Fill a room with people from the arts and the conversation will eventually find its way to “Does life imitate art, or does art imitate life?” Fill that same room with university professors and industry people, and the conversation more quickly finds its way to “Why can’t academia better prepare their students for industry?”
The answer to the second one is easy—it’s impossible. At best, students can make something in a lab. But that’s not something that can be replicated a million times, documented such that the balance of the company can support it, and stay close to the specifications set forth by the product marketing team.
But that doesn’t mean that an engineering education experience can’t approach a “safe viewing distance” of what’s to come for these students. In Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE), one organization is dedicated to building as strong a bridge as possible between industry and academia, the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department Heads Association, or ECEDHA.
The ECEDHA, organized more than a decade ago, recently held its annual conference, bringing together industry professionals and university ECE department heads in a setting where the interaction and idea sharing is maximized. I attended this year’s conference (not my first) and witnessed a conference with a sole focus on the interaction between industry and ECE departments.
With Keynote presentations sporting titles like Challenges & Opportunities of Leading ECE Departments, At the Heart of Impact, and Industry Perspective on Developing New Talent, the audience of more than 400 heard from the VP of Research from Georgia Tech, the CEO of Synopsys, and the Director of Electrical Subsystems from Raytheon Missile Systems.
It’s important for universities to hear what these markets need from graduates, but equally important is industry’s understanding of how the educational experience is transforming, and how the “raw material” that the engineering schools get is changing.
Many students are directed into engineering by guidance counselor because they’re “good in math and science” as opposed to those who want to be engineers because they’d been tinkering in the garage, basement, or driveway since they were kids. This produces a more theoretical than practical engineer, not necessarily a bad thing, but universities and industry must figure out how to bridge that gap.
There were many discussions about the “leakage” from ECE to computer science. However, this is really a PR and communication problem, not a technology problem. Software somehow has become sexier than engineering, although without engineering, there would be nothing for the software to run on.
The elusive description of the transition from “computer” to “embedded system” is a discussion where opinions fly around like drones at an Olympic opening ceremony, but the fact that ECE is losing students to mechanical engineering, despite the strength of mechatronics, causes alarm because these same students could, with the knowledge of both, become superstars. But they’re simply not aware of the options. These are areas where the ECEDHA is helping by creating content for campuses that talks about the excitement of mixing ECE with other interests to create “system thinking,” something that’s getting lost in the era of extreme subject focus in engineering education.
Some insightful Dept. of Labor and University statistics showed relative growth of ECE compared to other engineering disciplines, which brought on some lively discussion around both the meaning and how we can all affect this. STEM and other similar early programs will be a big help in building intuition earlier in students that pursue engineering.
An interesting presentation from ASU’s School of Electrical Engineering (one of the host schools) showed that “65 percent of kids entering kindergarten this year will have jobs we don’t know about yet” and how ECE plugs into that is key to its long-term success as an engineering discipline.
As you would expect, many of the conversations about future learning involved online-learning, including the comparison with the “on-ground” experience. Online-learning is apparently viewed as “transactional” as opposed to on-ground, which is more of an “experience.” How this gets factored into the long-term effectiveness of higher education is under debate.
While the classroom and lab will never be quite the experience of the office and lab, ECEDHA is doing its part to usher ECE into the future with talented, enthusiastic students, and enable effective communication and bridging between ECE education and the industry it serves.