competitive as corporations themselves, higher education has become a whore to the corporate agenda and that has (and will continue to) damage the future preparedness of our students.
  • I think ... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by thrillseeker (518224) on Thursday January 18, 2007 @08:23PM (#17673964)
    thinkers - it's in darn short supply in the real world.
    • Agreed, but is a thinker born or made?

      The best thinkers I've been around have been the ones who were self taught and educated themselves. I also noted that unless they have some sort of benefactor they're all working minimum wage jobs so they can think in the evening.

      Now if we could just get the physics world to acknowledge tokomak was all about funding and zero about providing energy then some new blood can go off and look in remains of cold fusion etc for the way forward.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      Thinkers that can't do are worthless, sure they can learn, but it still takes a while and that costs money. Doers that can't think...can be used up like so much paper, but there's a dollar value that can be assigned in closed form. Business is about shipping product profitably. Businesses necessarily WANT people who already know how to do, and are the perfect size cog for their machine. They NEED cogs that adapt to their machine as time wears on, and can make it better, but are necessarily so short sighted
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Lally Singh (3427)
        No, if we do that, then we'd have a lot more Bushes elected to the white house.

        Society needs an educated populace. The thing is people forget that 4 years isn't much time to learn enough for the next 50.

        The current system lets people go to grad school, which is heavy thinking, when they want more. At 18-21, there's only so much thinking they're gonna do. It's also probably the only time they're intellectually green enough to have the patience for all that training (later on, people need to be sold on its
  • Both (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Cracked Pottery (947450) on Thursday January 18, 2007 @08:23PM (#17673970)
    I am not sure the question makes sense. Engineering is about solving problems. That isn't a rote field, but teaching the solving of problems is done by example. Ideally you want to educate somebody able to solve a novel problem.
    • Re:Both (Score:4, Insightful)

      by topherhenk (998915) on Thursday January 18, 2007 @08:42PM (#17674222)
      It really does require both aspects. Unfortunately when I went to school ('93 mech eng) it was strictly book learning with no connection to actual problems. I was sick of just solving differential equations by the time I graduated, thus did not seek an engineering job. A little connection to reality and the like would have kept my interest after graduation.
      That said, It took awhile, but I eventually came back to engineering and the focus that was used while I was in school, and deeper understanding of the physics permitted me to jump back in after a decade and succeed far more then if it had steered toward a tradesman approach that I see others had.
      • by Frogbert (589961)
        I don't know how it works in America but where I live most Engineers must do at least a year of work placement as part of their degree.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by topherhenk (998915)
          Some schools have that sort of program but very few do. There should be more help from professors with getting students into internships for summers, which would provide this experience. I went to a university which had a research focus. Thus, as an undergrad there was not much interaction with professors,(and yes I tried.) I have since completed my M.S. and saw the amount of time professors needed to spend trying to get grants and publications for tenure, (one of the reasons why I did not continue for a
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Shaper_pmp (825142)
        Exactly.

        All book-learnin' and no experience makes you flexible for the future, but practically useless for the first year or more of professional work. This means companies have to pick up the slack and train you to do a job once you've already been educated. Companies don't like this and students resent the fact they've spent X years learning and must now spend X more years training, but it gives the best results (and the best engineers) overall.

        All training and no education is a recipe for disaster - yo
    • I am not sure the question makes sense. Engineering is about solving problems. That isn't a rote field, but teaching the solving of problems is done by example. Ideally you want to educate somebody able to solve a novel problem.

      <rant>
      The problem is that engineering students are spoon-fed book-learning in the traditional system but they are rarely forced to apply that learning to solving a real problem that accurately simulates what they'll be expected to do when they start working for a living. Engineering studies should try to compromise between the traditional spoon-feeding of knowledge and some way of simulating what you will do most of the time in the real world which is solving problems using the book-knowledge but in

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by JohnNevets (924868)
      I agree completely. I went to school for Mech. Eng. but had a tough time finding a job out of school. So I took a job doing simple design work with mostly tech school grads in drafting. I may not have been as quick at CAD as these others, but after a couple of months I could get twice as much done. This was because I could adjust, they only knew what to do if they had done it before. It's not that these folks weren't smart enough to adjust, they were never tought to think for them selves, to solve prob
    • by AK Marc (707885)
      Engineering is about solving problems. That isn't a rote field, but teaching the solving of problems is done by example. Ideally you want to educate somebody able to solve a novel problem.

      Most of engineering (the actual jobs people with degrees get) is actually rote. Checklists for valves. Plugging in manufacturers numbers into cfm equations for HVAC systems. Making a wiring diagram for a building just like the last 10, except this one is *7* stories, not 8.

