Experiential Engineering

February 12, 2007

JackGanssle-February 12, 2007

The National Academy of Engineering thinks that by the year 2020 a BSEE will be nothing more than a "pre-engineering" degree, just a ticket needed to enter graduate school. Businesses will demand an MS or more. That will be just another barrier to entry into the field as college-bound kids will have to weigh all of that education - and all of that money - versus easier alternatives.

Leah Jamieson, IEEE's current president, isn't so sure. In an article in EETimes she recommends turning engineering education upside-down, and going to a more experiential approach, focusing on internships and "having students work on very realistic projects."

Right on, Ms. Jamieson. Sorta.

Engineering emerged from the ad hoc efforts of builders stretching back to antiquity, who relied on experience to form their creations which all-to-often fell down. Church walls collapsed, so flying buttresses were invented, though medieval builders had little quantitative sense of how these reinforcements should be designed. Boilers exploded with tragic frequency till engineers harnessed the science of strength of materials to build provably-strong versions.

Early engineers trained as apprentices, working for years actually building things, or supervising the construction of things. They got their hands dirty. Indeed, Tesla was quoted as saying about prototypical engineer Edison: "he had a veritable contempt for book learning and mathematical knowledge, trusting himself entirely to his inventor's instinct and practical American sense."

Today's EE student has a very different experience. Math, science and the theory of electronics dominates his or her education. A few lab classes sprinkled over a four or five year program just don't do much to develop that sense of feel one accumulates from long experience in building, testing, fixing and tuning physical things.

On the other hand, how many EEs do that sort of work anymore? What percentage of the profession drive a PC all day, doing simulations, FPGA design, SPICE modeling, and the like?

On the other, other hand, over the course of the last year employers have been pinging me incessantly about the trouble they're having finding "true" embedded systems engineers, people who understand software, sure, but who know about sensors, digitization issues, logic design and a smattering of analog electronics. Folks who can find problems and troubleshoot systems, not components of a product.

Those skills require hands-on experience.

Many colleges mandate a senior-level project class where students design and build something. I've taught that class at the University of Maryland. It's tremendous fun, and the students learn a lot. But that's a single course squeezed into an already compressed schedule. The students work hard but necessarily devote few hours to it. Ms. Jamieson is right in suggesting that more is needed.

But today's EE curriculum already fills most of five years. It's easy to suggest additional classes, but short of creating a 6 or 7 year program, a sure deterrent to prospective students, how will colleges squeeze in more requirements?

Summer internships working in industry are a wonderful option, but it seems fewer companies offer them in today's hypercompetitive world where next quarter's profits reign supreme.

What do you think? Is experience working with real circuits important or is it just a relict of a different age of engineering?

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges. Contact him at jack@ganssle.com. His website is www.ganssle.com.


aw! c'mon Jack. You are presenting a set of false choices.

Today's engineer is really required to know a bunch of stuff. Your typical engineer will most likely be viewed as some kind of specialist by their bosses ... the managers. And; everyone knows that after about a dozen years or so, most engineers 'graduate' to become managers themselves! From what I have see, the real pressure to perform is on those consultants, that are expected to 'hit the ground running' to bring in some kind of expertise that is NOT already in house. It is also important for the managers to become knowledgeable about their industry, and how their budgets get funded ... and the like. Most managers will tell you that experience is very important. However, in the very same breath, they will tell you that they require the discipline of an engineer.

Gee... what does that tell you?

- Ken Wada


The academic system is designed such that professors do not need to be in tune with the industry so as long as they can teach the theory and publish research papers. On the other hand the industry wants students ready from day one.

So there is a gap between academia's work and the expectations of the industry. This gap continues to grow bigger and will eventually (if it already hasn't) compromise the validity of an engineering degree and ultimately the entire engineering profession.

To avoid this scenario, the academia and the industry must find ways to bridge the gap between one another.

- Hussam Hertani


At my alma mater (University of Waterloo), the engineering program is co-op. Co-op, however is not an option, it is a requirement for graduation. The learning that goes on during work-terms is as valuable as the learning in the classroom. This does stretch the program from 4 yrs to 4 2/3 but the benefits far outweigh the extra time. There is no reason that similar programs cannot become the norm instead of the exception.

- Tom Bednarchuk


I think the problem is not the unwillingness to include practical experiment but the overwhelming amount of theories students feel obligated to learn. On the other hand, the more practical experiment we perform, the more theories we tend to abstract and pass on to the next generation of engineers. I feel that much of the learned experience is about how not to repeat mistakes. At the end, we know everything about how to avoid risk, but have little time left to try anything new, and ultimately, we put innovation at risk.

