Why do so many students begin an academic study in engineering? Often it is the promising good employability! Is n’t it surprising then that many students in academic engineering studies start thinking about their future career at a late stage in their studies, sometimes make thoughtless decisions on their first job, or even delay the final thesis assessment on purpose, because they feel insufficiently prepared for life after graduation. The perception that students have of engineering, the possibilities they have and the skills they need are often based on their own intuition. That is the outcome of the recent study “Mind the Gap” by TechYourFuture, a collaboration between two Dutch universities and industries.
Embedding employability: are we getting it right?
Honestly speaking it sounds quite serious to me that so many engineering students have no clue or whatsoever what engineering actually is. Not understanding that the prime role of engineers is about innovation and designing systems. The students are not aware that those systems actually design society as we know it, are not considering teamwork or communication skills as very important for collaborative design and good engineering. They are not knowing how their future job as an engineering researcher or professional may look like. And even more so, this is not only the case when they enroll in the first year of their Bachelor studies, but even when they are close to graduation of their Master’s five or six years later. These low levels of awareness could be an important cause for low interest in engineering in many countries, and less motivation and poor retainment .
Before writing my Second Revised Edition of “Engineering Education in a Rapidly Changing World” I attended numerous presentations and panel sessions that contained this same message. Pages 22 and 23 therefore read: “Personal attributes like autonomy and empathy are increasingly important in the job market. Academic engineering education does a poor job of helping engineering students think about their own lives, their career goals, their desire for intimacy, or their plans for a productive and meaningful life”.
Does it mean that education at today’s technical universities fails to build a comprehensive image of the engineering profession, the socio-technical style of the future work and the nature of engineering? It’s no secret that most engineering studies at research universities are science-oriented and emphasise acquiring fundamental and developing working knowledge of maths, physics, engineering sciences, and developing the skills of solving problems and designing solutions. These are very important indeed, but ignore a great deal of practical knowledge and skills. And thus the studies are not so much about developing people and easily lead to an incorrect image of the engineering profession.
Role models and profiles
Employability is, or at least should be, a corner stone of engineering education. And our curricula should enable the development of the Professional Engineering Identity of the student. Professional engineering identity is a combination of self-knowledge, the image of the engineer and the nature of engineering.
There are many manners how students can learn about the self. And there are many different ways to familiarise with the usual engineering professions, or prepare for the prospective career path that matches the capabilities, ambition and interest.
One way is to immerse the students in different professional profiles that engineers follow in their career, or let them follow different tracks in their study. At the 2016 SEFI Conference, Gary Downey illustrated in his keynote that “no curriculum can have it all” and that his Virginia Tech university has curricular tracks that emphasise either one of Engineering Sciences, Engineering Design, Engineering and Management, Engineering and Policy, Engineering and Society, or Engineering and Philosophy.
Also the CDIO Syllabus could be one of the sources for professional profiles. It differentiates the engineering profession in five distinctive profiles: Researcher, System Designer/Developer, Device Designer/Developer, Product Support Engineer/Operator and Entrepreneurial Engineer.
And in the world of work, every company has its own career routes. For example the European Airbus multinational provides three distinctive career paths for their engineering employees: an Expert Career Path, an Aircraft Architect Development Path and an Engineering Management Path. Such profiles and career paths are often used as input to the definition of the required attributes of an engineer or the final qualifications of engineering programmes, or the structure of the curriculum.
Professional identity profiles
The “Mind the Gap” study (in Dutch available only) by TechYourFuture (a consortium of University of Twente and Saxion University of Applied Sciences in collaboration with Dutch industries) developed a “Career Compass”. It is an online assessment tool (available in Dutch and English) that scores personal interests, competences, values, personality, goals and commitment to engineering and technology. It’s aim is to scaffold the making of career choices and thinking about prospective career paths by students and young graduates.
On the basis of interviews and surveys with more than 750 engineering students, 275 employees in five engineering companies in the Netherlands, and almost 900 alumni, the developers established four distinctive personal identity profiles: the Nerdy Engineer, the Comfort-Seeking Engineer, the Hipster Engineer, and the Status-Seeking Engineer. Key words per profile: Nerdy Engineer: introvert, not so conscientious, good in analytical thinking, no interest in status or money, not so interested in socializing or fashion.
Comfort-Seeking Engineer: emotional, not so open-minded, a low self-esteem, prefers routine and structure. Hipster-Engineer: very open-minded and emotional, good in creative design, collaboration and management, looking for purpose in life, is autonomous, interest in fashion and socializing. Status-Seeking Engineer: extrovert, rational, good in management and analytical thinking, aims for power, status and money and global mindset, and is interested in fashion and socializing. In practice each individual is a weighted average of these four profiles.
Each of these profiles has been framed in such a way that it has a good correlation with preferred sector and career choices and career paths. Thus students can use the tool for finding out who they are, or want to be, as an engineer, and what their preferred sector or prospective career path might be. An interesting byproduct of the study was that the chance that female engineering graduates choose a non-technical career after graduation is almost four times as high as male engineering graduates.
Profile of the T-shaped Engineer
In the communication to students, new staff members and accreditation agencies about engineering profiles and image, I often use the T-shaped profile. The T-shape is the reference for our two degree programmes in Aerospace Engineering. The arm of the T represents the broad working knowledge and communicative skills across some other (mostly technical) areas that are educated in our Bachelor’s. The stem of the T indicates the nature of deep specialisation in our Master’s. This programme focuses on expert thinking and deep specialist knowledge in one subdiscipline of aerospace engineering.