      Engineering that is problem solving are the
      • Re:Both (Score:4, Insightful)

        by CalSolt (999365) on Thursday January 18, 2007 @10:25PM (#17675458)
        I don't know which industry you work in, but real engineering is nothing like that. New systems are being designed every day, in every industry. You need bright, innovative thinkers to design them quickly, cheaply, and reliably. Just think about all the new technologies that are in the pipeline- alternate fuels for transportation, better microprocessors, higher bandwidth data processing/transmission, better weapons of all kinds, bio-mechanical systems, optics, sturdier structures, more advanced AI- the list is endless. Every modern problem has many competing companies and requires hundreds or even thousands of engineers in research and development. Not to mention the many thousands more that take the fundamental solutions to these problems then optimize them and integrate them into bigger systems for sale to the consumer.

        Engineers who are doing rote jobs like checking valves obviously aren't very useful as thinkers, so they're stuck doing mindless things.
  • by emor8t (1033068) on Thursday January 18, 2007 @08:26PM (#17674008)
    It takes both. Producing "thinkers" gives us people who understand what is going on, and can analyze situations.

    Problem is, they tend to over complicate somethings.

    For example. Who would you hire to do the wiring in your house, and electrician or an electrical engineer?

    Granted this is an extreme situation, but in theory, shouldn't both be able to do the task? Yes. However, an electrician has done it many times before and has the benefit of experience.

    Now, who do you wanted designing a NASA space vehicle?

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by smallfries (601545)
      The other problem is that while someone can learn how to think, it is very difficult to teach someone to think. A good engineer is one who understand why not to over-complicate the problem. People can be shown various sets of problems with a common theme, but it takes something from them to understand the connections.

      As far as the NASA spacecraft goes ... someone who understands the principles and applications of duct tape. Lots of duct tape...
    • by dbIII (701233) on Thursday January 18, 2007 @10:10PM (#17675288)
      You have engineers to do something new - not to run cable and use a screwdriver - the guy who does that all day is going to be a lot better at it and real tradespeople know a lot about their specific feild. An engineer may not be able to weld well at all but is more likely to be able to develop a procedure to deal with a difficult welding situation than an experienced welder - after all the engineer has access to far more than one persons experience from references and is willing to apply problem solving techniques instead of blindly just giving something a go to see if it will work with no idea why (a usual computer usage technique too).

      Just because it is now fashionable to call people who are not engineers OR tradespeople by the name engineer is no reason to try to dumb it all down.

    • by cyclone96 (129449) * on Thursday January 18, 2007 @11:43PM (#17676252)
      Now, who do you wanted designing a NASA space vehicle?

      As an engineer that is involved in hiring for NASA, I want an element of both. While course content and (to a lesser degree) GPA are important, I really need people who are able to quickly learn new things and work with people. Many of the problems we have are unique and you'd never be exposed to them in school. In a lot of cases even new guys get tasks that require a lot of digging, thinking, and research to solve.

      It's challenging to get a new hire to stop thinking in terms of rigid sets of problems on a short (no longer than a semester) timetable which they solve largely by themselves. They need to adjust to understanding how to work on projects that no one person may understand, involve chasing some dead ends, and bring together ideas and work from several people or organizations.

      As the article puts it:

      "The best way to achieve that goal is to change the classroom from a lecture hall dominated by a "sage on stage" to smaller social groups that allow students to creatively participate in the research themselves, he said."

      Right on. This sort of experience currently isn't a given when someone walks into your office for an interview with a BS in engineering. We end up looking for folks that got this experience in extracurriculars, usually through a leadership role in a project like the solar cars or small satellites that a lot of universities are participating in.

  • Trade schools (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday January 18, 2007 @08:26PM (#17674012)
    College should be about creating thinkers. It's just like CS majors vs programmers at a tech school.
    Sure both can program but who develops the sophisticated software that run super computer simulations?
    The CS major. The other programming just write the supporting code usually. There are exceptions just
    like everything else though.
    • Re:Trade schools (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Average_Joe_Sixpack (534373) on Thursday January 18, 2007 @08:39PM (#17674186)
      Sure both can program but who develops the sophisticated software that run super computer simulations? The CS major. The other programming just write the supporting code usually.

      Most likely the math or physics major. CS has become a joke, and most curriculum's resemble job training in Visual Studio.
      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by badboy_tw2002 (524611)
        A good CS program will have theoretical courses on CS topics: OS, compilers, concurrency, graphics, etc etc. Once one of the text books has a specific tech of the day or "Programming in" in the title, you might as well pack it in and get an associates IT degree. Learning how to program has very little place in a CS program. Its like construction skills in an architecture school - you have to know about it, maybe even how to do some of it to truly master your area of expertise, but that's not what your at
      • Re:Trade schools (Score:4, Informative)

        by Dan Farina (711066) on Thursday January 18, 2007 @09:01PM (#17674500)
        Oh, I don't know...

        I think most of the top ten, twenty, or even thirty universities in the nation probably still teach academic computer science...

