November 1994 - Volume 12, Issue 11


And some thoughts on how to improve it.

One of my favorite professors was Ted Levitt at HBS. His landmark article, "Marketing Myopia" is a classic. Basically he states that many businesses have not defined their market correctly.

Engineering schools have not really defined and stated their mission to today's high school student effectively. Moreover, have they really designed their study courses to enable their students to achieve the top rung or merely to become cogs in a wheel?

So generically, what are the problems confronting engineering education.

First, it fails to attract the top-notch students effectively. Today, a large number of top-ranked students are looking at law or medical careers and heaven forbid, even business, before considering engineering.

Second, many courses are taught by professors who have tenure. In most technological based companies, the technology is changing so fast that teachers who are tenured may well be out of date by the time they get tenure. In personal computers, for example, almost every nine months, the world is turned on its head. TRS-80, Apple II, III, Mac, IBM 8086, 8088, 80286, 80386, 80486, 80586, Assembler, COBOL, RPG, Basic, C, C+, C++, DLL, OLE, Workflow, imaging, disks, hard disks, optical disk, CDROM, tape, networks, LAN, WAN, SCAN, EWAN, video, Infonet, Internet . . . well, you get the picture.

Third, many courses are taught by faculty for whom English is a second-language. While the teacher might be brilliant, oftentimes, the students have a difficult time understanding the brogue or dialect. Hence, the interplay between teacher and student can be less than satisfactory. Rather than insisting that diction be clear, we penalize the student for not learning.

Fourth, while a large number of minorities attend college, colleges do not really use off-shore relationships available to provide the same level of multi-cultural understanding to engineering students. Perhaps, a year abroad for every engineering student should be required as part of the broadening experience. The U.S. has less than 14,000 students studying abroad while over 450,000 foreign students are training in this country.

As the world shrinks and with China and the Far East poised to become our largest trading partner in the 21st century, American students must understand the differences in culture and people in that part of the globe as well as Europe, Latin and South America, the former Soviet Union and all the so-called Third World countries. I find it interesting that the country with the largest English speaking population is mainland China.

It will be the students of today that will have to cope with the trials of the 21st century. Unless we provide them with the opportunities to learn about other people, customs and cultures, business relationships, etc., today's students will be severely handicapped in the world of the future.

Fifth, every student in high school is told that the high paying jobs are in law, medicine, real estate or the stock market. In fact, if you asked college seniors, you will probably get this same result.

Its the money, dummy!

When I was on Wall Street, my gnome mentor, often said, "Remember to follow the money and you will find the reason." Well, we are not getting our message across to our potential students. The real money is in engineering and technology, not law, not medicine, not real estate, and not the stock market.

Now I realize that many faculty might be offended by pointing out that engineers can make more money than lawyers and doctors. To those offended by the last statement, I suggest that the US is still a capitalistic society, or at least, I hope so. If it fails to remain one, then many of the private colleges will undoubtedly fail as only capitalists can provide the funding for endowments, scholarships, and buildings and their salaries.

Capital wealth can only be created by ownership of natural resources, or by manufacturing it. All other activities only eventually consume capital. While some activities might appear to create wealth, e.g., regulation, government grants, transfer payments, service industries and health care, my gnome mentor would argue that contention vigorously.

In 1900, railroads, steel and oil & gas. Now - - - During the past 40 years, what has been the basis for the new fortunes? Surprise . . . Technology based companies!

And most of these companies were started by . . . Guess what? Engineers or applied scientists. However, a lot of those technical types lost a major portion of the fruits of their labors because they did not have the necessary training in finance, marketing, and business. These rewards were passed on to the venture capitalists, bankers, and the outside investors.

The cost of not being prepared!

I am reminded of a software engineer who invented a whole industry and received less than $2,500 for his work. Yet, had he known what a $.10 royalty per unit was, he could have made over $2,000,000 in the first 10 years. For that was the amount which an ex-colleague received when he took the program to a competitor and made a few minor changes.

Finally, we have failed to state the case that a technical education when coupled with an understanding of business relationships provides the basis for being able to not only see the vision but make it something other than a paycheck.

So what do these names have in common.

Lautenberg Eckerd Estridge Carlson
Hooper Mockley von Neumann Cullihane
Wah Amdahl Goltz Kilby
Paschall Norris Minsky Grove
Jobs Noorda Shockley Hauser
Wozniak Gates Perot

Other than being members of Informart's Hall of Fame!

