Up Close

Innovators at work and in the classroom

Upclose NEW

The Missing Element

What industry demands are applied engineers, says Purdue’s
technology dean.

By Thomas K. Grose

It’s no secret that many, if not most, engineering graduates hired by industry are not ready to start working from day one without additional training – and often many months of it. That’s because most graduates come from research-based schools that emphasize the engineering sciences and theory over the teaching of practical applications of that knowledge. The solution, says Purdue’s Gary Bertoline, is to graduate many more applied engineers – graduates who not only are steeped in hard math and science but have also gotten their hands dirty putting that know-how to work. And he’s got a plan for how to do just that – one that could be put into action as soon as the fall of 2014.

In July, Purdue’s Board of Trustees approved Bertoline’s request to create a Polytechnic Institute within the College of Technology, which would grant application-oriented degrees in a program that borrows from both theoretical engineering and implementation-driven engineering technology curricula, but is also constructed on a heavy liberal-arts foundation. Bertoline – who has been dean of Purdue’s College of Technology since July 2011 – believes that American engineering education is second to none. “But I think there is a missing element to it.” And he hopes his new program will provide a prototype for how to fill that gap with more applied engineers.

The tension between the theoretical and the practical in engineering education, and where to place the most emphasis, has divided educators since the late 19th century. By the 1950s, research had become paramount at engineering schools because of the huge amounts of federal research dollars pouring in. The first draft of a 1955 ASEE study on engineering education, the so-called Grinter report, suggested two tiers of schools: Most would graduate industry-ready engineers, and only a handful would ready students to do fundamental research for government or industry. That recommendation never made it to the report’s final version. No school wanted voluntarily to turn off the federal grant spigot. Nevertheless, today some countries – particularly Germany – have developed highly successful two-tiered systems.

Of course, last year, American universities also graduated some 6,363 engineering technologists (ETs), who specialize in implementation-oriented engineering. But even though Bertoline heads an ET college, he doesn’t think graduating more ETs is the solution, because they’re seldom recognized as full-fledged engineers. Among the country’s 108 top research universities, only five – including Purdue – have technology colleges. So most ETs graduate from second-tier universities. What’s more, Bertoline says, ABET’s accreditation system “lumps them” into its Engineering Technology Accreditation Commission, along with associate-degree programs that graduate technicians. The end result? ETs are typically perceived as technicians, he says, a lowlier designation that can stymie their career paths. The conflation of ETs and technicians also means that industry rarely takes full advantage of the higher skill levels of the ETs it hires, Bertoline adds.

With his new Polytechnic Institute, Bertoline is taking an approach he hopes will solve some of those problems. He likens it to a charter school that in this case will exist within his college. It won’t skimp on math or science but will have the requirements of an ET curriculum, which are slightly less demanding than many engineering programs. “So we will have a few more degrees of freedom with our curriculum.” Collaboration with the College of Liberal Arts will develop courses that integrate design, creativity, logic, science and technology history, and foreign languages, complementing application-oriented ET courses. The curriculum will also include a yearlong, industry-sponsored senior design project (with thesis), and require students to complete a co-op or internship.

Bertoline admits that for his fledgling program to succeed, let alone be emulated by other schools, industry support will be paramount. “We need industry to get behind this and apply pressure to change.” The payoff for industry, Bertoline reckons, will be many more students who are oven-ready for the workforce when they graduate.

Thomas K. Grose is Prism’s chief correspondent, based in London.