        Example:
        http://inst.eecs.berkeley.edu/classes-eecs.html#cs [berkeley.edu]

        The CS9[A-Z] courses you see there are only worth one unit, not part of any required curricula, are self-paced, and are pass/no pass -- in other words, entirely optional and for the benefit of curious students.

        The requirements for a degree in EECS at this university are CS61[ABC] and EE(CS)?(20|40). If you look at the upper division courses, you will see things like:


                    CS150 Components and Design Techniques for Digital System... [archives]
                    CS152 Computer Architecture and Engineering [archives]
                    CS160 User Interface Design and Development [archives]
                    CS161 Computer Security [archives]
                    CS162 Operating Systems and System Programming [archives]
                    CS164 Programming Languages and Compilers [archives]
                    CS169 Software Engineering [archives]
                    CS170 Efficient Algorithms and Intractable Problems [archives]
                    CS172 Computability and Complexity [archives]
                    CS174 Combinatorics and Discrete Probability [archives]
                    CS182 The Neural Basis of Thought and Language [archives]
                    CS184 Foundations of Computer Graphics [archives]
                    CS186 Introduction to Database Systems [archives]
                    CS188 Introduction to Artificial Intelligence [archives]
                    CS191 Quantum Information Science and Technology [archives]


        They don't seem like industry shills to me.
        • For completeness: And five upper division courses, with one being a "design course," that is to say a course with a substantial programming project.
      • > CS has become a joke, and most curriculum's resemble job training

        Some of us are wondering what your school's writing curriculum was like.

    • but who develops the sophisticated software that run super computer simulations?
      The CS major.
      Does it need lots of people who develop super computer simulations?

      How's about a modular approach? Let students choose what they think they need.

       
      • Does [the market] need lots of people who develop super computer simulations?
        You wouldn't have guessed it 5-10 years ago, but these skills will shortly be in high demand. Once 4+ core CPUs (with 80-core already in development) become the norm, what used to be called "super computers" will be called "desktop computers" in the near future.
    • Sure both can program but who develops the sophisticated software that run super computer simulations?
      The CS major.


      Nonsense! I've found schooling has little to do with a coders ability.

      Most coders I know who are extraordinary at the craft have a passion for it. If your interest in programming ends after you land your first job you're always going to be a shit coder.
  • by scourfish (573542) <scourfish.yahoo@com> on Thursday January 18, 2007 @08:27PM (#17674034)
    The college part of educating engineers boils down to quickly teaching basics and cram assloads of math, both which are needed. The training and specialization happens on the job in usually an apprentice like manner. In many cases, co-ops or internships are very similar to apprenticeships, and in my case, I had 2 years experience working on electronics under an engineer before I got serious and started college. My boss taught me many practical things, however to learn everything that college could have taught me under my boss would've taken a million bajillion years. If the education part of it does need to be changed slightly, then I'd require engineers to take a course or work alongside the construction workers or assembly line workers or machinists for a short period of time.
  • by r00t (33219)
    Without the trade education, you'll never get that first job.

    Beyond that, there isn't much the school can do. Either you're a thinker, or you're not a thinker. This isn't something for a school to teach.

    The best you can ask is that high-reputation schools simply discard all the non-thinkers, so that a degree from one of those schools indicates that you are a thinker.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by thenickboy (171660)

      Without the trade education, you'll never get that first job.

      I don't know about that. I'm a mech eng. One thing that bothered me about my university is that it pumped out tons of engineers who'd never picked up a screw driver and had no idea about things like torque patterns, wrench usage, or even which size of screwdriver to fit into various phillips (+) screw heads. Anyd my company hired them!

      Those are things that they should have learned in school, esp since we have to design things for lots of people to

  • by tempestdata (457317) on Thursday January 18, 2007 @08:30PM (#17674074)
    As a grad student at USC and someone who has studied under Mr. Brown, I'll say that I have to agree. Atleast as far I am concerned, I wouldn't want my professors to be teaching me a specific technology or system. I want them to teach me to think at a higher level. I mean if you really want to learn a technology well, do you really need a classroom and a professor? Can't you just pick up a few books, download some tools/compilers/etc. and learn it yourself?

    On the other hand, what professor's teach you isn't so much how to code in Java or write PHP. What a professor teaches you (atleast the ones I've studied under here at USC) is how they (or other experts) tackled/approached engineering problems in the past, which IMO is more valuable.. in other words.. they impart more wisdom than knowledge. I think most good engineering schools would follow a similar pattern of teaching.
  • The program [alaska.edu] I graduated from definitely aimed to put out thinkers. They told us that technology would change many times during our careers, and we could only remain valuable if we understood underlying principles, and could apply them in novel ways. That was 25 years ago, but it sounds a lot like the contents of the TFA.

    So, we were doing it 25 years ago, we still need to do it today, what have the schools been doing in the time in between?

