Magazine

Online Extra: The American Engineer Hopefuls


Engineering used to be one of those "safe" career paths. No more. Globalization and rapid technological change have rendered the profession both more complicated and challenging, and less secure. Specialty fields become obsolete faster, the need to work in global teams is greater, and more basic work is being outsourced overseas. So in preparing a new generation for a career that requires a very different portfolio of skills than in the past, leading engineering schools are trying to solve a complex equation: how to reengineer the engineer.

Duke University's Pratt School of Engineering is one of a few top schools where educators are making dramatic adjustments to their programs. Chemistry, physics, and math remain staples, but the curriculum is focusing more on softer skills like communications, team management, and innovation. The adjustments Duke has made are aimed at "giving people the skills to adjust rapidly to changing environments," says Tod A. Laursen, senior associate dean for education at the engineering school, and a professor of civil and environmental engineering. Without that kind of broadening, he says, "you're banking pretty heavily on anticipating correctly what the work world will look like 10 to 15 years from now. I'm not sure anyone's crystal ball is that good."

Part of Duke's challenge is simply persuading students good at math, science and analytical thinking to choose engineering over careers in banking or on Wall Street. One-third of the program's grads go into finance upon graduation. Between that siren song, and the challenge of getting enough students interested in the profession in the first place, engineering employers are increasingly concerned the supply of graduates won't meet projected demand.

To keep engineering students jazzed about the profession, Duke is allowing more hands-on learning earlier. The iPod project in egr053, a first year course in Computational Engineering, is a good example. It teaches students about systems engineering by hooking the music player to a computer and oscilloscope to study things like compression (how to store more songs without slowing the player too much), signal processing, harmonics, circuits, and amplification. Dean Kristina M. Johnson describes it as "motivating the learning of the pieces of engineering by starting from the whole." Only a few years ago this kind of deep dive would have been saved for a senior year project.

The hands-on experience is woven through much of Duke's curriculum. The Pratt research fellowship, which 30% of students take part in, is an independent study with a faculty member that often leads to patents and papers. Service-minded students, of whom there are many at Duke, can spend a summer doing engineering projects in New Orleans or travel with Engineers Without Borders or Engineering World Health.

The preparation of students to work in widely dispersed teams is also being emphasized. The Pratt School's student body already tends to be more rounded than most, with some 27% of Duke's engineers spending part of their undergrad years studying abroad. That outshines the 2.5% of engineering candidates nationwide. Even so, advisers work with students early to try to boost that number and get more students studying in countries where English is not the primary language.

The push for more practical, and international, experience is accompanied by a greater focus on design, customer demands and cost. Executing a product to specifications is work that can easily go overseas. But coming up with the idea of what to design in the first place? That's harder to outsource. It involves knowing both what the customer wants and the business case for giving it to them—the cost and return.

Those were skills Theo Tam was looking for when he came to Duke last summer to attend the school's master's program in engineering management. His plan then was to return, diploma in hand, to his career as a product design engineer for Lockheed Martin Corp.

But since going through the program, Tam, a 24-year-old Bay Area native, has completely changed direction. The innovative business model he and a global team developed for an entrepreneurial project won a $100,000 prize from Duke. "Everything I was learning in class—finance, marketing, management—I had to soak up. It was completely relevant," Tam says. Now instead of returning to California, he's spending a steamy summer at Duke's Durham (N.C.) campus, launching a medical device business aimed at the developing world—a whole new kind of engineer. By Nanette Byrnes


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