In discussions about the need to enrich our Master’s with interdisciplinary, entrepreneurial, contextual or other non-technical competencies, staff sometimes use the T-shape model as an obstruction argument. The stem would indicate that our educational philosophy in the Master’s is solely about deep technical specialisation and not about employability or personal development. But this is a bit too short-sighted I guess.
Embedding professional roles in design projects
When we reconstructed our Bachelor in Aerospace Engineering about 10 years ago, we decided to improve student awareness by exposing our students to representative activities and role models of their prospective profession. Six design projects in a row (one per semester) are shaped in such a way that they are supposed to provide a mental organiser for the students. Each project focuses on the kind of activities that professional engineers do during a specific phase of an engineering design project. Starting from the very first exploration of the problem space and requirements discovery in the first project, via conceptual design in the second, detailed (subsystem) design and analysis in the third, simulation-verification-validation in the fourth and fifth, culminating in systems design in the sixth project. In each project the student plays a different role and thus develops awareness of the practice of engineering in a specific phase of a design project: ranging from Feasibility Engineer in the first project, Structural Engineer in the second, Lead Engineer in the third, Data Analyst, Test and Validation Engineer in the fourth and fifth, to Systems Engineer in the sixth capstone design project.
Eight years after development the six design projects are still alive and kicking and in full production for 300 to 400 students per year each. Regrettably the interrelationship between the six projects as being six successive steps in engineering projects has been lost over time. And the image of the professional role that the students play in each project has faded. Students hardly reflect on the role they play. The loss of these facets is mainly caused unintentionally by the project tutors, simply because they have little to no empathy with these professional roles themselves. They are excellent academic specialists and researchers but lack any experience in engineering practice. How different is the situation in the Master’s where these same academic experts passionately teach how to acquire and advance knowledge and become a researcher in a deep specialism.
Future – Disciplinary – Self is the motto
I encountered another example of professional roles at the 44th SEFI conference 2016 in Tampere. Greet Langie, Vice Dean of the Faculty of Engineering Technology of KU Leuven, and Jolien De Norre, project assistant, presented a paper about their “Rolling project”. The objective is to raise awareness for professional roles in the Bachelor and Master programmes in Engineering Technology. They label the three engineering roles Product Leadership, Operational Excellence and Customer Intimacy.
The paper reads “Product leadership engineers focus on new ideas, on developing the best product. It is important that they have strong research, design and development skills. The main focus of the operational excellence role is process efficiency, and on finding ways to achieving the best total cost. These engineers oversee and standardise processes and have an eye for analysing and solving problems. At last, the customer intimacy role has as a goal to provide customers with the best total solution and to respond to customers’ specific technological needs. Professionalism, communication, and ethical responsibility are important features for those engineers.”
In the paper ideas are presented to integrate the model in their Bachelor and Master programmes in Engineering Technology. They identify the opportunities of role playing in project teams, project work, thesis work, training programmes and internships as potential options. Early adaptors, so-called Rolling Ambassadors will implement and integrate the roles model in their practices and disseminate the concepts and successes among their colleagues. Similar to what I wrote in the above for my Bachelor programme in Delft, the finding of interested, willing and capable lecturers and defining understandable and unambiguous terminology for the students proves to be challenging in Leuven also.
Responding to more Do It Yourself ethic
The above examples demonstrate how challenging it is to embed professional engineering role models in academic curricula. Many academic staff have no experience in these roles in the practice of engineering themselves and consequently miss the empathy to transfer the images and skills to the students.
Of course immersing students during their studies in different professional profiles is not the only option. Another option is to follow the trend of more personalised learning and stimulate the students to master their own future.
Many of today’s Master programmes focus on educating heroic individual specialists. These programmes have to be transformed to educate team players instead, who are prepared for a distinctive roles in innovation activities. To prepare for such personal role, students should be able to choose a number of subjects (courses, work placements, research projects, study abroad period, etc) piecemeal in consultation with a coach. Their choices should have a direct relationship with their prospective career, ambition, capabilities and interest.
Currently I am involved in the development of a Career MOOC for TU Delft students and young alumni, specifically aimed at engineers. In a five-week self-paced webinar the participants learn to identify career challenges, learn about self-awareness and self-reflection, and create scenarios that enable them to take the lead in moving their career forward. TU Delft Career Centre has the lead of the production of the MOOC. The MOOC is available at Design your Next Career Move.
Last but not least I mention the Mentor Alumni Programme, a voluntary programme for Bachelor and Master students, initiated by my Faculty in 2016.
Mentor Alumni Programme
Since 2016 the Faculty of Aerospace Engineering initiated the Mentor Alumni Programme. Its objective is to connect students with alumni and build inspiring mentor-mentee relationships over a period of five months, that benefit the students, alumni, and the faculty. For students the programme should be the stepping stone to actively start thinking about life after university. An alumnus mentor helps the student with choices for master programme, minor programmes and elective courses by sharing his or her own experiences. They give advice on setting up a CV, the job search process, doing interviews and building a professional network. With help of the experience of the mentors, students learn to set clear personal goals and plan how to effectively work towards the future they foresee. For alumni the mentorship is a meaningful way to improve on coaching and advising skills. By being a mentor they realize exposure for their employer in the faculty, and have the opportunity to brainstorm with ambitious and bright students to gain fresh ideas.
Although employability is a cornerstone of university education, the dominant approach of today’s engineering education has little to do with what it means to be an engineer in practice. And so emphasising professional and career development in curricula should get our attention.
Many engineering companies and institutes are more than willing to help narrowing the mismatches and bring their knowledge, insights and advice.They are in an excellent position to advise us about the impact the rapid changes in technology, society and innovation may have not only on today’s, but also on future professional roles and competencies of our graduates.