    • So, we were doing it 25 years ago, we still need to do it today, what have the schools been doing in the time in between?
      They've been responding to the demands of the companies that provide them with grant money: crank out people we can hire today with minimal post-hire training. Ideally, ones who will work cheaply so that we can keep a lid on salaries for the senior staff who we can accuse of being "behind the times."
  • Hands-On (Score:4, Insightful)

    by billdar (595311) * <yap> on Thursday January 18, 2007 @08:31PM (#17674088) Homepage
    Learning is a constant process and required in engineering. The Tradesmen vs. Theory is one I debate all the time with my colleagues. What it comes down to is who comes out ready to produce.

    I graduated from an engineering university that focused on real-world hands on engineering. It has been my general observation that when it comes to taking a project from design to field implementation, engineers from theoretical schools tend to:

    1. Not know where to start
    2. Over design the project
    3. Have a general disconnect between paper engineering and field engineering.

    It may be a bit of envy, I still have to go back to my text book for the requisite math, but the hands-on guys seem to have an advantage.

    • Re:Hands-On (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward on Thursday January 18, 2007 @09:20PM (#17674726)
      God I'd love to be able to hire people with an ability to finish projects. That's why I refuse to hire CS grads. They're useless. The best programmers I hired had degrees in things like Russian Literature and Psychology (no shit). Theory isn't useless, but theory for the sake of theory is fucking useless. Same thing with the engineers. I've never gone wrong hiring an engineer who's a ham radio nut. However, most new engineers are useless. They're absoblutely incapable of building something. They're incapapble of picking standard designs and putting them together into something that will work without a ton of lab equpiment. Ham's however, have that part of engineering down.

      END RANT
    • Re:Hands-On (Score:4, Interesting)

      by debrain (29228) on Thursday January 18, 2007 @09:25PM (#17674780) Journal
      I agree. I work with some engineering firms, and these are businesses. They hire graduates of an engineering school with a view to employing them as engineers within the known scope of engineering. Adam Smith's theory of specialization is enhanced by efficiently producing effective specialized workers, not by producing generalist thinkers who need subsequent training to become effective engineers. (Ultimately mind you, there may be an argument that a generalist thinker will eventually produce more output than a worker; I don't know, personally) Thus, a vocational school has a definite advantage, and the working world requires more effective engineers.

      Those who want to have a generalist "thinker" engineering career can take a masters or Ph.D. in engineering. I think it's at that level that it makes sense to start broadening the theoretical view.
  • Problem (Score:5, Informative)

    by mikers (137971) on Thursday January 18, 2007 @08:36PM (#17674144)
    As a university (Engineering school) graduate, I can say that employers today (with the exception of a handful of big utility companies) want employees trained on: the exact technology they will be working on, the latest and up to date tools and projects using specific technology. The whole thinking aspect or training employees on something specific -- hiring proven generalists such as those produced by engineering schools (someone trained for a career) is something from a time past.

    From the employer side, competition these days is as bad as it ever was, particularly from overseas, and justifies the need to think short term (someone who can fill a particular position NOW, rather than someone who can fill it a little later but arguably might be a better long term investment for the company).

    This is not putting down trade-type training, and to those thinking of being critical of my stance... Consider this: Would you want a high school graduate fresh out of school installing the electrical wiring in your house? Wouldn't you want a trade with some education doing it? Wouldn't you want a well educated doctor operating on you that has had an additional two years of specialty training in some obscure area rather than a GP? Would you rather have someone who is trained to think in terms of more basic principles and math rather than someone educated only on the latest technology and gizmos?

    The answer is that it ultimately depends on need: if a tradesperson will do, don't hire an engineer! And if you need to look beyond the current technology but need some serious thinking, don't hire a tradeperson!

    Duh!

  • The question is hardly new but it's just one of the many unsolved problems in education. How to test? How to teach effectively? How to motivate students? How to train teachers properly? Have any of these been properly addressed yet?
  • people who can cope with a wide variety of problem inside and outside their area of expertise

    They much more likely to find innovative solutions (though not "pretty" ones) and be innovators.

  • Employers? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by metlin (258108) * on Thursday January 18, 2007 @08:38PM (#17674168) Journal
    Employers?

    Leave them alone for a moment, think of the people themselves.

    Most do not want to think for themselves and would rather do something mundane that pays the bills.

    The percentage of people that actually want to think for their living is quite dismal in the grand scheme of things.

    Secondly, look at who is more respected/has more resources in the society -- a "pop" star or a mathematician?

    While the mathematician may be content with what s/he may have, society for the most part does not care about its "thinkers".

    If we did, there would be far more folks out there doing things like pure mathematics, theoretical physics and other abstract areas that genuinely require thinking (not to discount the thinking in engineering and applied sciences, but pure sciences generally require more of a deidication than applied sciences and engineering).

