Why don’t future engineers learn real-world skills in school?

Many engineering graduates don’t feel confident they can build anything. Experts say the schools are letting them down. How can that be?

(Photograph by Roger LeMoyne)

(Photograph by Roger LeMoyne)

Before Adam Schachner enrolled at McGill University, he thought of himself as an inventor. He figured a degree in mechanical engineering would teach him the skills to build almost anything, but it didn’t work out the way he hoped. “I wanted to work on projects and we almost never got to,” he says.

Schachner describes a project in second year where the class was split into teams and each group had to make a remote-controlled robot that could push the opponent’s robot out of a ring. Think BattleBots meets sumo wrestling. But since no one knew much about radio signals or how to build complex controls, “we literally ordered a remote-controlled car off the Internet, and I think we added a front bulldozer made of aluminum cans and stuck it on with hot glue,” Schachner remembers. “It was terrible.”

His classmates weren’t much more innovative. “Pretty much everyone just bought a remote-controlled car and put a bulldozer front to it,” he says. “Whoever bought the largest remote-controlled car ended up winning.”

Now in possession of a degree in mechanical engineering from one of Canada’s most prestigious universities, Schachner is faced with a dilemma. The 24-year-old can calculate how changing the diameter of pipes might change the pressure or speed of water inside, but says, “I don’t feel confident [enough] to build very much of anything.” He’s not be alone.

For years, Canada has talked about the shortage of new engineers to keep up with the growth in the mining, energy and transportation industries. In the next five years alone, Engineers Canada forecasts annual job openings for 2,500 civil engineers, 2,100 mechanical engineers, 1,800 electrical and electronic engineers, and 400 chemical engineers, not to mention thousands more split among computer, aerospace, geological, mining and industrial engineering.

In response, Canadian universities have expanded their engineering programs. As it stands, many students tend to come out of higher education—especially in engineering—with strong analytical skills and the ability to focus well on closed-ended problems, says Brian Frank, director of program development in the faculty of engineering and applied science at Queen’s University. Give them a problem, and they are very capable of plugging variables into the equations to get the answer. It’s the kind of work students dub “plug-and-chug,” he says. But Frank wanted to know: “How well are we preparing students to solve more realistic problems that are more open-ended? That are messier? That have conflicting goals or unknown goals? That led us down the road to looking at critical thinking.”

Related: The marks you need to get into engineering school

Frank and a team of researchers at Queen’s started a longitudinal study in 2013 to measure critical thinking, communication and problem-solving in approximately 2,000 students, including about 650 in engineering. “We had anecdotal complaints that students can’t communicate very well,” Frank says. “But the scores were actually quite high in many elements that had to do with written communication.” Using standardized tests, the study also found that fourth-year students showed improvement in critical thinking when compared with freshmen. And yet, there can often be a gap between what students learn in classrooms and the kind of critical thinking expected of them once they have a job or co-op placement.

When Heidi Manicke graduated from the geological engineering program at UBC in 2014—a field expected to have about 135 job openings annually for the next five years—she found work at Thurber Engineering in Vancouver, classifying types of soil for geological testing. It was daunting at first. “I had done a little soil classification in school in labs—maybe, cumulative, an hour—and then that was my job for the first three months, eight hours a day,” she says. “The expectation in the industry seems to be that they’ll train you.

“All of the engineers say you learn 10 per cent of what you need to know in school; the rest you learn on the job,” Manicke adds. And yet, to go through a four-year program and rack up student debt only to learn the practical skills after graduation sounds—especially from an engineering standpoint—inefficient.

“We don’t have, from our point of view, the right approach to educate our young [engineers],” says Robert Hardt, CEO of Siemens Canada. “[Students] in university or college learn all the technical basics from a theoretical point of view, but they don’t really focus on the practical implementation of those learned skills into the real world.” Hardt says Siemens Canada invests a lot of time getting graduates up to speed. “It’s frustrating for the students, but it’s also frustrating for us,” Hardt says. “When young people come into our company, they have a lot of new, creative ideas. It’s really refreshing to see it. What they lack is the ability to implement them in a company environment.”

Recent graduates are also often too reliant on computers, and need more of the practical skills they can only get from working, says Gary Kramer, vice-president of tunnels for engineering consultants Hatch Mott MacDonald. “If you don’t know what a million tonnes looks like, you should,” he says. “When you can look at a truck, which weighs about 60,000 kg fully loaded, then those numbers start to make more sense to you. That’s the kind of practical thing you don’t learn in a book.” And that kind of practical knowledge can preclude catastrophes.

Kramer remembers one near-colossal mistake when a recent engineering grad mixed up megapascals and kilopascals—a miscalculation akin to mistaking one’s weight in kilograms for tonnes. “The person was getting answers from the computer program, but did not have a feel for the numbers—what the answer should be,” Kramer says. Fortunately, the error was caught “because the [reviewer] looking at it had judgment.

