A Community Built on False Values
This may well prove to be the least popular thing I ever post on this blog because what I have to say may offend many. I do not say it with the intent to offend, but because I am compelled to give a warning.
One of the most interesting things that has developed from my blog, Mechanics Corner, here on the ME Forum has been the opportunity to correspond directly with a modest number of readers. This has included both young men and young women scattered across India, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and the rest the world. The majority of them are still students, still studying to become mechanical engineers. I have been somewhat amazed at the number of them that talk about (1) their strong intention to go on to graduate studies, and (2) their desire and intention to publish research while still in school, in some cases even below the baccalaureate level. I do not wish to discourage people from graduate study nor do I wish to dissuade them from publishing their work, but both of these strike me as somewhat inappropriate for an undergraduate engineering student. It appears to me that many are caught up in the ethos of academia which is misleading them with respect to what is really of value as preparation for an engineering career. Let me elaborate.
Let us begin by considering two words, science and engineering. Wikipedia tells us that science means knowledge, coming from the Latin root word scientia. The same source also tells us that engineering, which is derived from the Latin root ingenium, means "cleverness," and the second root word ingeniare, meaning "to contrive or devise." These definitions point to the fundamental distinction between science and engineering. The scientists, particularly the physicist, seeks to know, particularly to find new knowledge. The engineer, on the other hand, seeks to apply existing knowledge to the solution of problems of interest to society. It is evident that these two fields are very close to each other. We cannot be clever and inventive without knowing what has been known for ages. But engineering is about the application of knowledge, while science is about the search for knowledge.
Academia has lost its way. This is certainly true in the USA, in Europe, and it appears to be true in the rest of the world as well. Where the college or university once saw its role as preserving and passing along the best of human knowledge, to prepare people for a productive life, the schools have since become big businesses, focus on their influence, their endowments, and their prestige. In the past, faculty were valued for their knowledge and their ability to teach, that is, to pass along knowledge to those who studied with them. Today this has changed. Faculty are now valued for what they contribute to the image of the institution, for their reputations, for their publications which reflect favorably on the institution, and usually most of all, for the grants and other funding that they bring to the institution. (Notice that there is nothing about teaching in the present day evaluation of faculty; this is sad but it is absolutely true.)
In order for a faculty member to advance today, he must be interested in and doing those things which are seen as contributing to the image of the institution. Foremost for faculty, this means grant writing, research, and publication. It explicitly excludes professional engineering practice. Thus, the vast majority of engineering faculty today have little or no experience as practicing engineers. They have a lot of experience in obtaining funding, in writing papers, in giving presentations to prestigious audiences and other similar activities that will reflect favorably on their schools. But most have never solved an actual engineering problem from industry.
The reader may ask, "so how does this affect the students?" The answer is simple. The faculty talk about and praise their research, publications, and funding, and students are inclined to take these things as their own goals for the future. Thus if a student sees a faculty member advancing and doing well by publishing a lot of research (and no one ever evaluates the true value of most of that research), the student is inclined to assume that this should be their goal, their path to success as well. Nothing could be further from the truth for a baccalaureate or masters level engineer.
Most of us have heard the phrase "engineering research," and what these faculty members are doing is often described as "engineering research." But is this really engineering research as it is practiced in industry? Not at all. Over the years, I have worked in industrial "research organizations" of many sorts, but very, very little of the work done in those organizations is publishable for the simple reason that it is not fundamentally new. Engineering research, as practiced in industry, in most cases means going to the library to see if you can find a paper (or a book) where the problem you are currently dealing with has been previously solved, or at least a very similar problem that can serve as a model for you. If we talk about experimental engineering research, that usually implies experiments and measurements directed to answer very specific questions about the problem at hand, and almost never about fundamental physics or other "new" knowledge. Let me cite a few examples of engineering research that I have been involved with personally:
1. Many years ago, I conducted an experimental study of the flexural vibration of a sonar transducer head under a U.S. Navy contract. The transducer head is that part of the sonar device that comes in direct contact with the water in order to transmit, or receive, a sound wave. For analytical purposes, the sonar head is usually modeled as a rigid body, but it was generally understood that being a real, physical body with flexibility, there would be a degree of flexing involved as it moved rapidly back and forth. My research quantified the extent of that flexing and suggested the possible need for further stiffening of the design. There was no fundamentally new information; no new phenomenon were discovered, and there was nothing publishable other than a report to the U.S. Navy.
