Educating the Maker Generation for the Digital Economy

The Days of the Single-Discipline Engineering Degree Have Passed

By Dean Kenneth R. Lutchen

Today’s engineering students are often referred to as the Maker Generation. They are accustomed to applying their knowledge to hands-on projects, even while still in school. But the knowledge they need now and in the workplace is rapidly expanding beyond the scope of any single engineering major. As we move into the world of interconnected products, we have an obligation to give our students the tools and skills they will need to be successful in moving society forward.

That’s why I believe the days of education designed to create a narrow and single-discipline engineer have passed. The most empowering engineering education programs for the future will continue to design discipline-specific bachelor’s degrees, but in a fashion that all our students are exposed to multiple engineering fields, regardless of their major.

When the College opened the Singh Imagineering Lab several years ago as a place for extracurricular innovation, it was instantly popular and continues to be place where our highly talented students can find an outlet for their impressive creativity. Later, we opened the Engineering Product Innovation Center (EPIC) as a place for students to experience the entire concept-to-product process and have made it part of every student’s undergraduate curriculum.

What quickly became apparent was that students are engaging multiple disciplines as they pursue innovation. Mechanical engineering students, for example, are delving into computer engineering, and vice versa. We responded to this by creating a suite of interdisciplinary concentrations accessible to all students. Today, fully half of our graduates add a minor or a concentration to further label their degree — such as Technology Innovation, Nanotechnology, or Energy Technologies, among others. And while that number continues to grow, we are working on ways to ensure that every student has exposure to the skills all engineers will need in the coming years.

For one, we want all freshmen to have the experience of making something, either in the Singh Imagineering Lab or in EPIC. By doing so, they will immediately learn and practice “hands-on” skills for product design. They will also get an initial look at how multiple engineering fields are integrated into the process of designing and making a product.

Programming is used in virtually all modern product design and manufacturing and is becoming increasingly relevant in our interconnected world, not to mention increasingly popular among our students. Not only are all freshmen required to take a foundational course in programming, but we have created advanced courses accessible to all engineers, such as Software Engineering or Machine Learning for Engineers.

Another rapidly emerging area is Data Science. Divining meaning from large data sets, especially those deriving from and/or being used to impact technological systems, applies to all engineering fields. We now require all undergraduates to take a course in engineering statistics and data sciences.

In addition to these requirements, we have started offering an array of more advanced electives in areas like smart and connected systems, engineering data science and analytics, and robotics and automated systems. All will engage multiple disciplines and we believe they will be very popular. Adding these to our existing minors and concentrations will ensure that our students are prepared for the new economy, where virtually every new product interacts with the digital world in some way.

By making these changes, we will be on the cutting edge of modern engineering education. For sure, there are engineering schools that have attempted to offer these kinds of courses, but they have generally placed them in a single department’s silo, open primarily, if not exclusively, only to students in that major. Our approach opens all of these areas up to all undergraduates and will transform how we educate engineers to give them the depth they will need to innovate in the digital economy.

A version of this essay first appeared in the fall 2017 issue of ENGineer, the College of Engineering’s alumni magazine.