Engineering curricula in higher education today is out of balance with what is needed to prepare graduates for the workforce, according to Stephen W. Director, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Northeastern University. This balance, he said, can be restored by incorporating experiential learning—namely co-op—which emphasizes professional development and provides students with practical experience they can then apply to their academics back in the classroom.
“We have to recognize that there are skills engineering graduates need to know before they enter the workforce that can’t be taught in the traditional engineering classroom paradigm,” said Director, who kicked off the Northeast Section American Society for Engineering Education Conference, which was held at Northeastern, by delivering the plenary lecture Friday morning. These skills, he added, can only be obtained through real-world work experience that not only provides authentic context, constraints, and consequences, but is also an integral part of the engineering curriculum.
The theme of the conference—which is “Professional Formation of Engineers—aligns with the National Science Foundation initiative of the same name that seeks to create and support an innovative and inclusive engineering profession for the 21st century. Northeastern was the ideal host for this year’s event given the university’s focus on cooperative education and experiential learning, which align with this theme.
Director is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a fellow of both the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and the American Society of Engineering Education. He is a pioneer in the field of electronic design automation and has a long record of commitment to—and innovation in—engineering education.
What employers think
Director noted that despite noble efforts over the past 20 years, employers today say engineering graduates—as well as those in other fields—have strong knowledge of their disciplines but lack the professional and intellectual skills required to successfully enter the workforce. He pointed to a 2013 survey of hiring managers published in Inside Higher Ed, which found that only 39 percent of respondents felt that the recent college graduates they interviewed were prepared for a job in their field of study.
Meanwhile, 82 percent of hiring managers surveyed thought the recent college graduates they hire should have completed a formal internship before graduation.
The Northeastern differentiator
Through Northeastern’s century-old experiential education model—particularly its signature co-op program—students gain real-world work experience across the globe on all seven continents. There were 9,823 co-op placements in 2013-14, and Northeastern counts nearly 3,000 co-op employers worldwide. This differentiator is evident: 92 percent of graduates from 2006 through 2013 were employed full time or enrolled in graduate school within nine months of graduation, and 85 percent who were employed full time were doing work related to their major.
“We have clear evidence that experiential education based on co-op exposes students to the real-world work environment and results in better prepared students who enter the workforce,” Director said.
Director noted that students and employers alike hail Northeastern’s co-op program. “I’ve never seen the level of confidence that students who are engaged in co-op have in their own abilities when they complete a co-op, nor the level of employer interest in co-op graduates as I’ve seen here,” he said, adding that faculty say students return from co-op ready to challenge traditional thinking and provide real-world examples of their work.
The Four Dimensions
Director outlined the “four dimensions” that factor into restoring the balance in engineering education to help better prepare students for the workforce:
What we need to teach: requires a balance between intellectual skills and disciplinary content
What we expect students to learn: requires a balance between professional development and intellectual development
What they actually learn: requires a balance between what we teach and how students learn
How we teach: requires a balance between pedagogy and technology
Director acknowledged that not all universities and colleges have the infrastructure to provide co-op programs. As an alternative, he said those institutions should consider implementing a simulated real-world co-op experience as part of their students’ education. He said this simulated program must have three components:
• It must build on the strength of capstone design courses, of which college students should not take more than one
• It must introduce a real-world client, if possible
• And it must be embedded with the strengths of co-op, which include real-world constraints, project parameters, and job expectations; lessons on how the skills learned integrate into coursework; and learning objectives, supervisor evaluations, and robust self-reflection.
“The simulated real-world experience could be an effective alternative, if it integrates certain aspects of the successful co-op program,” he said.