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 high school, let alone when they enter as freshman. 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 the single-discipline engineering degree have passed. While we will and should continue to award discipline-specific bachelor’s degrees, we need to be sure 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 our extraordinary 20,000-square-foot Engineering Product Innovation Center (EPIC) as a place for students to experience the entire concept-to-product process. Moreover, recognizing that the majority of real products integrate electrical, mechanical, computer and even biomedical engineering, we made knowledge of this product-design-to-distribution cycle 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 — such as Technology Innovation, Nanotechnology, or Energy Technologies, among others — to their foundational degree. 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 see how the challenging foundational coursework they are taking applies to actually engineering something. They will get an initial look at how multiple engineering fields are integrated into the process of designing and making a product.

Programming and software 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. We require that all freshmen take a foundational course in programming and are modifying our curriculum to attract 75–
100 percent of them to take more advanced programming courses later on.

Data science and analytics are rapidly emerging to drive virtually all future innovation in any field imaginable from medicine to manufacturing to retail to organizational and urban function and so on. Divining meaning from large data sets applies to all engineering fields and we are finalizing a transformation of our undergraduate curriculum to insure all students, regardless of major, take a course that provides some data science foundation, inclusive of statistics for large data sets and machine learning.

In addition to these requirements, we plan to offer 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.

Several engineering schools have also begun to offer these kinds of courses and experiences, but from what I have seen most have done so at the individual department levels rather than as a broad foundation necessary for any engineering major. By this time next year we will have fully designed and approved a more holistic and unique approach that 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.

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