What’s wrong with engineering/technology education in our nation

Written by  //  March 27, 2012  //  Alumni, Business and Industry, Faculty, Staff, Students  //  3 Comments

Shown below is the text of a presentation I made on Friday, March 23, in Richmond, Ind. The College of Technology at Purdue has programs in 10 different locations across the State of Indiana in addition to its programs on the West Lafayette, Ind., campus. One of those locations is in Richmond. We are introducing two new bachelor’s degree options, and I was asked to make a presentation as part of the events scheduled the day of the announcement. The text of the presentation shown below covers a few topics that I believe will be of interest to the reader.

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Thank you for this opportunity to speak to you today. It’s a pleasure to be in your community. The College of Technology has been serving the citizens of east central Indiana for 45 years. In fact, our first associate degree in mechanical engineering technology was granted right here in Richmond. We are pleased with our heritage here and are anticipating a partnership that continues to grow in the years ahead.

Today, I want to share with you some of my thoughts on how Purdue University’s College of Technology will change the world and how those changes will improve the community of Richmond, Indiana. It is a bold goal but one I take seriously. So let me explain how we are going to do this, but first let me share with you a joke to frame the challenges we face in our nation.

In an article titled “Making it in America” in a recent issue of The Atlantic, author Adam Davidson writes about just how much a modern textile mill has been automated. “The joke is that the average mill has only two employees today, a man and a dog. The man is there to feed the dog, and the dog is there to keep the man away from the machine.”

This joke illustrates the challenge we face as a nation with stubbornly high unemployment and falling middle-class income. The major advances in both globalization and information technology is rapidly replacing jobs in this nation with machines and outsourcing to foreign countries.

Thomas Friedman in a recent article in the NY Times states:
“In the past, workers with average skills, doing an average job, could earn an average lifestyle. But, today, average is officially over. Being average just won’t earn you what it used to. It can’t when so many more employers have so much more access to so much more above average cheap foreign labor, cheap robotics, cheap software, cheap automation and cheap genius. Therefore, everyone needs to find their extra — their unique value contribution that makes them stand out in whatever is their field of employment. Average is over.
Yes, new technology has been eating jobs forever, and always will. As they say, if horses could have voted, there never would have been cars. But there’s been an acceleration.”

So how can higher education contribute to the solution of the problems facing the nation? As Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard University, states in his book, Our Underachieving Colleges:

“First higher education must recognize the risks of complacency and use the emerging challenges as an occasion for a candid reappraisal to discover whether there are ways to lift the performance of our institutions of higher learning to higher levels.”

The College of Technology is going through a candid reappraisal in West Lafayette and at our Statewide Locations. Our reappraisal efforts are called re-engineering for our Statewide Technology and is one of the reasons I am here today in Richmond. Andy Schaffer, our leader for all our Statewide Programs, and Barb Alder, our Director for our Richmond and Anderson locations, along with all our faculty and staff at our 10 Statewide Locations, are leading this effort. This re-engineering effort has four goals:

  1. Double enrollment in our degree programs
  2. Make engagement and learning as scholarly pillars for our faculty
  3. Define our educational niche for Statewide Technology that complements Ivy Tech, our IU partners, and Purdue in West Lafayette
  4. Contribute to the economic success of the State of Indiana

So why Statewide Technology? Who would want a degree from us and what makes us unique? How will a degree from Statewide Technology help solve our nation’s problems as described earlier?

Let’s first look at some sobering unemployment statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics for Americans over 25 years old. For those with less than a high school degree, the unemployment rate is 13.8 percent; for those with a high school degree and no college, 8.7 percent; for those with some college or associate degree, 7.7 percent; and for those with a bachelor’s degree or higher, 4.1 percent.

As Davidson writes, “In the 10 years ending in 2009, [U.S.] factories shed workers so fast that they erased almost all the gains of the previous 70 years; roughly one out of every three manufacturing jobs — about 6 million in total — disappeared.”

Manufacturing is dead in this country. Stick a fork in it, right?

Wrong! Let me ask you this simple question: Why is it that Germany and Finland have low unemployment, high wages, robust manufacturing that competes with some of the emerging economies, such as China, and trade surpluses?

A major part of the answer to this question is in their educational systems. To learn more about why Finland is successful, watch a DVD titled “The Finland Phenomenon.” Before I explain how their education systems are different from ours, let me give you a little history lesson.

In 1955, the Report on Evaluation of Engineering Education concluded that scientifically oriented engineering curricula was essential to prepare engineers to face new and difficult engineering situations with imagination and competence. This report is commonly referred to as the Grinter Report named after the lead author Linton Grinter, an engineering professor from the University of Florida and chair of American Society for Engineering Education.

