How Engineering Education Can Change To Meet The Industry’s Needs

How Engineering Education Can Change To Meet The Industry’s Needs

With technology advancing at an exponential rate, the effects on the job market have been profound—particularly in STEM-oriented occupations where there is an increasing emphasis on personal skills. To stay relevant in our mission of training human capital in a world where up-to-date knowledge has become so fluid, it is imperative that academic institutions readjust learning outcomes and adapt the educational process as a whole. This can be done by first defining the desired “output” of the educational process and only then looking at how the educational process itself needs to change to achieve this outcome.

What exactly does this mean? At Afeka—Tel Aviv Academic College of Engineering, we refer to this output as our “graduate profile”—the collection of knowledge, skills, attitudes and values required of a graduating engineer when joining the workforce. Crucially, defining this profile first entails understanding industry needs and only then modifying the educational process to ultimately educate graduates who are equipped with all the knowledge and, just as importantly, the skills expected of engineers in the modern workforce.

Although engineering schools around the world have been leading change on various levels, it has now become essential for institutions to embrace a paradigm shift. From what I’ve seen, the majority of institutions have not taken it upon themselves to define a graduate profile prior to making changes to the educational process they provide students—and this has significant implications for how the industry, faculty, applicants and the general public perceive the relevance and readiness of engineering graduates to meet current industry needs. This results in a skills gap that leads to junior graduate engineers often struggling to secure their first job.

To more effectively meet the industry’s evolving needs, engineering education is due for a transformation. At Afeka, we implemented a change in the engineering education we provide our students by applying the same engineering design methodology used in the high-tech industry to develop products. This unique implementation of a well-known methodology entailed defining the qualities of the ultimate “product” or “output” of our educational process—our graduates—prior to adapting the process itself.

The main principles of engineering design—ask, imagine, plan, create, experiment and improve—served as a guide in our journey.

• We began by formulating the problem. The profile of a new engineer, as required by the industry, or in other words, the “output” of the educational process, has changed due to shifting industry needs. But with a new generation of students who learn differently, the “input” to the process has also changed. This can only mean that the process itself must change to remain relevant.

• We then surveyed Israeli high-tech companies to determine exactly what skills they value most in new engineers. This highlighted four main skills: multidisciplinary teamwork, effective communication, self-learning and critical thinking.

 Taking all findings into account, we then defined our graduate profile to include scientific and engineering knowledge, personal skills, engineering skills, languages, ethics and broad knowledge.

• We divided each skill in the graduate profile into three levels of acquisition (beginner, intermediate and advanced) and then incorporated them into our courses as learning outcomes. This resulted in a continuous educational process during which students acquire the skills.

• Finally, to help achieve these learning outcomes, we created change-inducing platforms that support the adaptation of relevant in-class pedagogy and encourage the formation of extracurricular activities out of class. We also created new learning, teaching and working environments that allow these changes to flourish.

Currently, at Afeka, we are focused on locating tools for evaluating skills in a robust and scalable manner so that student skill levels can be measured after each course, semester and year—and in the future, possibly as an additional admissions criterion for new college candidates.

This unique methodology allowed us to transform the educational process of our students for the purpose of producing graduates that are equipped to thrive in the modern workforce.

I think what we learned from this process can serve other academic institutes interested in transforming their own educational processes.

• First and foremost, aim to understand the importance of defining an engineering graduate profile as a mutually agreed-upon goal by all internal stakeholders to serve as a compass. The process of defining the graduate profile together with the relevant management team leads to a commitment of all involved to reach the desired results. But this is not enough—the entire organization needs to be on board with the process. For this to occur, establishing communities based on mutual interests is crucial. Communities around shared activities and goals provide platforms for exchanging ideas and sharing different approaches to coping with the change process—both at the personal and organizational levels.

• Internal communications are also an important tool in advancing change. Constant communication on the part of the administration, along with clear and consistent interdepartmental and cross-departmental messaging and sharing of successes, help engage faculty and staff and encourage internal initiatives that align with the goals of the change process.

• External collaboration is also a must. Higher education is only one link on the educational continuum. Forming an ecosystem that promotes ongoing dialogue and cooperation between all links—from early education through tertiary and higher education and up to and throughout industry employment—is the basis for a coherent lifelong learning process that improves the output at each link and serves national goals.

• Finally, it is important to keep in mind that this type of systemic change takes years to implement and is an ongoing joint learning process. Encouraging trial and error and embracing failure as part of this learning process will lead to faster and better results in the long run—and will ultimately enable engineering education and higher education as a whole to fulfill the essential objective of meeting the industry’s needs.