2. At one time, I was employed as a research engineer at the Homer Research Laboratories run by Bethlehem Steel Corporation, conducting research in cold rolling of steel strip. My particular assignment was to develop a mathematical model and a computer simulation based on that model for the multistand cold rolling mill. A significant part of my "research" was simply going to the library to search for work previously done by others about modeling the phenomenon that occur in the roll gap where the thickness reduction actually occurs. My "research" was largely the application of work done by numerous others, and it was not in the least bit publishable, although it was a valuable engineering tool for my employer.
3. I once worked for a company that assembled engine-generator packages, using both engines and generators made by others. My principal responsibility in that position was the torsional vibration analysis of these machines, essentially the forced response analysis of a rather complicated, multi-degree of freedom vibration system, done for every machine we shipped out. Even though this was after I had completed my college work, I had never studied systems quite like that before. So "engineering research" became a matter of learning about multidegree of freedom vibration analysis, becoming familiar with the modal method, learning about the Holzer calculation technique, and refreshing my memory about the application of Fourier series. Not a bit of this was new. Multidegree of freedom vibration goes back at least as far as the Lord Rayleigh in the mid-19th century if not earlier, the Holzer calculation dates from the early 20th century, and Fourier series date from the early 19th century. So, while there was nothing new in any of this, it was necessary "engineering research" in order to give me the capability to perform my assigned tasks.
4. While at the engine-generator company, I was asked to create a mathematical model and numerical dynamic simulation for a complex system consisting of a diesel engine with the governor, a generator with its exciter, and induction motor, and a pump. This system is the emergency core cooling system for a nuclear power plant. In the event of the loss of regular coolant flow to the core, the standby diesel engine is started and the speed stabilized by the governor. After this is done, the exciter is activated to apply the field to the generator windings, and power is delivered to the induction motor. This step again requires stabilizing the speed by the governor. The induction motor is rigidly coupled to the pump which provides water to cool the core. All of these steps must happen very quickly, typically in about 15 seconds, so there is a lot going on. In my own engineering education, I had learned about basic circuit theory, but I never studied much about motors and generators. Thus my "engineering research" at this point included a lot of study of motor/generator theory, all information that had been known since the early 20th century. There was nothing about the eventual simulation that was publishable research, but it was a valuable engineering tool for my company.
The point of the four little stories above is simply that, in most cases of engineering practice, "engineering research" is simply a matter of finding existing knowledge so that it may be applied to a current problem of interest to the employer. Only in the most rare circumstances is it about the search for new knowledge, knowledge previously unknown to anyone. And yet it is this last, the search for new knowledge that is the focus of most academic research. With some exceptions, academic research is rarely relevant to the actual problems of industry today.
Let me also make a few comments about graduate education. Without going into the broad topic of the degradation of education at all levels, let it suffice to say that there are, broadly speaking, two categories of engineers. Let us call the first category the Project Engineer, almost always an individual with a baccalaureate degree in engineering. The second category, which we will call the Advanced Engineer, is usually a person with a Masters or doctoral degree in engineering, although baccalaureate degree holders are not entirely excluded.
The Project Engineer has broad responsibilities for many types of projects, including design, manufacturing considerations, obtaining materials, meeting delivery schedule requirements, and resolving difficulties as they arise. He relies heavily on codes and standards in his design work, often employing "rules of thumb" instead of rigorous calculation; this is how the vast majority of engineering gets done. The Project Engineer draws on his engineering education background for understanding, but rarely makes a calculation and relies heavily on engineering intuition to do his job.
The Advanced Engineer is one who has chosen to deepen his technical expertise, and enjoys dealing with more complicated problems, particularly in terms of mathematical analysis. The Advanced Engineer may, but often does not, have broad project responsibilities, but he is expected to be more rigorous in his work and to have a greater knowledge base. He is often seen as a resource person for the Project Engineer.
Industry in every country needs large numbers of Project Engineers; this is where the jobs are for most engineering graduates. Industry in every country needs a far smaller number of Advanced Engineers because their role is largely support for the Project Engineers. At times, when there is a great industrial surge, such as the USA experienced during the space program, there is a somewhat increased need for Advanced Engineers, but there is always a greater need for Project Engineers. Even when times are good, when industry is hiring many engineers, too much education can often be a disadvantage for a job seeker. The employer, seeking a Project Engineer, will often say when considering a person with an advanced degree, "This person has more education than my position requires. This candidate is likely to become dissatisfied with the job after I invest in training him to do it. It is better to hire someone with less education who will remain with my company indefinitely." I have seen this happen, and I have been a victim of it myself. Thus I encourage all to think carefully about their goals and their potential employment prospects when considering whether to go to graduate school or not.
