Revamped Engineering Programs Emphasize Real-World Problem Solving

Cathie Gandel
March 14, 2013

Think about cell phones, medical devices, solar power--and engineered bone. "It's blatantly obvious that engineering can make your life better," says T.E. "Ed" Schlesinger, head of the department of electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.

But for years graduate school programs often failed to make that real-world connection apparent. Traditionally, engineering students have been seen as focusing almost exclusively on advanced math, taking notes in large lecture halls, and working in isolated labs on narrow, abstract projects.

Today, graduate schools are revamping engineering programs to help America regain its competitive edge. These efforts are paying off as almost 47,000 master's degrees were conferred in 2011, up 8 percent over the previous year.

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Engineering is at the core of so many complex global challenges--in healthcare, medicine, energy, food safety, manufacturing, communications, the environment--that grad programs have realized cross-disciplinary, even multi-disciplinary programs, are essential now to train new engineers.

What this means, notes Schlesinger, is that in addition to taking core classes, one graduate student in electrical and computer engineering, for example, may add public policy, while another might opt for a business course. Students "have freedom to pursue their own interests," he says, and, at the same time, improve their marketability.

Universities have also moved to set up formal multi-disciplinary advanced degrees offered by two or more departments or even with partnering institutions. Carnegie Mellon offers a master of product development degree, involving its department of mechanical engineering, its Tepper School of Business, and the School of Design. Students learn to design new products, considering the various elements needed to bring them to fruition: form, function, marketing, and consumer behavior.

Experiential learning has long been a component of undergraduate education "as a way to engage and excite students," says Paul Johnson, dean of Arizona State University's Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering. Now, he says, grad programs, too, are building in ways for budding engineers to apply classroom theory to real world situations "as the incoming students expect it."

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The nonprofit Engineers Without Borders-USA, with chapters on more than 180 campuses around the country, is one avenue for this kind of experience. After receiving a request for a specific need from a nongovernmental organization or community, domestic or international, EWB-USA puts the job out for "bid" and awards it to the chapter that seems best able to develop a solution.

Lauren McBurnett, who completed an accelerated undergraduate-plus-master's degree at Arizona State and is now a Ph.D.-track candidate in civil engineering there, led a team sponsored by EWB-USA to Kenya last summer to implement a rainwater collection system they had designed: large in-ground tanks to store rainwater from school roofs.

Major corporations have also helped provide students with real-world experience in partnerships with universities.

Rachel Kelley will graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in spring 2013 with a master's in systems engineering from the school of engineering and an MBA from MIT's Sloan School of Management. Last year, Kelley spent her internship in Spain at the headquarters of clothing manufacturer Zara, helping the company optimize inventory transfers between its stores.

"It was fun working on a real problem that made a difference to their bottom line," she says.

Institutions are also taking steps to fill the demand for engineers by broadening the pool, attracting more diverse student populations.

In a 2012 report, the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology noted that the United States must produce 1 million more professionals in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) over the next decade to regain its global competitiveness. The country will never get there, experts believe, unless more women and underrepresented minorities enroll in graduate programs.

Though women make up 50.8 percent of the U.S. population, they only represented 22.6 percent of those earning master's degrees in engineering in 2011. In that same year Hispanics and African-Americans received only 6.3 percent and 4.9 percent of master's degrees, respectively, despite accounting for a combined 30 percent of the U.S. population.

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"To get the best solutions to complex engineering challenges, we need to get the best talent," says Gilda Barabino, associate chair for graduate studies in the department of biomedical engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology. This can only happen, says Barabino, if engineers are pulled from all segments of the population.

Many universities and nonprofit organizations have put in place programs to accomplish this goal. Georgia Tech is working to increase the number of African-Americans attending graduate school in engineering and science through FACES (Facilitating Academic Careers in Engineering and Science), a National Science Foundation-sponsored effort between Georgia Tech, Morehouse College, Emory University, and Spelman College.

The FACES fellowship provides a stipend of $3,000 or $5,000 to Ph.D. students at Georgia Tech that can be used for research or career development expenses such as equipment or travel, says Gary May, Georgia Tech's dean of the College of Engineering.

Beyond financial aid, underrepresented students desperately need moral support. Faculty and peer mentoring programs have sprung up to fill the role.

The University of Michigan, for example, is home to graduate chapters of the Society of Minority Engineers and Scientists, the Society of Women Engineers, and the Society of Hispanic Professionals and Engineers. The latter offers workshops in basic skills such as how to do research and how to talk to your adviser.

All of these changes to the engineering graduate school experience seem to be working, notes May. "My personal feeling is that students are more engaged," he says. "They are more hands-on, active, and learning that there may be more than one way to solve a problem." In turn, engineers are increasingly being recognized as the world's problem-solvers.

This story is excerpted from the U.S. News Best Graduate Schools 2014 guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings, and data.