Third Side of the Coin
To improve engineering education, we should alternate industry internships with classroom experiences – for both students and faculty.
Opinion by Jay Banerjee
In coin tosses, heads or tails are the only valid outcomes. A coin that lands on its edge, or “third side,” is discounted as an unusual toss. If repeated several times, we call it a biased coin.
But consider how results can change by altering the coin’s thickness. A cylinder shares the same basic geometry as a disk, yet the probability of its landing on edge is far greater. In other words, quantitative change leads to qualitative change.
The analogy can apply to engineering education. Design and implementation are the large, flat sides of the curricular coin. Testing is the circumference that connects the two. Similarly, in a practicum, formal internships unite theory and practice. Medical schools require internships and residencies for graduation and for entering the profession, yet such valuable learning-by-doing experiences remain optional in engineering – not only for earning a degree but also for teaching. While most universities insist on a Ph.D. or its equivalent to teach engineering, they do not require a Professional Engineer’s (P.E.) license, which requires four years of work under a professional engineer. Shouldn’t a P.E. be required of engineering educators? How can we teach something we do not practice?
To fulfill our goals as educators, we want our students to achieve mastery. Yet mastery is incomplete without an apprenticeship and a good master-learner partnership, a combination of theory and practice. This involves an educational journey or pilgrimage – an investigation into the nature of individual experience, artifacts, actors, and operations. The exploration can lead in unpredictable directions. For a time, my own academic pilgrimage took me outside the traditional confines of engineering. I worked at what organizational theory defines as a “boundary-spanning unit” between North and South America, helping Canadian University Services Overseas, a global volunteer group, bridge the culture gap with engineering schools in Colombia and their surrounding industries.
No course could have taught me how to navigate the cultural eddies that can cause real-world projects – such as the technology transfer issues I worked on in Latin America – to founder. I collected data less in the form of an engineer’s numerical chart than as an ethnographer’s field notes. Previous experience as a graduate student in cultural anthropology helped me take notes.
The common thread in my overseas assignments, however, has been mastery learning through hands-on experiences. As the noted social studies educator Gertrude Whipple commented, “No one can give the learner a concept. He must build it out of his own experience.” Once the concept is formed out of empirical experience, it can be used to analyze data and develop new insights.
In a broader sense, academia and industry also belong to two different cultures. Businesses demand quick, practical solutions to specific problems. Universities build knowledge over decades and aspire for the expansion of the human mind. The aim of engineering education should be to bridge this culture gap by alternating classroom experiences with industrial internships, both for engineering students and their instructors.
Sharing my personal experience with Colombian educators and business leaders helped break the ice. However, curriculum studies and educational research rarely count such autobiographical reflections – the “inner drama” of the researcher’s intimate experience with himself during his research activities – as valid learning. But it’s akin to the songwriter becoming the composer and the conductor. Existentialist writers like the late Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes would call it the wahowahowaho of inspiration. Perhaps the better metaphor is the three-sided coin that keeps beating the odds because internships thickened the curriculum. Heads or tails, experience remains the best teacher.
Jay Banerjee is a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez and an ASEE member.