    So while engineering schools may be geared towards thinking, the question boils down to how many jobs out there require you to think as opposed to obey? How many people out there like people that think rather than do as they are told (while doing as you are told is certainly an important part of your learning experience, how many folks here have felt that they could find a better solution than the ones they have been asked to implement?).

    No, if you want thinkers you need a society that encourages thinking.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by turing_m (1030530)
      Not only that, you need a government and media committed to encouraging thinkers to have more kids, and sooner, than non-thinkers. This applies particularly to intelligent women. Sterilizing stupid people is not necessary.

      Genetics determines the limits, environment determines where an individual lies between zero and his limit. It's called norm of reaction. If those limits keep lowering, no amount of government focus on polishing turds is going to make us a nation of thinkers.
  • Doesn't matter. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Bluesman (104513) on Thursday January 18, 2007 @08:40PM (#17674202) Homepage
    I really like the ideas presented in the article. I'd love to go to a school where independent projects were the norm and lectures weren't. But even if all schools were like this, nothing would change. Colleges, professors, schools, and most institutions don't have as much influence on people as they like to believe.

    For a "thinker" that's motivated to become an engineer, the vast amount of learning will be outside of the classroom, and would probably take place whether that classroom was there or not. True, the right program will facilitate the development of such a person, but in the end, these people are naturally curious self-starters, and would probably succeed without a formal education anyway.

    Then you have the people who go to school to put a check in a box, and who hope that getting the right qualifications on paper will land them a job. These people will do whatever is necessary to get the qualification, whether it be going to lectures, doing projects, what have you. In the end, they'll also likely succeed in getting a job, but they'll likely never be the creative types with new ideas, no matter how they were taught.

    The difference is one of personality and attitude. It doesn't matter how you teach. Changing the curriculum won't change the people.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by TheVoice900 (467327)
      Exactly! All the most successful and brightest (real-world smarts, not just good at getting high grades in their courses) people I've met throughout my university career are those that have a genuine passion for what they are doing, and a strong desire to learn. They do many projects outside the scope of their studies, and spend a great deal of time outside of their courses learning additional skills. I have no doubt that these people would be successful regardless of the structure of their program (Which,
  • You need a balance. An engineering program should still be rich in Math, Literature, Science and other things that require the brain to think in different ways.

    But at the end of the program, it would be nice if you weren't completely useless to potential employeers. Part of that is going to be something approaching vocational training - learning a commonly used programming language in a computer science program. But to have both good thinkers produced and be vocationally useful, you need those programming c
  • My chosen career path is architecture, not engineering, but there's a lot in common. My education was very theoretical, much more concerned with spatial theory, aesthetic concerns, useability isues, etc. We very lightly brushed on the physical realities of architecture (structures classes were a joke, materials and methods stuff was very simple). I enjoyed it, and learned a lot, but when I got a job in the profession, I was very unprepared for the day to day stuff that I have to handle. Basically in school
  • Since I'm currently recruiting for an NCG.

    My vote is for someone who understands the fundamentals and how to extend them -- thinkers, in other words. Education, not training. The well-trained monkeys start out with a few months head start in knowing tools (if they're lucky) and after that fall behind for the rest of their careers. Before you know it their only options are Marketing and Management.

    I'll second the unanimous opinion of the professors we spoke with at quite a few Universities when the bo

  • here's 2 examples (Score:3, Interesting)

    by dweebzilla (871704) on Thursday January 18, 2007 @08:45PM (#17674286)
    I know Tufts is addressing it by asking engineering students to take classes outside their chosen area - to broaden them a little, but mostly offering courses that might help future grads benefit and or profit from their innovations instead of letting their employer take all credit and profit. (Things like learning a little about IP laws, how patents work, and how to apply.. ) All stuff designed to help the little guy.

    Daniel Pink also addresses this issue from another angle in his book "A whole new mind" he asserts we will only move forward by combining both left-brain and right-brain skills. While I'm not 100% on board with all the things he talks about, I think his direction is right on point.
  • In Australia... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by alchemy101 (961551) on Thursday January 18, 2007 @08:47PM (#17674306)
    I think in Australia traditionally you had technical colleges (such as TAFE) and Universities providing a clear difference in the direction of things being taught. Technical colleges producing "tradesmen" and Universities producing "thinkers".
    The problem has been that increasingly universities have been seen by consumers as a way of getting a job rather than as a pathway to higher learning as academia and thus there is expection by them, to be taught "practical" skills. I think a reason for this is there is a small stigma attached to technical and trade colleges as being "dumber" than their uni counterparts. I think in this way, the problem is that consumers do not really understand what the function of universities are.
  • How about letting some schools do it one way and other schools can do it the other way. There could even be schools that exist somewhere in between on the same spectrum. Then, individuals can choose whatever they think is the most appropriate for them when deciding where to study.

