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Educating 21st century engineers

myers_cathy webI recently took advantage of an opportunity to move from the corporate world into academia. I’m now part of the team at the University of Portland’s Shiley School of Engineering working to educate engineers for the 21st century.

While a large part of this education remains broad, technical knowledge in math, science and engineering, there is also a focus on many other proficiencies that we believe are necessary for the well-educated student. These range from discrete skills such as communication and computing prowess to more abstract understanding of ethics, professionalism, entrepreneurship and safety.

In addition, an emphasis on hands-on project work is included. Today’s students may have spent significant time in “virtual” design and manufacturing worlds, but are less likely to have taken apart a home appliance or performed repair work on a vehicle.

These topics are approached within a framework that emphasizes teamwork and multi-discipline knowledge and begins during freshman year. All students who enter Shiley School as engineering students participate in an engineering seminar during the fall semester of their freshman year. This seminar exposes the students to the various engineering programs, but also includes working in teams of three or four to solve an open-ended challenge of the students’ choice.

The challenges are designed to emphasize the essence of engineering and computer science: solving a problem under a variety of constraints, attempting to meet criteria that are often conflicting, and doing so in association with other colleagues who may have slightly different viewpoints. Successful completion of the challenge includes following the design process from a conceptual design to a product, including innovation, hands-on creation, technical writing and oral communication.

As part of this seminar, the students are introduced to a work space and provided tools and materials for completion of the prototype that meets the challenge. In addition, a strong safety message starts here. All students receive an orientation to the work space and the equipment as well as the specific governing rules. Even with this limited introduction to “manufacturing,” the focus on planning, preparation, proper use of equipment, and safe practices becomes a foundation of the creative process.

As students move forward in their engineering education, elements of safety and safe practices continue to be a focus. The students performing surveying lab use their equipment on the university quad, standing out among the pedestrian traffic in their safety vests and work boots. Civil, mechanical and electrical engineering students perform lab experiments and conduct research in lab environments after receiving an orientation to the lab, including the location of all safety equipment, and the proper use of all equipment located in each lab. Access is provided only after there is evidence of the safety orientation being completed.

During spring semester of junior year, all students will participate in a senior design capstone preparation course. After the discrete problem solving of statics, circuits and strengths of materials, this course will focus on multi-discipline teamwork (building on the foundation created during the freshman year), career development, ethics and project planning. Course work will include creating a project or communication for use during Engineers Week to inform elementary and middle school students about engineering. In addition, the various codes of ethics for each engineering program will be reviewed and a case study will be analyzed. Finally, project opportunities for the senior capstone design projects will be presented, student teams will be created, and preliminary project plans will be prepared.

This leads to the senior design project and the culmination of coursework into a two-semester design process with a deliverable of design documentation and possible prototypes. As the preliminary plans from the prep course are reviewed and taken forward, safety again becomes a key topic of discussion as students once more need to use lab space for experimentation and the machine shop for production of project materials. Care is taken to repeat orientations to each space and to each machine shop tool – no use is possible without documentation of the orientation and demonstrated understanding of safe practices.

As our environment continues to change, education must also adjust. Curriculum to prepare an engineer for practice in the 21st century is intended to prepare a foundation for technical work, but also an understanding of other elements associated with that profession such as ethics, globalization, innovation and safety. By weaving these topics into the technical curriculum, engineers are better prepared to assess and resolve the problems they encounter and to continue a lifelong learning process that will include all of these considerations.

Catherine Myers is the director of industry and community partnerships for the Shiley School of Engineering at the University of Portland. She is the past president of the SafeBuild Alliance – a nonprofit organization working to achieve incident-free construction projects through the transformation of workplace cultures. For more information or to join, visit www.safebuildalliance.com.

About Catherine Myers