- David Liu


As a graduate of the Computer Engineering Program (in 1983) from the Rochester Institute of Technolgy, I can atest to the value of the school's Co-Op program. The program was 5 year, but that includes ~ 1 year of work "in industry", which really helps put the classroom experience into perspective. It also allows the Student to figure out where their strengths are and which direction they might want to take their career. And yes, we also had our Senior project, which was alot of fun! But it was the opportunity to "get out" of the classroom and put into practice what we've been learning which made the program truly a joy and a fun learning experience. This was THE primary reason I went to RIT, was the co-op aspect of the program.

Over the many years I've worked with "green" engineers out of school. Some coudl adapt well to industry, other's were still stuck in the classroom and had a difficult time figuring out problems.

I think having the combination of great learning and experience is a winning combination for any engineer.

- Stephen Beckwith


I graduated in 1982, in England. I did a plain 3 year batchelors degree in electrical engineering, but I got a job first. This meant taking a year out between A-Levels (exams at age 18 in the UK) and the start of the degree course, but that year was spent doing an engineering apprenticeship. Now I work as a software engineer, but my apprenticeship taught me stuff that I still use -- the degree is little more than a piece of paper now.

The apprenticeship included machining (milling, turning, drilling), soldering practice, work with valve 'scopes, PWB layout, electrical test... Pretty much everything the company (Marconi Instruments) did to get product out of the door. The guy in charge of the machine shop ('Uncle' Ted Fricker) taught me particularly the need for both precision and accuracy, and the difference between the two (there's no point in being precisely wrong!). He also had a neat trick where he'd show you a piece of perfectly functioning kit and ask why it didn't work. You could take it away, find out what was wrong with it (nothing), and try to get to the bottom of why he claimed it didn't work. Basically, it wasn't plugged in! Never assume anything...

And my degree? Electromagnetic Theory and so on -- I'm sure someone uses it, but I need to be practical, and the apprenticeship taught me far more than any degree could.

- Paul Tiplady


If the "managers" want people who can experiment and have "experience" in the "practical" aspects, then they should advertise for such folks. How many such ads can you find?

- kalpak dabir


So, more experience is desireable. Take my situation - 20 years as an electronics technician, engineer, embedded programmer. Self taught, no degree, oodles of experience. I can not get through the HR department at the very companies complaining about lack of experienced candidates. MAYBE you should talk to your HR department about how they screen candidates.

- John Clymer


I had the opportunity to get into a CO-OP program when I went to college (Marquette University). It was the best choice that I ever made. I worked alternate semesters with IBM (Rochester, Mn) in their test engineering department. I was given solo software and hardware projects, as well as team projects. What I learned about real engineering work was incalculable.

We had one class by a working engineer. When he started talking about the various "things" that go wrong, the CO-OP students were all ears while the non CO-OP students had the "Why is he wasting our time" look on their faces.

In one lab, we had to design and build a one-transistor audio amplifier. The CO-OP kids simply reached for the 1K and 10K resistors, while the non CO-OP students pulled out their slipsticks and started asking what the hybrid parameters of the transistor were.

Unfortunately, when CO-OP opportunities exist today (mostly called Internships), it is simply another way to earn some bucks and provides little, if any, real learning.

- Timothy Ryan


The National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) is the driving force behind the idea of a Masters degree being the first "professional" engineering degree. A Bachelors degree would no longer be sufficient for professional licensure.

In the existing US system, state boards represent the public, and NSPE represents its member (professional) engineers. You can think of NSPE as being a quasi-union for PEs. As an organization they are interested in keeping the barrier to entry into the profession high, which in turn keeps engineers' salaries high.

The idea of requiring a masters degree for engineers is not a new one. Tau Beta Pi's "The Bent" had an interesting article several years ago about this subject. It turns out that companies weren't interested in paying the salary premium that masters degree recipients wanted. Economics won.

(Side note - NSPE is the organization that makes such a stink about non-licensed people calling themselves "software engineers.")

- Bob Schmidt


I too participated in a co-op program in university. The co-op choice was partly out of necessity; the GI Bill benefit I received from my 4-year tour with the US Coast Guard helped, but it fell far short of covering both education and living expenses. However, the co-op program also provided a welcome break from the strain of university life. When a work semester began, it was a welcome relief; suddenly my nights and weekends were mine again! After a semester of work though, I was invariably itching to get back to the university life. Frankly, I sometimes wish I could have continued my work / study rotation indefinitely. When I graduated, I found that prospective employers were very pleased to see both military and co-op work experience on my resume; I had no trouble finding a job.