    Nah. Lets just force everybody to do it the same way. ;-)
  • and hopefully our education system in the future will reflect some of these truisms. Whether it be private industry or public education that adopts to these changes does not matter. What does matter is that the idea of going to college and getting a degree and then intellectually vegetating at some cushy job the rest of your life is sooooooooooooo 20th century. In the new millenium people will have to take the personal initiative to keep learning and keep themselves educated whether they are in their 20's o
  • From my experience they are already doing both. I studied biomedical engineering, and to a fair degree the kind of education one received depended on what one sought. There were those that rote learned the material (and did too damn well, in my opinion), and those that tried to understand it.

    Then there were those that did neither. A year or two ago, I had one graduate ask me to "clarify" the difference between AC and DC... There should be a mechanism to revoke degrees...
  • The problem is theoretical educations leaves out the implementation stage of the equation entirely. This is the more important stage and involves rational thinking, business understanding, and experience.

    The problem with teaching only a trade is that everything cannot be covered and even if it could be covered it would be obsolete before the student graduated.

    What is needed is a happy medium where students get lots of theory but then are shown how to implement something real and tangible so these stud
  • by istartedi (132515) on Thursday January 18, 2007 @08:57PM (#17674444) Journal

    The easy part: Trade schools graduate technicians, universities graduate engineers.

    The hard part: Getting people to respect a good technician more than a bad engineer. Getting people to pay technicians what they're worth.

    The likely outcome: Universities will continue to slouch towards vocational teaching that could have been done at the trades or in highschool. People will spend 4 years at mediocre state Us to avoid the stigma of not having a BS, which is the new highschool diploma. The masters will become the new BS.

    My father had a GED. I've got a BS. If I ever have a kid, he'll probably need a masters to match his old man's career.

  • I have to say I've witnessed this problem/challenge from multiple standpoints - as someone looking to hire a programmer, and as a self taught programmer looking at going to get a formal degree. As someone responsible for hiring programmers to assist me with my work I was somewhat surprised that the vast majority of CS graduates (engineers) knew the technicalities of the programming languages, but with no real world experience still had to be spoon fed exactly how to use those skills to solve a problem. As
  • The article stresses that schools should focus more on life time learning rather than specific skills. This is great in theory but IMO an interest in life long learning comes down to your own motivation and enthusiasm. There are lots of people who just don't want to spend time learning after school.

    On the subject of "thinker" vs "tradesman", this is a somewhat silly argument. Any good engineering school will help you learn how to use your basic skills to attack problems while also giving you the tools to
  • In my job, I spend a large amount of time at many different companies. I've worked with dozens of engineers over the years, and my experience is that the majority of them are not good problem solvers.

    They've been taught the basics of engineering (general and the details for their fields), but most couldn't handle anything beyond a simple troubleshooting problem. What's really frustrating are those who have supposedly been trained in things like six sigma yet can't even throw together the simplest experimen
  • Given that education works on quarters or semesters, it's tough to really make all that much progress in a 10 or 15 week course, if it's all about collaboration. Plus, with college scheduling, it's awfully tough with the given time blocks.

    I will say, I had a fairly "theoretical" based education -- BS in Physics and MS in Electrical Engineering from Stanford. Now the EE program at Stanford was *very* hands-off... I spent a day or two calculating (on paper) what an optimal caching strategy was for L1, L2, a
  • by Statecraftsman (718862) * on Thursday January 18, 2007 @09:32PM (#17674862) Homepage
    Education is not about filling a role. It's also not about setting a trajectory whatever that means.

    Education is about inspiring each student to do their best. Point out the flaws in their work and challenge them to go beyond what they and others have done before.
  • Would be nice... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by lelitsch (31136) on Thursday January 18, 2007 @09:38PM (#17674940)
    But thinkers is not what most employers want in the freshly graduated engineers they hire. They want someone they can put onto project x using software y or tool z on day one, no matter how much their CEOs might talk about how they want "thinker" and "pioneers". There are some exceptions, but "I can layout amplifier circuits in ORCAD, program in Matlab and have never looked at anything except radar" will get you into the door at, say, Raytheon much faster than "I learned that I am good at problem solving". Now, it's a different story for engineering masters or PhD grads, but still most HR people prefer the skills match, be it Matlab or AutoCad, over the intangible qualities. This is at least partly due to the fact that you can't easily judge them in a resume and a short interview, but also because the engineering manager tells them "I need someone who can fill the place of the AutoCAD monkey who quit last week.

    Creativity and "thinking" probably makes you advance faster once you have a job, or when you apply for your second job, but out of college, it's not the most looked for quality.