“There should almost be a course that doesn’t have a computer in it,” Kramer adds, reflecting back to one course he took at the University of Waterloo called Approximate Structure Analysis. He was taught to constantly think about the answer as he completed the analysis. “The course really helped develop a student’s sense of structural behaviour, which is a key element to being a practical engineer,” Kramer explains. “Now, when I get computer results, because of that experience, I ask, ‘Do these numbers make sense?’ ”

Encouraging students to repeatedly analyze their data dramatically improves their critical-thinking skills, according to a recent study from Stanford and the University of British Columbia. Students with more autonomy in the process of data-collecting were 12 times more likely to suggest improvements to the experiment than students in traditional lab courses. The next step is implementing critical thinking into courses.

Jake Kaupp, an assessment and quality assurance coordinator at Queen’s University, tells the story of a Queen’s instructor who wanted to assess critical-thinking skills in students. “He turned to us and said, ‘Can you help me develop something?’ ” Kaupp helped to design one performance-style course where fourth-year students played the part of a consulting firm hired to figure out the source of a town’s groundwater contamination. After they were given information such as well-drilling cross-sections and the concentration gradient, students had to weigh the data and topographical information. “Is it the gas station? Is it the dry cleaner? Is it just runoff?” Kaupp lists the potential answers. Students were also asked to suggest a remediation strategy.

“It’s one of the mini-success stories we’ve had in the faculty of engineering, because of the focus on assessing critical thinking,” Kaupp says. It will also get students thinking about what they can expect in the working world.


Why don’t future engineers learn real-world skills in school?

  1. Engineers, first and foremost, are taught to promote “engineering” and other engineers. In fact, they must sign an oath to that effect before they are allowed to graduate. This blatant self-serving mindset might be one reason so many engineering programs have gone sideways.

  2. I don’t know if the curriculum has changed, or the programs have gotten “softer”. When I did my engineering degree at U of T, there was a ton of rigorous theory (math, physics, electronics, computer logic, etc.), but backed up with hands-on projects and professional intern-year experience. Our second-year robotic design project required us to build a fully autonomous machine that had to carry out specific design tasks and meet design constraints, and we were NOT allowed to purchase pre-assembled off-the-shelf components. It had to be designed and built from scratch. We also had PBL (problem-based learning) problem sets and group learning for more complex, open-ended design or problem-solving challenges. Critical thinking and problem solving are key in engineering, coupled with creativity and innovation. If we are just graduating code monkeys or number crunchers, that is inadequate for professional engineering competency and the curriculum should be ASAP.

  3. As a fourth year mechanical engineering student at U of T, I just want to say that I’ve been trying to tell the administration about this problem for 3 years. One of the other comments has mentioned a second year robot building course – this is for only 1 out of the 9 disciplines. As far as I’m aware, no other discipline has a similar course (maybe Electrical/Computer) until 4th year and I’ve actually seen what appears to be an active reduction in the practical focus of other engineering courses. There’s a video on Youtube of a ‘Pizza Assembly Line’ project done in second year mech way back when that has long been deleted from the curriculum. I once asked the faculty chair of my undergrad curriculum committee about why we no longer have any practical focus and I was told that it’s because kids these days aren’t taking shop courses in high school so they can’t do those things in university – I was at a loss for words about how illogical that is for an engineering curriculum.

    As the article mentions, our courses really don’t focus on any practical context. The majority of courses are taught and graded based on the “Here’s a formula, now use this formula with the numbers/variables I give you and maybe also do some algebra” framework. I did a professional internship year, and a summer internship and I learned x10000 the amount of engineering in those roles than I ever learned in class. I also did a summer college trades program (which was way cheaper than engineering tuition btw) and learned more relevant mechanical knowledge than in most of my second year engineering courses.

    • As a recent mech grad from U of T who has a few years of industry experience, I feel compelled to reply to this. For starters, I will agree that the faculty does a pretty terrible job at equipping students with any sort of working knowledge of machining (outside of perhaps some ideas on how to design a part such that it can be machined… or a couple weekends at George Brown) or woodworking… but to say there is no focus on imparting “practical” knowledge on engineering students in the department(I cannot speak for other departments) is, in my opinion, categorically false. The argument I think, starts with figuring out what it is you actually need to know as an engineer. What is “practical”? There is a very common misconception(among engineering students in particular) that an engineer’s job, and particularly a mechanical engineer’s job, is to “build” products. This is simply not the case. An engineer’s job is to DESIGN products. We are not machinists (the fact that so many mechanical engineers, not necessarily including yourself, think that what little machining experience we get makes us as good as those who do it for a living is a little unnerving) and we are not machine technicians. Remember those awful APS courses that laid out frameworks for good team design practices? Everyone says you will never use any of that in industry, and while I have never seen a “weighted decision matrix” outside of those dumb courses, what they teach you about the large scale steps in the design process(problem defining, idea generation, idea selection, testing, production etc) is incredibly practical. Much more so than a working knowledge of how to use a lathe.