I would encourage all engineering students to consider their university's co-op program. You will find the experience invaluable... not to mention a little extra spending money.

- Richard Rogers


s there anything more worthless than a PE?

Over the course of 31 years of getting paid to create new devices for high reliability industries, one of the truths that has emerged, is that if an Engineer's title includes those two letters, be extremely suspicious of the abilities of that person. These people are members of the 'Pseudo Engineers Collective', they have all the paper and credentials and none of the skills! (my guess is that they where spending too much time acquiring self-aggrandizing laurels instead of actually getting 'hands on' time in the lab). We don't need more artificial levels of achievement, we need Engineers who are curious, and that act on that curiosity.

A couple of years ago I was interviewing "Computer Engineers" (I don't know why they just don't call it "embedded engineering") who where on the local universities Dean's list. It was really depressing; out of dozens of candidates I could only find one who looked promising (and in fact, turned out to be excellent). The rest seemed to think the minimum required to graduate was sufficient. I found the real indicator was that if a candidate had some personal project(s) that he/she worked on then this demonstrated a real interest in engineering as opposed to doing the standard class project needed to graduate (why do they always seem to select a PIC based traffic light as a project???). The 'personal project' doesn't need to be complex or cutting edge, just attempting to create anything demonstrates the "right stuff" to join the ranks of Engineering.

And in case someone hasn't noticed, the majority of American business isn't interested in paying more for Engineers at any level of academic achievement; (hmmm that would make an interesting salary study, comparison of salary increase by degree for various professions, including engineers. I bet the universities wouldn't sponsor that study) they are more motivated in outsourcing work to the absolute lowest bidder, totally ignoring any metric of quality or maintainability. So lets start by setting some level of proficiency for managers, and then wait for 'trickle down' to have an effect.

- Chris Gates


The author is correct. It is time for a new form of partnership between academia and industry that will enable universities to graduate "industry ready" engineers. The National Academy of Engineering has called for a new paradigm for engineering education that will generate engineers prepared to tackle the complex problems of the 21st century.

At the University of New Haven we have responded by designing a new mutidisciplinary "spiral" curriculum required of all freshmen and sophomore engineering majors. We are also in the process of establishing a "Center for Engineering Practice" that will insure that UNH graduates are industry ready. The CEP will house several mini professional offices run by practicing Engineers in Residence who will work with student teams on projects provided by their companies. Faculty generated senior projects no longer cut the mustard! Response to this plan from industry has been positive.

Another challenge is to attract sufficient numbers of students from high school to study engineering. This is where the real problem lies.

- Barry Farbrother


Although there may be a discoonect at the college or university level, I believe it goes back much further than this. At lower levels of education, the educational 'system is pressured to tech in a way that stiffles curiosity and thus innovation.

Instead of diluting our standards in response to political pressures such as the 'no child left behind' program, we should be emphasizing quality and success through competitive drive. Is there any other primary reason we fail to compete at the international level?

We are engineers because we are inquisitive and curious about the world around us. Let us find a way to culture that in our educational system!

- David Pfaltzgraff


I remember reading an article years ago about one of the founders and chief engineers from Analog Devices. In it he was quoted as saying that every single electronics engineer should be required to take 2 years of auto mechanics in high school.

Personally, I got into this business through the back door. I had always tinkered with mechanical things such as engines, and had a background in residential construction as well. I also installed tape decks and sound systems in cars for friends, and that piqued my interest regarding what went on inside such devices. I attended a local community college and completed a diploma program in electronics servicing.

After graduation I worked for the local telephone company, and later as an electronics technician for a company that designed and built industrial machinery. While there I taught myself how to design circuits and systems and was eventually promoted to the position of design engineer. For many years thereafter I did have to struggle harder than most because of my status as a non-degreed engineer, but I was still successful. Over time I also taught myself to write software, but I always feel my great strength is know the physics and eccentricities of the underlying hardware.

And finally, at the ripe old age of 50, I graduated from a respected university with a Bachelor of Applied Science degree. Of course many of the folks that I compete with nowadays do have a Master's degree, but I've found that my four year degree --coupled with my extensive experience and accomplishments-- serves to open most, if not all, doors when searching for a new position.

- Harry Jones

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