It is often said that engineers learn theories at university and develop practical knowledge by experience.

New knowledge emerging from research on engineering practice shows we could provide more effective education for our future engineers. We could make the transition to work much easier, improve productivity world-wide and accelerate our urgent transition to a sustainable civilization.

For this we need to reframe the curriculum to include school, university and early career workplace education.

We teach Norton, Thevenin, Shannon, data structures, recursion, object-oriented programming fairly well. These are core concepts in our respective disciplines, and the results speak for themselves. Perseverance recently touched down intact and fully operational on the surface of Mars. Solar electricity is ubiquitous and cheap. Engineering failures entirely attributable to technical misunderstandings are rare.

Unfortunately, there is abundant evidence of systemic engineering weaknesses stemming from other misunderstandings. Engineering collaboration failures are all too common, resulting in large engineering capital expansion projects mostly failing to provide at least 50% of the return promised to investors. About one in six are complete failures, wiping out investors’ funds.

Research shows that corruption and mismanagement may not be the primary causes that inhibit social and economic development across Asia, Africa, Central and South America as many believe. Instead it tells us that engineers, essential actors for productivity improvement, face misunderstandings combined with cultural and language obstacles that impede collaboration and knowledge sharing that we take for granted in advanced economies. This contributes to a five-fold productivity gap between rich and poor countries that has not decreased in over sixty years. For example, the true cost of a reliable electricity supply is typically five times more in South Asia than in wealthy countries. The true cost of safe drinking water is typically 30 – 50 times higher, and around 2.5 billion people still lack affordable sanitation.

In the USA, manufacturing labor productivity grew by 3% annually until around 2007 as engineers improved tools, techniques and equipment. As these engineers retired and passed on, this critical knowledge has faded from memory. Since 2007 US labor productivity has grown at one tenth the rate, about 0.4% annually! The result: stagnant or declining incomes, and widespread dissatisfaction that fuels political disruption and social unrest.  Greenhouse emissions continue to rise: reductions due to the pandemic have been overtaken rising output.

Engineering practice research [1] has helped identify some crucial education gaps that seem to be associated with these weaknesses. These gaps arise partly because engineering schools employ faculty whose commercial engineering experience is brief and decades old, unlike medical schools where all the teaching past the half way point is by practicing physicians.

Research has identified three significant gaps.

  • We overlook teaching engineers about collaboration in an enterprise that depends on their technical ideas and intentions being delivered by other people, with other people’s money. Universities value independent thinking whereas engineering work requires inter-dependent thinking and action.
  • We overlook teaching engineers how to improve productivity, and how to create and protect social and economic value.
  • We overlook teaching engineers how to commercially justify sustainability improvements.

How can we ensure that future generations of engineers have the knowledge and understanding to turn these weaknesses into amazing success stories?

There is much to be learned from the work of my students and a handful of other researchers courageous enough to build a new field of enquiry, engineering practice [2]. Our books represent an initial attempt to present research findings and suggestions to improve engineering education.

The evidence suggests that a renewed focus on workplace education may be more effective than reforming university curricula.

The overwhelming emphasis in formal education on individual performance assessment creates an implicit valuing of individual effort, and independent thinking and actions. Yet engineers achieve little without complex networks of collaboration that involve investors and financiers, regulators, enterprise owners, tradespeople, artisans, suppliers, contractors, attorneys, even end users. We know that communication skills are critical for engineers, but seldom acknowledge that these skills are merely a component of collaboration skills. Engineers use many capabilities to enact collaboration in technical enterprises: creating specifications and inspection/test plans are two examples.

Technical collaboration capabilities may be best learned in an interdependent working environment, where collaboration is valued. Commercial and social value creation and protection also may be easier to learn where the results are immediately apparent.

That is why I advocate a renewed emphasis and formal curriculum for workplace education. So many companies have told me they do not have a clear idea on what novice engineers need to learn. Institutions like IEEE can step in to help define new workplace education standards and performance expectations for engineers.

Prompted by suggestions from Engineers Australia, I have written the outline of a workplace education curriculum in my new book Learning Engineering Practice [3]. It comes with a detailed Engineering Professional Capability Framework defining performance expectations for novice engineers that supervisors could expect to see in the first three years. Workplace supervisors and mentors are will be the real teaching workforce for this effort.

The list of teaching topics on the IEEE Teaching Excellence Hub could be reframed with formal education blending seamlessly with workplace education delivered by supervisors and mentors. Specialist engineering component, service and software suppliers can also play a major role as well in delivering workplace education. Performance appraisal is needed as well, to provide motivation for learning.

There is much to be done in this space. The medical profession could provide some useful pointers because it has reshaped itself in recent decades by the need to confront professional liability and responsibility.

Photo Credit: Ricardo Gomez Angel at (royalty free)

[1] James Trevelyan, The Making of an Expert Engineer, CRC Press, 2014.

[2] James Trevelyan, “Transitioning to Engineering Practice,” European Journal of Engineering Education, 44(6), 821-837, 2019.

[3] James Trevelyan, Learning Engineering Practice, CRC Press, 2020.