The Fourth Industrial Revolution and the Future of Engineering Education
Written by Hamid Hefazi, PhD
Professor & Chair, Mechanical Engineering Department
Convergence and recent advances in numerous emerging technologies are referred to as the era of the “Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). The term was first proposed in 2016 by Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum (WEF). 4IR has major social, cultural, political, and global implications. American writer Alvin Toffler, in his book “Future Shock” published in 1970, was among the first to predict and discuss many of these issues. Engineering is one of the most crucial professions for achieving the potentials of 4IR. In turn, it is also markedly impacted by it.
Faced with tremendous opportunities and challenges that the 4IR presents, engineering educators must take a critical look at the current state of engineering education and answer a number of hard questions such as: What skill sets are required for future engineers? Do current engineering curricula adequately provide these skills? What is the appropriate balance between theory and practice in engineering education? Is a four-year curriculum adequate to educate engineers of the future? Who should become an engineer? These are difficult questions, for some of which there are no consensus answers.
Several studies by prominent engineering organizations such as the US National Academy of Engineering and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers have addressed this topic. While some of their conclusions are different, they all strongly agree on the need for the development of certain attributes beyond the technical training of engineers. These skills which are referred to as “soft skills”, are considered as essential as technical skills.
4IR presents substantial growth in the scope and scale of problems that engineers need to address. For example, engineering knowledge is now applied to improving the quality of healthcare, the safety of food products, and the operation of financial systems. Many of these problems are multidisciplinary and require teams of experts to address them. The complexity of the problems also requires a “tool-based” approach, integrating advanced technologies such as Computational Methods, Machine learning, and Artificial Intelligence with traditional engineering disciplines.
As former US secretary of education, Richard Riley noted: “We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented, in order to solve problems, we don’t even know are problems yet.” These challenges demand that engineering curricula go beyond traditional technical training. While it is safe to assume that future development in engineering will still be rooted in Mathematics and Physics, many other disciplines will be integrated with engineering. The intersection of biological sciences and engineering is already well established. However, the multidisciplinary nature of future problems is not limited to these areas. For example, understanding Cognitive Sciences play an important role in the engineering design process as well as the development of autonomous robots of the future. Understanding human psychology and human factors is an essential consideration in the development of space travel and space colonization.
It is only by aligning teaching and learning methods with the skills such as lifelong learning, complex problem solving, critical thinking, and cognitive flexibility, we can ensure that today’s students will be able to advance in the future dynamic environment. Educating future engineers also needs integrating advanced tools in curricula and assigning complex problems that would require the synthesis of concepts from multiple disciplines, applying logical boundary conditions, and examining outcomes.
Engineering work is also the link between social needs and commercial applications. Along with solving technical issues, engineers must also analyze the impact of the products they develop or the systems they design on the environment and on the people using them. In the 4IR era economy, the allure of employment in “big businesses” will be replaced by the success of new industries that start as home businesses. To thrive in such an economy, innovation, entrepreneurship, a global perspective, communication, and leadership skills are essential.
Finally, attracting the right talent to engineering programs is essential for the future of the profession. The current approach requires that young students join an educational pathway that ultimately results in an engineering degree. If a student enrolled in the wrong math class in 7th grade, she will find it difficult to become an engineer. This approach deprives the profession of many potential talents. A more holistic approach is needed to identify those candidates who have the ability to acquire knowledge rather than those who have certain pre-requisites.
In short, engineering education should focus on strong fundamentals in a wide range of sciences, the ability to acquire and use advanced technology, various softs skills, and most importantly the ability to acquire and apply new knowledge. It could be argued that it is extremely difficult to adequately include all of these elements in four-year engineering curricula. Therefore, the need for education beyond the Bachelor’s degree and technical specialization at the graduate level becomes inevitable. The American education system is perhaps the first to recognize these challenging requirements and attempt to address them to some level of success.
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