Engineering Education: Keeping it Real
Engineering is fundamentally associated with application. So, in addition to learning theory and analysis, our students must design systems for the real world. Indeed, the importance of “real world” experiences is central to several engineering education initiatives throughout our industry.
But how “real” is real? The claims are diverse. At one school, a real world activity involves having students move beyond a conceptual design on paper to attempting to build part of the system. At another, “real world” was building a prototype sponsored by an industry partner. At others, students participate in engineering internships.
In the robotics program here at Santa Clara, we’ve been exploring the limits of “real world engineering” in an academic environment.
These programs are great, and each is a step further along the spectrum of authenticity. But, how far might we go? In the robotics program here at Santa Clara, we’ve been exploring the limits of “real world engineering” in an academic environment. We run several mini-business enterprises in which students not only design and build systems, but these systems are refined to the point that they go into full-scale service for a real customer. Students also manage/maintain/improve/operate these systems for customers, and they train new students, ensuring service continuity for customers for years at a time. As students suggest innovative improvements to our systems, we have them apply an entrepreneurial mindset to refining their innovations--providing cost-effective value to our customers in a manner that is logistically and financially sustainable within our enterprise.
As an example, we have been providing professional satellite mission control services to NASA and other aerospace companies for more than a decade. We operate on a competitively awarded contract; we provide systems and services in the critical path of flight projects; we are paid as a function of the value we produce; and if the job demands, we operate around the clock and over holiday breaks. We operate in a similar fashion with the marine systems we develop/operate, and we have just launched a new initiative to do the same thing in the emerging market of aerial drones.
it is these extended and highly authentic skills, learned in the context of a real engineering enterprise, which put active students at the top of industry recruitment lists.
The benefits of this real world operation are compelling. While student learning experiences extend beyond the standard requirements of a typical accredited engineering program, it is these extended and highly authentic skills, learned in the context of a real engineering enterprise, which put active students at the top of industry recruitment lists. Of course, there are also challenges. But ultimately, most of these are pedagogical challenges--how to teach students the competitive skills that will allow them to perform well in an intense industry environment and contribute to the success of an enterprise.
Our efforts are paying off. Our students gain a rich educational experience and are being highly recruited. Our customers are happy and keep coming back. We’ve received recent accolades from the National Academy of Engineering and others for our efforts. And we’re now being funded to export this model of education to other institutions. Now those are real world results!