Show What They Know
Schools introduce nondegree—and post-degree—credentials to equip engineers for an era of rapid technological change and jobs that may not yet exist.
By Mary Lord
Engineering students have notoriously packed schedules. So what would entice dozens of Pennsylvania State University undergraduates to spend a whole evening drilling down with industry experts on such topics as geometric dimensioning and tolerancing (GD&T) or examining fighter-jet brakes to parse cost-versus-function design trade-offs—all without credit? Answer: a chance to earn micro-credentials, modeled after Boy and Girl Scout badges, that provide evidence of a specialized job-oriented skill or competency.
“The reponse has been phenomenal,” says Eric Marsh, a professor of engineering education and associate head of undergraduate programs in Penn State’s department of mechanical and nuclear engineering, who introduced the digital-badge seminars this past fall as a way of exposing students to valuable workforce concepts rarely taught in class. Third-year mechanical engineering major Umut Alptekin is a fan. He already has earned several proficiency and participation micro-credentials and looks forward to upcoming sessions on maximixing personal productivity and business principles for engineers. “I don’t think value engineering is something we’d learn about in our courses,” explains Alptekin, who wants to work in manufacturing, where the practice of factoring cost into every component’s design to achieve an affordable product is standard. “Now I’m better prepared for my next steps.”
In an era of rapid technological advances, schools face a systemic challenge: how to better prepare engineers for tomorrow’s careers without disrupting university curricula. Some, like Penn State, have embraced micro-credentials as a way to instill granular, real-world competencies in intense, extracurricular bursts that don’t skew academic calendars or burden faculty. Others are beefing up continuing education and online courses with digital badges in areas from 3-D printing to project-management fundamentals. The Robert Morris University School of Engineering, Mathematics, and Science may have the boldest initiative yet: three 12- or 18-credit certificate programs in energy technology, basic manufacturing, and additive manufacturing, to be delivered off campus at a new state-of-the-art Energy Innovation Center.
Nondegree credentials are poised to play an increasing role in workforce and professional development. A recent survey of 750 U.S. human resources leaders by Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy found that many companies are exploring or implementing skills- or competency-based hiring. Two thirds of HR managers saw the need for continuous employee upskilling and education, though many were less familiar with micro-credentials than with online degree and certificate programs.
“A lot of employers don’t fully understand the weight and value of micro-credentials,” says Patricia Gannon, director of adult, business, and professional education programs at Colorado State University Online, which offers digital badges to demonstrate competencies in such areas as additive manufacturing. “We’re continuing to increase the level of visibility and rigor.” Stephanie Teasley, a research professor in Michigan’s School of Information and president of the Society for Learning Analytics Research, sees a growing opportunity to show the usefulness of digital credentials. Participating in the solar car competition or a research project can enhance a transcript, “but it doesn’t tell employers what you did on a team and what you learned.” A digital credential can spell that out. She also says employers are interested in students’ outside interests. She recalls an auto executive describing how to select talent from a slew of stellar résumés: Skip those with 4.0 GPAs and hire “the 3.8’s who’ve done something besides study for classes.”
Fueling the interest in micro-credentials is the proliferation of massive open online courses (MOOCs) that offer them, typically for a fee. Coursera students, for example, can earn a certificate in business analytics from the University of Pennsylvania. Udacity has awarded 50,000 graduates a “nanodegree” in areas from artificial intelligence to self-driving cars. For professionals too busy to brake for an advanced degree, edX, the MOOC platform created in 2012 by Harvard University and MIT, offers “MicroMasters” certificates from top accredited programs at a fraction of the price of a degree.
Availability doesn’t mean consistency, however. A 2018 analysis of 450 MOOC-based micro-credentials by online search engine Class Central, for example, found wide variation in course sequences, completion times, and cost.
Still, research suggests that small, performance-based credentials may help engineering educators boost persistence and student learning. “The motivation piece is definitely part of badges,” says micro-credentialing pioneer Emily Rimland, information literacy librarian and learning technologies coordinator at Penn State University Libraries. She has seen a surge in the number of students earning information-literacy badges that her team developed back in 2013—from 160 issued in the initial three years to 3,585 in the 2017-18 academic year. Rimland attributes the surge to wider acceptance and better marketing of the badges, but she also suspects the appeal may be “generational,” citing the “hustle factor” among millennials, who are used to finding side gigs to pay the bills or get ahead.
Mechanical engineering major Alptekin sees micro-credentials as “small victories that will add up in the future.” Last year’s GD&T workshop gives him “an advantage over my classmates” in coursework this semester—and a chance to help them learn the material.
Lining Up Support
Perhaps because their graduates already enjoy robust job prospects, engineering schools have been slow to hop on the badging bandwagon. Penn State’s Marsh won buy-in for his GD&T seminar after soliciting ideas from his department’s industrial advisory board on techniques or technologies that aren’t taught in school but which students will need in industry. In some cases, executives even volunteered to send someone to teach the workshop. He then secured approval from the Mechanical Engineering Education Innovation Committee, which focuses on finding fresh ways to enhance the curriculum.
