Universities must teach engineers depth and context

Simon Pitts, department director of the Gordon Institute of Engineering Leadership at Northeastern University holds the National Academy of Engineering’s 2015 Bernard M. Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering Leadership and Technology Education for “developing an innovative method to provide graduate engineers with the necessary personal skills to become effective engineering leaders.” We talked to him about the 3C’s and the future of engineering…

How can we inspire the next generation of innovative engineers?

We need to take every opportunity to highlight the role of the engineer in events, achievements, and challenges. We need to rebalance the media and political messages to elevate the status of the engineer.

We also need to share how challenging and fulfilling it is to innovate new engineering solutions. Applying the deep technical expertise of a team of engineers – combined with the open thinking needed to create elegant, efficient solutions – to real world challenges is currently a well-kept secret rather than a rallying cry for the profession.

How can universities ensure that the engineers entering the job market have the right skills and abilities for solving 21st century challenges?

Universities have to concentrate on the fundamentals and teach technical depth, as well as the context in which engineering is practiced. “Fresh out” graduates who cannot create engineering solutions that are appropriate, robust and which deliver customer and stakeholder value, are of limited benefit to the organization that hires them. Engineering education must ensure that graduates will be able to generate their own realistic assumptions, work with imperfect data, and self-generate the appropriate degree of rigor. They need to be able to work across disciplines and functions to generate and deliver optimized solutions in teams, rather than be narrow experts in one area.

What is engineering’s role in keeping America competitive in a global economy?

Engineers have a role to translate possibilities into realities; two key examples of how they can drive America’s competitiveness are, firstly, to create new products and services and deliver them to the market. Secondly, to develop new technologies that allow they or others to derive applications that provide new levels of performance, cost and capability that satisfy either existing or currently unmet commercial and/or societal needs. These actions will drive our economy by sustaining and creating companies and jobs.

You’ve noted that the competitiveness challenge is difficult to address in academia. What are your thoughts for better preparing future engineers with how to handle the competitiveness they will experience if they choose a career in industry?

In academia it is frequently the case that the professor teaching an engineering topic has not been exposed to the tough competition of the commercial world. The fact that the engineering solution or product you are working on could be worthless if another company and or country comes to market with an alternative that has better customer value (either new levels of functionality or better function at less cost) is something that is generally not taught. Adding interactions between students and companies during the course has helped fill this void, particularly if the interaction is crafted around projects and/or technology selection for a market.

Tell us about the Northeastern University’s Gordon Institute of Engineering Leadership’s five fundamental “pillars” and how they align to the 3C’s.

The five “pillars” comprise of Leadership Capabilities, Leadership Laboratories, Product Development Process, Scientific Foundations, and the Challenge project. These pillars are integrated into and learning framework with additional elements that prepare students to invent, innovate, and implement projects by providing purpose, direction, and motivation to cross-functional engineering teams.

Capacity: all five pillars contribute to accelerating the career path and capability of engineers who have already taken a first degree; we are making them more valuable to their company by giving them the ability to lead larger teams earlier in their career.

Capability: the Scientific Foundations pillar is a key enabler to working across disciplines.  Product development teaches them how to produce solutions to challenges that meet customer and business needs, and the Challenge project provides a learning experience where they practice the concepts of delivering what that they have just learned on time, to performance/quality standards, and on budget.

Competiveness: the learning of the program’s 14 Leadership capabilities, and demonstrating mastery of them in leadership laboratories, produces engineers who not only understand the competitive environment they are operating in, but also have the awareness, confidence, vision, and technical dexterity to achieve the goals of their stakeholders.

What has winning the Gordon Prize meant to you? What has it enabled you to do that you hadn’t done before?

Winning the Gordon Prize is a wonderful recognition of the work that the team here at Northeastern has achieved in creating and delivering the focused engineering leadership education we think is so important nationally. It is providing the resources to further develop case studies and program material to inculcate practical examples of the 14 engineering leadership capabilities in a business environment.