Let me tell one more personal experience to illustrate the difference between the Project Engineer and the Advanced Engineer.
5. Not quite 20 years ago, I was employed by a manufacturer of aerospace components. A dispute arose with the US Federal Aviation Authorities (FAA) regarding the design adequacy of a particular component in one of our products. The component was a push rod, bent into what is sometimes called a "dog-leg" configuration (a sort of Z-shape), and is operated in both tension and compression. The FAA inspector argued that the pushrod might fail by buckling, and our project engineer was unable to convince him otherwise. The problem came to me to justify our design.
Now buckling is an instability phenomenon, and I saw immediately that because of the bent configuration of the rod, there was no possibility of instability but only further bending, and hence no possibility of buckling. This argument, however, did not persuade the FAA inspector. My only option, therefore, was to calculate the deflections of the pushrod when operated in compression. This is not a simple calculation, and no one in my company knew how to do it. I turned to the classic book on elastic instability of structures by the great Ukrainian engineer Stephen Timoshenko where I found a similar, slightly simpler, problem that I could use as a model. Following Timosheno's work, I made the calculations to show that there simply was no buckling potential, and that further the very most elementary deflection calculations gave an almost identical result. The FAA inspector was unable to respond.
I mentioned this last personal experience in part to show (1) my role as the Advanced Engineer in support of the Project Engineer, (2) and also to show how, in this case, "engineering research" amounted largely to resorting to the literature for results almost 100 years old. Once again, it must be noted that this "research" produced no new results and was therefore not publishable, but it was worth a lot of money to my company.
Well, if students are being misled by academia about the nature of actual engineering, what can they do about it? The answer is simple to describe, even though it may be more difficult to put into practice. The short answer is, "Look for actual engineering experience for yourself outside of academia." How is this accomplished?
1. One of the classic ways to gain real experience has always been to look for work opportunities during the summer or other school vacation period in actual industry. Now it is obvious that working as a sacker in a grocery store will not provide much useful experience for someone who aspires to be come a machine design engineer. But work in a factory, on an assembly line, or even just distributing parts to an assembly line, will provide much useful insight into the nature of engineering work, the work environment, the demands, the expectations, and the hazards. If if you cannot get engineering work as an undergraduate, there is valuable experience to be gained simply by working around engineers.
2. In the USA, many engineering colleges provide a work/study program called Cooperative Education (Co-Op for short) in which a student, usually beginning in the second year, goes to school for one term and then goes to work in some actual industrial environment for the next term, alternating this pattern until graduation. Many students spend all their Co-Op work terms with the same company, but others will sample several different companies. If a student does well during his work experiences, this often leads to a job offer at the end of his college education. By that time, the student understands what is expected of engineers in that particular company, and the company has a understanding of the value of that student as a permanent employee. If Co-Op is available at your school I strongly urge you to take advantage of it.
3. Look for part-time work while in school with some actual, industrial firm, where you can see and perhaps participate in actual engineering work. This is an additional burden to your school work, but the opportunity to see the connection between school work and engineering practice can be invaluable. (I had a student once who worked in a battery factory while he was taking my Theory of Machines course. He was seeing, and working with on an everyday basis, many of the exact mechanisms that we were studying in class. He got an extraordinarily good education out of the combination.)
4. The SAE (the organization formerly known as the Society of Automotive Engineers but now legally simply SAE) organizes and conducts many student design competitions for engineering students. A number of these are structured around the design and construction and eventually racing various types of small race cars. Although done within the academic context, this provides students with a real engineering experience. If your school has such a competition, I strongly urge you to be a part of it. If your school does not have such, then I urge you to ask the school to get involved with the SAE student design competitions.
Let me close with one final story from my own experience, a story where I was simply an observer, not a participant at all. A company where I was employed hired two new graduate engineers, one from each of the two major engineering schools in my home state. One of the schools is known for being very practical and down to earth, while the other is known to be much more theoretical, more elegant, more research oriented. Each of these new employees was given a similar project to begin, the design of a small power transmission shaft. The graduate of the very down to earth engineering program got right to work, following steps he had learned in an undergraduate machine design class. He had an acceptable design in a matter of a few days. The graduate of the elegant, research oriented institution fumbled around for literally weeks, starting over time and again and essentially unsure how to proceed. He knew many of the things that needed to be considered, but he had no way to go about working through them systematically. It was very evident to me which one of these would make the better engineer.
I urge all students therefore to keep their eyes clearly fixed on the goal of engineering (assuming that really is their goal) and not let research, publication, and advanced studies cloud their vision.