Products and Engineering Education:
In an article in the June 15, 2015 edition of the New York Times, Frank Bruni, a columnist, wrote an article entitled “Accepted? Rejected? Relax" It is here. The subtitle is "The obsession with elite colleges distorts reality, hurts kids, and perverts education”. I couldn’t agree more, even though I spent my teaching career at Stanford, which is one of them. I particularly think this is true in the case of engineering.
One thing that caught my eye was his mention in the article of the engineering school at Waterloo University, a public school in the province of Ontario, Canada, which is known for student and institutional innovation and the production of fine engineers, but not as an “elite” school. Last year I was a member of an advisory board to the government of Chile in conjunction with their “Engineering 2030 project”, which is an attempt to update their engineering schools and move them more toward work that will benefit Chile. Waterloo was often mentioned as an example. One of my sons is a long-term employee of Tesla Motors, a highly sought employer. They are very high on Waterloo. In Bruni’s article, he quotes Sam Altman, the president of Y Combinator, one of the best-known providers of seed money for technology start-ups. When asked for the name of one school that stood out in terms of students and graduates whose ideas took off, he answered with Waterloo. Since Altman attended Stanford, and since it has a high reputation for producing entrepreneurs, Bruni had expected him to come up with Stanford. But Waterloo students had launched eight successful ventures with Y Combinator money. “To my chagrin”, said Altman, “Stanford has not had a really great track record” (of course Stanford students may make more use of other sources of funding, such as Kickstarter or venture capitalists)
What is Waterloo doing right? I think it is trying to produce engineers, not applied scientists, and perhaps not worrying as much about where it stands in the ratings of universities. An example is their use of paid co-op programs to allow their students to learn in the context of industrial experience—a great help, since engineering schools tend to give an incomplete and somewhat misleading view of engineering. Another is their emphasis on design and creativity as well as analysis and theory—both central to engineering, but perhaps not as high in academic status.
I was an undergraduate majoring in engineering at an elite school (Caltech), and probably would have changed schools had I not worked in a machine shop, and later as a junior engineer and finally as an engineer before I got my college degree. This was in a company at the time named Hunter Engineering, later to become Hunter Douglas, maker of upscale venetian blinds. When I worked there, the engineering department consisted of a dozen people or so, all of whom had shop experience, and none of whom had a four year engineering degree ( The chief engineer had a degree from a two year college – I was called an engineer after my freshman year) . Yet during the time I was there, among other products, the company developed the machinery necessary to continuously cast, form, heat treat, and paint venetian blind stock at a very high rate. This was an extremely difficult problem, which included a great deal of work to which the type of material stressed in engineering schools did not apply. Schools teach material that is essential to an engineer, and add to one’s comfort with and understanding of mathematics, science, and engineering theory, but engineering also requires the sort of judgment and intuition resulting from experience. Caltech emphasized math and science, rather than such things. The industrial experience I had allowed me to view my Caltech courses in context, as is probably the case with the co-op programs at Waterloo.
Science and engineering definitely overlap, but if you are interested in the differences, I discussed some of them in a book entitled entitled Flying Buttresses, Entropy and O-Rings published by Harvard Press in 1993.
Engineering schools in many elite colleges had moved heavily to science, and maybe away from engineering, in the 1930’s, and then moved even more in that direction after World War II. The result has been a boon to engineering faculty members, who have been able to do research that attracts more money and is more prestigious to other academics, and in fact paves the way to new materials, processes, and approaches. But they often short such things as the importance of cut-and-try approaches, testing, creativity and innovation, experience, and life in an engineering group. The tie between academia and industry can be good in areas where the theory is more directly applicable, (Electrical Engineering, perhaps Chemical Engineering and Computer Science), but a gap remains in many fields such as mechanical and civil engineering.
Engineering schools in the so-called elite universities are obsessed with breakthroughs and have gleefully accepted the academic value systems of applied scientists —theory, rigor, mathematics, increased emphasis on the Ph.D. degree — with faculty status determined heavily by refereed publications and visibility in their specialty. But during my years as a professional engineer (including my J.P.L. time) I never saw engineers that were involved in project work publishing in refereed journals, or even reading them. Professional engineers certainly tend to use theory when it works, but are usually forced to augment it with experience and testing, and tend to use theory with which they are comfortable.
The swing back toward application in the elite engineering schools is underway, but it is very slow. I was involved in attempts to cause this to happen by the government and in the American Society of Engineering Education in the early 1960’s, and was hired onto the Stanford faculty in 1966 by Joe Pettit, a dean who cared deeply about education, and Fred Terman, the god of Stanford Engineering School, who had decided that the pendulum had swung dangerously far and a few people should be hired who had experience working as an engineer. I was one of them. But 30 years later, I was asked to spend a couple of years as “Associate Dean of Special Projects” and see what I could do to get Stanford’s Engineering School more involved in manufacturing, which was then a hot item in the U.S., and is in fact a central engineering activity. I put an outstanding team together between the Graduate School of Business and the Engineering School, and we produced what I thought was an excellent plan. But since industry knew much more about manufacturing than the School of Engineering, it included a co-op element. Strangely enough, to us, that seemed to insult many of the influential members of the faculty, who apparently considered co-op programs, and perhaps even manufacturing, intellectually beneath them and beneath the engineering school. R.I.P. good study, and hello China.