Engineering Education: Teaching for the Unknown

As new technologies reinvent how things get made, employers in manufacturing and engineering are among the most vocal groups in pushing for changes in education.

Dassault Systèmes has submitted this article.

Engineering students need core knowledge to succeed in the classroom. Engineering educators must help students learn how to ask never-before-thought-of questions about everything from the environment to energy, food, aerospace, transportation, architecture, economics, medicine, new materials, and manufacturing.

Look at it this way. Marcus Bryson, former CEO of British company GKN Aerospace, which makes precision parts for most of the world’s major airframe and propulsion manufacturers, was quoted in the June 2014 edition of The Engineer magazine as saying: “We don’t really know what the aircraft of the future will look like, but we absolutely know that we won’t be building them the same way we do now.”

Asking the Right Questions

How can educators train engineering students to solve the most pressing global problems? How can they teach students to develop alternative, green energy and promote low-carbon, sustainable manufacturing? How can engineers rethink urban design and mobility with most of the world’s growing populations living in cities (the United Nations projects that 68 percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050)? Aging populations, climate change, food production, data security, bioengineering, and nanotechnology, are just some of the head-spinning challenges that must be solved.

The best classroom tools include software on cloud platforms that make it easy to collaborate, simulate, test ideas and sometimes just play around to see what happens. These tools facilitate inquiry learning, problem-based learning, project-based learning, case-based teaching, discovery learning, and just-in-time teaching (inductive teaching). Such tools foster a mindset future engineers will need to tackle problems yet unknown, according to Roger Hadgraft, an engineering professor and deputy dean of Learning and Teaching at Central Queensland University in Melbourne, Australia.  

“It’s only when you get students into action that you discover what they don’t know. It changes the students’ engagement with what they are learning,” Hadgraft said in Education in the Age of Experience, a 2018 edition of Dassault Systèmes’ Compass magazine. “They work out what strategies worked, what didn’t. The ability to work with fundamental questions depends on how well we drive the software, but you have to make up the questions, and people are getting better and better at that. The students ask much better questions. This problem-solving business matters.”

In this environment, teachers are not so much instructors as project facilitators. Students take charge; teachers guide. Working in teams, students identify what they already know and then what they need to learn to solve a particular challenge. The teacher, acting as a tutor, guides the process.

Students at the Center

In a standard, curriculum-based classroom setting, the educator stands at the center of learning and brings all the personal limitations and biases that any individual would. That doesn’t address the unknown very efficiently. Project- or problem-based learning (PBL) puts students at the center, bringing collective interests, talents and creative perspectives to bear on unique problems.

Some educators provide Computer-Aided Design (CAD) software tools in their classrooms that are easy to use and enable real-time concurrent design and collaboration, 3D modeling and simulation. The best software tools are versatile, popular among mechanical engineers focusing on design and well-established by leading organizations in multiple industries.

Most CAD software packages enable engineers to build 3D models of parts and assemblies, simulate motion of parts and check for interferences between parts. Many of these software packages include a drafting component that allows individuals to create 2D drawings of parts for manufacture. A good majority of CAD software tools directly integrate into an FEA (Finite Element Analysis) package to help bridge the gap between design and analysis.

For today’s engineering students, however, versatility is paramount. For example, the Dassault Systèmes 3DEXPERIENCE platform is used mostly for complex and detailed design, simulation, analysis and manufacture of products for aerospace, automotive, consumer goods, and many other industrial domains. Architect Frank Gehry has also used CATIA to design his signature curvilinear buildings.

Engineers rarely work in isolation. Most problems get solved by simulating real-world behaviors with the contributions of systems architects, engineers and designers in “social design environments” built on “single source of truth” data platforms that dissolve information silos. In this engineering and design community, students and professionals can test multiple iterations of concepts and cost models quickly to arrive at optimum solutions before they are prototyped or built. This environment often generates unforeseen outcomes, exactly what students and educators need most when exploring the unknown.

“There is no design that is done individually anymore,” said Anette Kolmos, professor of Engineering Education and Problem-Based Learning at Aalborg University in Denmark, in Education in the Age of Experience. “You are not on your own. Understand that global collaboration is so important. The global learning part will take over in such a way that we can’t imagine how it will be.”

The World Needs Engineers

By 2029, more than 330,000 mechanical engineers are expected to be working in the United States, according to the  U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In addition to designing, developing, building, and testing mechanical devices, tools, engines, and machines, these engineers must also be able to plan for ecological sustainability, product lifecycle management, and business transformation.

India, which has the most engineering students and schools in the world, produces some 1.5 million engineering graduates a year. By 2025, China is expected to produce roughly twice as many PhDs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) as the United States, according to a 2021 report by the Georgetown University Center for Security and Emerging Technology.

These statistics, however, do not necessarily measure the quality of education engineering students receive. The ability to think with agility, pose questions from unorthodox points of view, and imagine scenarios that might seem impossible needs tools in the classroom capable of testing and visualizing new ideas.

Educators can draw on a wide selection of engineering software to help students develop core competency. But to stimulate fresh thinking and group problem solving, the right digital tools are needed to enable collaboration, real-world data-driven simulation, experimentation and integration with environmental, economic, social, regulatory and long-range strategic planning.

“Manufacturing has changed so much in the past 35 years it’s almost unrecognizable,” said Richard Wysk, an engineering professor at North Carolina State University’s Edward P. Fitts Industrial and Systems Engineering Department in the United States, in Education in the Age of Experience. “Students really need to be well trained in a broad set of areas. It’s not simply lecturing to people on a blackboard; it’s putting them in a lab and asking them to create something that was impossible to create before they thought about it.”