The Grinter report advocated that engineering programs provide a dual choice for undergraduate students: a scientific and more theoretical choice or a more practical and more applied choice. However, most engineering programs were unable to agree with the bifurcation of engineering programs as advocated by the Grinter report. This fatal decision is in large measure why manufacturing is failing in this country and why we are finding it more difficult to compete in a global economy.

A notable exception was Purdue University, where a College of Technology eventually was created in 1964 with programs of study in engineering technology that were applied rather than scientific and theoretical in nature. Over the years we have added other programs in the computing disciplines that are more applied rather than scientific in nature as you would find in computer science.

It is my contention that an overemphasis on scientifically oriented engineering curricula and ignoring applied engineering is one of the reasons we are behind countries like Finland and Germany in competing in the global economy. Some of my colleagues and I will be traveling to Germany in April to study their higher education systems as it relates to engineering and technology. Germany and Finland view engineering education as a continuum that ranges from vocationally trained skilled workers, technicians, technologists, applied engineers, and scientifically oriented engineers. Germany and Finland graduate more BS applied engineering than scientifically oriented engineers. In the United States, we graduate nearly twice as many scientifically oriented engineers as we do BS applied engineers.

President Obama announced a few months ago the need to prepare 10,000 engineers and has an initiative to revitalize manufacturing in our nation. Both are very noble causes, but I am here to tell you that both initiatives will fail if we do not put more emphasis on the preparation of BS applied engineers and technologists. Although scientifically prepared engineers are vitally important to our nation and have been one of the reasons we have for years led the world in technology, what we need are 6,000 more applied engineers and 4,000 more scientifically prepared engineers.

We need to transform engineering education not from the inside but from the outside through our engineering technology programs. Purdue’s College of Technology does engineering technology better than anyone in the nation, and we have taken on the mantle of leadership to transform technology education in the nation starting with the State of Indiana. As I stated at the start of this presentation, our goal is to change the world. More importantly we will change the State of Indiana for the better because we know that the fate of Indiana is the fate of Purdue. One way we will change the State of Indiana for the better is through our re-engineering efforts to transform our Statewide Technology programs starting with our efforts here in Richmond.

Two years ago we launched a new degree in engineering technology, or applied engineering, at four of our Statewide locations. This program offers a broad curriculum that prepares graduates to make a local impact. Kevin Ahaus of Ahaus Tool and Engineering has recognized the importance of this degree and has funded several student scholarships. We are excited to have our first graduates from the program this spring, including two in Richmond.

New concentrations in the program are being developed in foodstuffs supply chain, alternative energy, nanotechnology, and biomedical engineering technology. Each of these areas address growing global challenges and will prepare our graduates with the skills necessary to help change the world.

We know that in order to change the world we need to start in communities like Richmond, Indiana. We need to partner with the community at large; its industry, its schools, and others institutions of higher education.

The impact that the College of Technology has had, and will continue to have, in this region goes beyond the classroom. Our graduates are not the type to get their degrees and leave to make an impact in another state or country… though they are prepared to do that. No, our graduates have been raised to recognize the impact they can have locally. That is what they have been doing for 45 years. In fact, more than 80% of the graduates from our Statewide locations remain employed in the region. In Richmond, that means we are preparing the managers and leaders for Osborne International, Autocar, Hills Pet Nutrition, Ahaus Tool and Engineering. Belden, Berry Plastics, Henny Penny, the City of Richmond and more.

Let me close with a quote from the American composer John Cage: “I don’t know why people are so frightened by new ideas. It’s the old ones that frighten me.”

My visit here today is just a first step in our efforts to grow our presence in the community and contribute to your future success. We are here to seek partners in our efforts to change the world. Will you join us?

Thank you!

3 Comments on "What’s wrong with engineering/technology education in our nation"

  1. Dan Cunningham April 9, 2012 at 10:06 pm · Reply

    Gary — Thank you for so clearly and succinctly stating the importance of applied technology and the need for applied engineers in U.S. manufacturing. While the hands on technical skills I learned in “Mike’s Castle” in the 1960′s may be outdated, the principals of applying technology are still valid and critical to the success of manufacturing. Aligning the education / preparation of our future employees in high schools, colleges and universities with our continuing requirements for applying technology is crucial to the recovery and future success of the U.S. manufacturing industry.

  2. Gary Bertoline April 10, 2012 at 11:11 am · Reply

    Dan,

    It is good to hear that someone with your experience and insight into this topic agrees with the basic thesis of this blog entry. Thank you.

  3. Ed Wolf August 24, 2012 at 8:35 pm · Reply

    Sounds like it was a great presentation! Purdue is known for its engineering and technology programs. I hope to see where Purdue takes you with your career. You planning on going to their master’s program online? Here is their website: https://purdueonlineengineering.com/

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