They were all engineers or applied scientists.

Some of them even became billionaires. However, a few died almost penniless. Such is the price for failure to properly see the vision and take advantage.

The Course Content

In looking at course catalogs, I find a lot of emphasis on technical training and a smattering of liberal arts. All well and good. Engineers should definitely not be just nerds but well balanced individuals.

Why are we afraid of business fundamentals?

Except in management science, the subject of how business operates is neglected. Students are not exposed to debits and credits, budget preparation, decisions under uncertainty, governmental regulations affecting the workplace and the environment, regulatory compliance procedures, cash flow statements, mission statements, marketing plans, business plans and project management to name just a few areas. In the course of their work for almost any employer, these concepts will be required.

What can set an engineering school apart from its competition?

If we accept the premise that the road to wealth lies in technological based companies, should we not expose the students to entrepreneurship. A course in which students of all engineering disciplines were exposed to entrepreneurship and the problems of business would provide a means to differentiate that school from its competition.

Such a course just might be entitled, "How to make a million or more with your idea!"

The theme of engineering education coupled with an understanding of entrepreneurship as the springboard to the good life should be trumpeted to the top students and their families during the long recruiting relationship process that must start by identifying students in junior high.

How can we improve the quality of engineering education?

While I am probably a minority of one, I strongly believe that engineering education must try to:

Ideas are great but basically worth nothing unless they are implemented.

Today, we need to learn to identify the top students, pursue them with diligence, motivate them to achieve excellence and then build an effective alumni relations program to nurture their long-term development. In some areas, schools like Stanford, Harvey Mudd, MIT, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and Cal Tech have programs that should be studied and adopted.

Many top schools utilize the PSAT scores to invite students to attend on-campus classes during the summer between their junior and senior years. A few schools even grant early acceptance to some of these outstanding students who often don't even go back to their high schools.

Publish or Perish is stupid when the goal is to educate students!

Over the years, I have met many professors and instructors who were fed up with the "publish or perish" policies of their schools. Yet, they were often chastised and sometimes even denied tenure because they would rather teach than publish. Moreover, they tended to attract the best students to their classes.

Talk about having the administration's head in the sand while cowtowing to the accreditation siren calls of bureaucracy. Perhaps, I'm wrong, but I thought that the purpose of universities was to teach students. Where can it be proven that a PhD is a great teacher. In fact, in many universities, the professors almost could not tell a stranger how to get to the classroom.

Question - - what changes would need to be made in the faculty to find those gifted teachers who could REALLY teach students with this level of intelligence?

Students with SAT scores over 1,300 have brains that get bored with cut and dried courses, lectures, and dull teachers. Often, they can breeze through the standard courses just by reading and individual tutoring.

A proposal for change.

Probably the biggest change I'd suggest is that the rigors of field of study, i.e., electrical, mechanical, environmental, mechanical, computer science, etc., should be changed drastically. Courses should provide not only technical expertise and knowledge but life skills such as balancing a checkbook, developing relationships, body language, and brain storming.

Why learning how to make a decision about leasing vs. buying an automobile just might find itself important in more ways than one. Understanding the linkage between tax policy, cash flow, depreciation, maintenance costs, and salvage or resale value just might help in making future decisions. I believe that education should provide the skills necessary to succeed in the world and not just a core of knowledge in a field of study.

One of the biggest differences I've found between engineers and business people is that good business people are better at making decisions under uncertainty and based upon hunches than engineers. Moreover, they can conceptualize ideas better.

The question that I've often asked is why? "Perhaps, it is because they think more in the abstract than the positive."

Does taking a required number of hours really indicate a level of competency?

Rather, I'd propose that a student select his field of study. With advanced placement, we have already begun to break with the concept of number of hours. Each student would be assigned a faculty advisor and an alumni mentor who has qualifications in the field of study. Together, they would select course offerings after the first year to meet the student's need rather than based upon a pre-determined course of study prescribed in a catalog.

The courses should provide an understanding of the liberal arts, business, and the field of study. Communication skills, both orally and written, should be also included. When the faculty and the alumni advisor agree that the student is capable, then award the degree.

But then - - 'Tis Only My Opinion!

Fred Richards
November 1994

This issue of 'Tis Only My Opinion was copyrighted by Adrich Corporation in November 1994.

It is intended to provoke thinking, then dialogue among its readers. Quotation with attribution is encouraged.

Tis.gif 'Tis Only My Opinion Archive Menu

Last updated - July 3, 2008