    Disclaimer: I got a software job immediately after graduating in nuclear physics.
  • With a proper respect for their betters (Physicists). Best to beat all that curiosity out of them, and geld them. Once their skills become obsolete, it's off to the Soylent Green plant for them.
  • by Erich (151) on Thursday January 18, 2007 @09:46PM (#17675042) Homepage Journal
    Is introductory classes that fuse ideas (Algorithms, Data Structures, Memory Allocation, Signal Processing) with specific languages (say -- lisp, Java, C, and Matlab).

    Then, once you get into upper level classes, you use those tools that you've acquired -- from classes or from elsewhere -- to accomplish tasks.

    At least, from what I've seen. Who's taken a design class and been told what language they must write in? Unless you're forced to use an existing tool (ie, you MUST do your Computer Architecture work by extending simplescalar) or limited by the architecture (you can only choose between C and Assembly on most microcontrollers).

    When I took my computer architecture class, we did trace-driven pipeline and cache models. I did mine in python; I was familiar with it from friends and I enjoyed using it. (I still do.) Other people used languages like Perl and Java, because that is what they were familiar with.

    When I took video game design & programming, my group used Java for the client and C for the server. Other groups used tools like Visual Somethingorother or the Unreal engine (which was state of the art at the time). They chose tools that got them the product they wanted in the time they had. The team that wanted to do a "FPS Ultimate Frisbee" had great success with the Unreal engine. We had great success doing a multiplayer 2D board game using Java for the clients and C for the server. Partly because we were familiar with the tools and didn't have to fight them. Similarly, the person using Visual Studio wanted to make a DirectX game... and that was the right tool for the job. Writing a FPS from scratch in Java was clearly not the right option, nor was writing a 2D board game in the unreal engine. But the point was classical engineering of the kind that is most useful: given a set of resources (10 weeks in the quarter, a few University students with other classes, and only so many tools in the bucket), come up with a feasible idea and implement it.

    Other schools have "computer science" programs where you learn linked lists and C++ pretty far along in your schooling (Junior year?), and you rarely (if ever) get free enough to design projects from the start. The difference is one of philosophy: using whatever tools available to accomplish the task you want to do, versus knowing tools to make things that someone else has mostly planned out.

    It takes some of both kinds of people to make the world go around.

    Most skilled trades (law, medicine) have secondary post-college programs entirely on top of arbitrary undergraduate degrees. It's a shame in a way that engineering gets crammed in with everything else; I think the secondary programs confer more respect on the people that go through them -- and a higher salary. If you had to get a Degree of Engineering on top of your undergraduate degree of choice, maybe engineers would have the respect they (IMNSHO) deserve.

    • by Erich (151)
      Sorry for the incredibly bad form of responding to myself; however the nutshell version is "both"... you need to be able to create ideas and use your resources to implement them.

      Or put another way, submitter is falsely saying that you can learn how to think XOR how to implement things.

  • be producing people who can cope with a wide variety of problem outside their area of expertise

    I thought this was the job of business schools, no??

  • In my humble opinion, I think that engineering programs should focus on giving students a strong base which they can use to help educate themselves better once they enter a narrower field. I graduated with my BS in mechanical engineering in 2005, after which I went to work as a petroleum engineer and am now currently working on a masters in economics. While mine is probably not the typical engineer path, most will work at some point in an area that they are not specifically trained for in school. Schools
  • by G4from128k (686170) on Thursday January 18, 2007 @10:09PM (#17675272)
    When I got my BSME, they had a great program called the Engineering Coop program (a quick Google suggests that its alive and well and available at various schools) that alternated semesters of school with semesters of work. I heartily recommend engineering students look into it. It does delay graduation, but the experience is great and the pay can be very good.

    Getting some type of engineering-related job while going to school really helps balance the book learning.
    • Definitely. (Score:3, Interesting)

      Back in the day I went to Drexel because I thought co-ops would help me pay for school. They did, somewhat, but they also taught me how the corporate world works.

      You can also learn a lot of theory during co-op. I had a friend who was in constant danger of flunking out of EE; but got a good co-op with the Philadelphia Navy Yard. He'd flunk a class two terms straight, go on co-op, come back and fly through the class. Dealing with the circuits IRL taught him more than the books did.
  • Why limit ourselves (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Bender0x7D1 (536254) on Thursday January 18, 2007 @11:10PM (#17675900)

    If we think that both aspects - tradesmen and thinkers - are important, then we should train for both. I think the problem is that people focus far too much on what can be done in a 4-year program. Why are we limiting ourselves to those 4 years? An M.D. spends 3-4 years in a pre-med program, then 4 years in a medical school and then 3-7 years in residency. Why don't we increase the requirements to become a professional engineer?

    We could keep a 4-year program at a University for the general background edcuation and any breadth requirements and then throw in a 2 year specialization program where you would learn the specifics of your engineering discipline. Once completed, you would go work at an engineering firm and complete a multi-year internship/residency/experiential program. This would allow a focus on "thinking" in university and picking up the tradesmen aspect at the engineering firm. I admit this would make education more expensive, and reduce the number of engineers, but it would probably create better engineers at the end of the program.