“It sometimes takes engineering a little while to catch up,” Marsh says with a laugh. He notes that the workshops—developed from scratch with department chair Karen A. Thole—have begun to draw students from other disciplines. And the chemical and architectural engineering departments are copying “our successful recipe” to host workshops of their own.
“We’re very much a work in progress,” agrees Andrew Olewnik, director of experiential learning programs at the State University of New York–Buffalo’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. This fall, he added a digital badge component to the Engineering Intramural extracurricular he’s been running for the past four years. Multidisciplinary teams of undergraduates still work for 10 to 12 weeks on a real problem pitched by industry, a community group, or a student—such as the math major whose education research project led to a prototype app to help third graders learn fractions. But now they also can write reflections about their experience, which Olewnik assesses, and receive digital credentials that can be embedded in a résumé and clicked on to reveal the precise professional skills acquired. Though only six or seven of some 40 to 50 pilot participants pursued a digital badge, Olewnik expects greater participation as the program matures.
In the burgeoning information-technology sector, where industry certification is well established and respected, micro-credentials remain an evolving value proposition. At February’s Black Engineer of the Year Awards (BEYA) STEM conference in Washington D.C., a MITRE Corp. panel of IT consultants, program managers, and HR officers agreed that an advanced degree was crucial for career advancement in IT and many other disciplines. But they deemed industry certification to have the biggest impact on performance and ability to change fields, and they were evenly divided on which exerted more influence on pay and respect from peers.
Of today’s most in-demand credentials, the panel predicted that only two—Certified Ethical Hacker and Certified Information Systems Security Professional—would make tomorrow’s top five. Emerging certifications include electronic health records management, with the hottest degrees in space exploration, bioengineering, blockchain technology, artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, swarm ’bots, smart-city systems, and quantum computing. Whatever the credential, “please put your certifications and degrees at the top of your résumé,” urges MITRE senior technical recruiter Robert Wofford, because employers won’t take the time to hunt for them.
Pointers from Practitioners
For engineering educators looking to start a micro-credential program, here are some tips from the pioneers:
1. Tap industry expertise and align credentials to core business competencies
Rimland’s team at Penn State surveyed employers in 10 industries to see what 21st-century skills were valued, then matched them with information-literacy competencies—such as search, inquiry, and ethics—from which to develop activities for 10 micro-credentials to be embedded in general education courses. Their vision: Undergraduates could complete all 10 to earn an “über badge” and jump-start conversations with potential employers.
2. Design credible assessments
“If a university is going to put its name on a credential, there has to be some mechanism for ensuring the credential stands for what it stands for and represents quality,” cautions University of Michigan information scientist Teasley. This requires faculty to think about learning outcomes and design assessments that show whether students demonstrate the desired competencies and knowledge. Anything on an official transcript, she notes, will require verification from the registrar’s office.
The policy of the SUNY system, adopted in January 2018, includes broad guidelines for creating digital badges—they should be of high academic quality, transferable, and protective of student privacy—as well as a bibliography of research on digital badges and a glossary. Authenticity is paramount. To illuminate and assess learning, Olewnik asks participants to write reflections that articulate the technical and professional skills they had to employ.Penn State’s workshops have a culminating assessment. “You have to demonstrate you paid attention” to receive a proficiency and participation badge, says mechanical engineering student Alptekin. “It’s not like you can go and just sit in the back of the classroom.”
3. Encourage participation
Keen to avoid making students choose between skipping class or attending a workshop, Marsh polled students to come up with optimum days and times. He e-mails invitations and provides a “lavish” pizza or other student-style meal. “Late afternoons, free food, and a great industry speaker is the winning recipe for us,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be hard, and it doesn’t have to be expensive.”
4. Create programs for new graduates and professionals
Industry still invests heavily in on-the-job training, but academia can play a major role. The University of Utah’s new Degree Plus program, for example, tailors certificate programs to augment recent graduates’ skill sets in such marketable, high-demand areas as data analysis and Web design. Colorado State Online offers 13 micro-credential programs in subjects from communication for science and engineering professionals to foundations of 3-D printing, all with clear learning objectives and measurable assessments.
5. Don’t abandon internships
Real-world projects with employers and awarding academic credit for on-the-job learning were the top recommendations of HR leaders in Northeastern’s survey. Even with its suite of badge-based undergraduate and graduate certificate programs, Pittsburgh, Pa.-based Robert Morris University still requires industry internships and research projects with faculty for all engineering undergraduates. Students also learn to operate state-of-the-art equipment in the lab, or “learning factory,” and so “have a set of skills even before they graduate,” says the dean, Maria Kalevitch, noting her school’s 96 percent job-placement rate. Internships also offer opportunities for engineering students to really think beyond the box. This past summer, the University of Arkansas and North Carolina State University launched paid undergraduate work experiences on Capitol Hill. The grand challenge: Improve policy by having engineers know more about the legislative process, and perhaps even run for elected office.
If you can’t hack micro-credentials, employers have other ways of judging career readiness. Just ask recruiter Jacquan Eldrige, who was manning the defense contractor SAIC’s booth at the BEYA annual conference. Hackathon participants, he says, demonstrate an eagerness to go “above and beyond.” As a result, their résumés leap to the top of SAIC’s hiring pile.
Mary Lord is Prism’s deputy editor.
Design by Toni Rigolosi