Better Corporate Partnerships Create a Better-Prepared Workforce
A consortium model can help avoid conflicts of interest and break down barriers between disciplines.
Opinion by Kenneth R. Lutchen
Many engineering educators rightly balk at the prospect of an engineering program sponsored by or substantively designed by a single company. But they don’t want to forgo the educational and potential financial benefits afforded by working closely with an organization. The challenge for educators is to create these relations while attending to their responsibility to maximize the value of their graduates to broad sectors of industry.
A consortium model serves as one promising way to both retain the benefits of company-integrated learning and satisfy objections to it. In this model, representatives from a broad range of companies help advise universities about program content that best prepares students for future work. Industry and society both benefit from an engineering workforce ready to take on the complex technological challenges of the future.
Misgivings about the single-company model are numerous. In one version, a company provides funding for the school to design and offer courses that develop skills it needs. The company also provides tuition assistance to the students who select that path and guarantees paid internships if they complete the program. This approach is fraught with conflicts of interest that can do more harm than good. Universities, hard-pressed to attract students in the age of education sticker shock, welcome additional financial aid for students and might be inclined to steer applicants to such a program. Further, students in the program might hesitate to switch out for fear of losing financial aid, though they no longer feel it is best for them. Additionally, depending on program content, the single-company focus could place participants at a disadvantage should they want to work elsewhere after graduation.
Yet consider some of the rapidly emerging and maturing technologies that are sorely needed for building the products of the future: machine learning, computer-aided design, connected and autonomous systems, artificial intelligence, predictive and digital medicine, additive manufacturing, gene editing, robotics, bio-sensing, and point-of-care detection systems. Not one of these technologies fits within the borders of traditional disciplines such as mechanical, electrical, or computer engineering. All of these emerging technologies are becoming foundational, and they require synthesizing approaches from multiple disciplines. Industry increasingly needs a substantial number of engineers who graduate skilled in these convergent technologies. Unfortunately, because of the siloed nature of the academy, departments left to their own devices generally are not incentivized to develop courses with convergent focuses or to periodically modernize their required curricula. Enter the consortium model.
Two programs operating at Boston University show how this model can work in practice.
About six years ago we created the 15,000-square-foot Engineering Product Innovation Center (EPIC), a hands-on facility to enhance student skills in design and innovation. The faculty director of EPIC works with an industry advisory council made up of leaders from eight major companies: Amazon Robotics, Arrow Electronics, GE, P&G, PTC, Rolls-Royce, Saint-Gobain, and Schlumberger. The council recommends technologies and skills for EPIC to support—those that could help produce the most valuable engineering workforce for society, not for their individual companies.
The council must agree on skills that are widely valuable in new hires but are not necessarily embedded in traditional B.S. programs, such as those related to cloud-based CAD, additive and robotic-driven manufacturing, machine learning, and sensor networks. Students graduate with valuable skills that apply to a wide range of product development companies.
To complement EPIC, we built our Bioengineering Technology and Entrepreneurship Center, a 5,000-square-foot facility where students learn skills at the intersections of technologies and living systems and of big data and digital medicine. Participating companies include Medtronic, Philips, Thermo Fisher, Takeda, Novartis, and Pfizer. The goal: identify essential cutting-edge biomedical technologies needed in the future workforce, such as gene editing, fluorescent imaging, microbial sensing, cellular manufacturing, and data science methods applied to biological and medical data. The companies in the consortium help design the most effective labs for students.
Other institutions may adapt such consortium models or design entirely new ones. But the reigning principle should remain the same: Without creating conflicts of interest, engage a wide range of companies whose portfolios position them to substantively advise engineering programs and maximize graduates’ value to society.
Kenneth R. Lutchen is the dean of Boston University’s College of Engineering.