    We could also change the titles so that completing the 4-year program makes you a General Engineer, the 2-year specialization a Engineer, (Computer Engineer, Chemical Engineer, etc.), and then a Professional Engineer.

  • by davidwr (791652) on Friday January 19, 2007 @12:35AM (#17676608) Homepage Journal
    Anyone who isn't a thinker at the START of Engineering School should consider a different career.

    I won't say "thinkers are born not made" but relatively few people change from non-thinkers to thinkers after their high school years.

    Anyone with a brain can learn a craft.

    It takes a heart and soul to be creative. By age 18, almost everyone knows they have it or they don't.

    Engineering is a mix of both.
  • by thoglette (74419) on Friday January 19, 2007 @12:56AM (#17676760)
    I've been an engineer for nearly twenty years, with a few years part time work as a tech while at Uni.

    Engineering is a profession, and requires education not training. Let me rephrase that: a technical engineer deals with difficult equations. A good technical engineer deals with difficult analogies.

    My main gripes with engineering education are two-fold:

    - Only engineering design is taught, not engineering discipline.

    - Writing skills are neither taught nor tested.

    Real-world engineering requires the ability to communicate succinctly and, invariably, a very large amount of documentation.

    If you want to develop as an engineer, you will need to understand how engineering, as group of people working together, works. This is where the discipline or practise of engineering comes in. (Sometimes knon as systems engineering) Unfortunately, very few undergraduate courses teach it and even fewer academics believe in it.

    There are some notable exceptions (eg. Carnegie Mellon University), but that exception merely proves the rule.

  • binary fallacy? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by macker (53429) * <tmcghan@ieee.org> on Friday January 19, 2007 @01:50AM (#17677124)
    theory XOR practice?

    As ~2% of the posters wisely noted, the two major skill set classes are neither mutually exclusive, nor sufficient.

    "Both" is a partially correct answer, but "Both and then some" is a more nearly sufficient approximation.

    Emotional Intelligence, common sense, a firm grasp of the underlying economic realities, the ability to finely parse a marginal ethical dilemma into multiple shades of grey, the ability to communicate complex concepts with clarity to non-technical audiences, and many, many more aptitudes and attitudes are all relevant and contribute to the production of seasoned engineers, in any specialty. The existing academic establishment struggles with subject areas not math- or science-based. Rigor is not the exclusive province of the physical sciences, math, and engineering ( e.g.: cognitive neuro-linguistics ), but there are relatively few exceptional scholars in the liberal arts or social 'sciences'.

    An irrepressible sense of humor wouldn't hoit, either.

    Technical Comedy 483: "Ratbert as Doppelganger" MWF 0800-0815 3 cr.
     
  • As an educator.... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Ralph Spoilsport (673134) on Friday January 19, 2007 @05:05AM (#17678180) Journal
    up until very recently I was an assistant prof at a University. The pressure comes from several directions. Often times, the students think that they need to learn how to push buttons to get ahead in the world. I tell such students the following: If you want to learn how to push buttons and think that is what you are here in college for, do the following:

    1. Quit school
    2. use the money you were going to spend on school (to pick a number out of the air, $3000 a semester x 8 semesters = $24,000) and spend that money on buying the fastest damn computer you can get your hands on, use your student discount which will be valid for the next 8 weeks to buy the software you want to learn, and then spend a pile of money on "how to" books.
    3. use those books to learn how to do what you want to do.
    4. Put together a kick ass portfolio, intern at the best company you can find nearby, and LEARN.

    Do that, and you will learn all the button pushing you need to know. Remember, your portfolio speaks better than you do.

    Now, if you want to LEARN SOMETHING, like CRITICAL THINKING SKILLS, and a REASON to do what you do, giving your life things like MEANING AND DIRECTION, then shut up, sit down and pay attention.

    We will now learn our first three words in Turkish.

    RS

  • Lazy Companies (Score:3, Informative)

    by Stevecrox (962208) on Friday January 19, 2007 @05:53AM (#17678388) Journal
    This is yet another case of a company not willing to train their employees. I am going to university because I want to learn the theory for the job. I didn't go to university to become an expert in one program and not think about what I was doing.

    Years back companies used to create apprenticeships and train their employees, you would be taught your basic programming and work related theory through there. It was a company's job to train you not the university's because universities and Colleges are for different things. Already (in the UK) the value of a degree has fallen a BSC degree puts you at technician level of jobs, a BEng will make you and Engineer and a MEng is for a charted engineer.

    If you want 'tradesmen' then create an apprenticeship in your company for that trade, Universities exist to tech thinking and to further knowledge. I'm sick and tired of companies who won't invest in their employees (or prospective employees) and demanding the state do the job for them.

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