      We also(thankfully) do not graduate after third year. I think as you move through fourth year, you are going to change your mind a little bit. I remember coming back from my PEY year and feeling exactly the same as you…. but then an interesting thing happened: The courses stopped being all theoretical. In my fourth year, 4 of my 8 engineering credits were project based courses. If I’m not mistaken, the faculty mandated you take a design course(I highly recommend product design if you are looking for one) and a 2 credit capstone. On top of that, I took a mechatronics course that was also all project based. What I found was that the industrial principles you get from PEY(which is also a part of the curriculum… albeit an optional part) coupled with all the technical stuff they teach you in the first few years made for MUCH MUCH better design courses than they could have offered in second or third year before you knew how to do anything. The article mentions a course about trying to figure out what is contaminating ground water. Why would I want to teach you that before you learned about fluid mechanics? In 4th year, that could be a cradle to grave course about identifying a problem, coming up with a fluids based solution, prototyping, testing and designing an implementation process… because you have learned about each one of those concepts.

      The university can never give a person exactly what they need for every single job they could have in such a diverse industry. Instead they teach you the bare bones stuff that can be used in any. For your internship, you undoubtedly obtained more practical knowledge and experience for that job than you could ever have gotten at school. But would the “practical” training you got as a fuel cell engineer(for example) in your internship really help you in another industry(say… the auto industry) as much as learning how to use DOE of DFMEA at school(again, take product design)? I certainly don’t think so. Every part of the industry is different and we would be remiss to expect a school to be able to create students who can step into any role and be successful without any training. What I do think however is that U of T does a very good job equipping people with the tools to be “potentially” successful with a little bit of training. It isn’t about giving you the specific skills, but the ability to acquire them and apply them when you do.

      good luck!

      • Yes, an engineer’s job is to design products (a design engineer’s at least) – However, any engineer that doesn’t know how the product is actually going to be made is going to have a very hard time actually making a good design. The *only* ways of really getting this knowledge are by building things yourself and working closely with those who do it professionally. It actually wasn’t all that long ago in engineering history that engineers were required to apprentice to a trade before becoming an engineer – this was to ensure they actually knew the trade before they were in charge of telling the trades workers what to do. I can’t begin to say how useful that would be, based on my own experience of supervising trades workers while on internship. It should be mandatory that you know a trade before you supervise workers like that – but in our society that isn’t realistic for most people – I actually worked with a Russian Mechanical Engineer who was also a licensed millwright – You can tell that guys like him know what they’re talking about.

        It makes 0 sense to leave all real practical work until the final year of an engineering program. I’m not saying you need to take a fourth year design course and put it in 1st year, but in the preliminary years, you *need* things that build up to courses like those in 4th year. In order to make strong engineers, you need to teach them that they can build things and they need to make mistakes and finally succeed in designing or building something cool. It doesn’t have to be huge, but their confidence in applying their abilities will improve with every small project, every little circuit or mechanism they have to figure out themselves before it’ll actually work. Then in 4th year, they can take on the proper design courses without the classic “LOL I have no idea what I’m doing,” but instead with a passion to take on a new challenge and learn something new.

        I think you’re confused about the issue of having a practical context for engineering education versus teaching engineers practical skills. There are certain types of things that engineers of specific disciplines NEED TO KNOW, regardless of industry. As a mech, you need to have a practical concept of weights, masses, forces, energies, etc. Like, if this amount of force is applied to a steel member this thick, will it likely fail – kind of thing. Our courses give you equations to find numbers that are supposed to represent these things, but they make NO ATTEMPT at actually giving engineers a real understanding of what those numbers mean. It’s not until you get to industry and your supervisor points out that your force calculation is off by a few orders of magnitude, which is obvious once you know what a kN is versus a MN. In all courses, regardless of whether they have a project where you build something, there needs to be an emphasis on ‘what do these values mean.’ In the courses we’ve had, the profs might drop something occasionally relating to that, but it’s *never* the focus. In 4th year, I still don’t have an ‘off-the-cuff’ understanding of what a kN is or how big a MPa is.

  4. Most of the young engineers I have met are pretty practical and down to earth……you should get into Lawyers and social science students; that is getting into the area of the three stooges.

  5. As a Waterloo Mech Eng graduate, and a UofT Mech Eng graduate student, I have some things to say.

    Others are right in that engineers are trained to design, that is why we get so much theoretical training. I think it should be this way. That being said, putting these theories and formulas into use is the best way to give the “feel for numbers” or practical knowledge that others were talking about. At Waterloo, with the coop program there is plenty of opportunity to gain hands on experience. With 6 coop terms adding up to 2 full years of practical paid experience, its pretty hard to match that with summer internships.
    However, I actually think that the absolute best way is for students to get practical experience is to join the numerous student teams that each one of the major engineering schools offers. That is where I think I learned the most practical skills; by designing, costing, ordering, and building these designs myself or with help from the team. Furthermore, its probably the only time you might interface with current senior engineering students who are also on the team. This is where the most practical learning occurs.

    Secondly, yes, engineers need to know how things are built to be good designers, but this is definitely an industry specifically learned skill. Meaning, it will be different for each industry, so to me, it really isnt a problem to leave this up to industry to train grads.

    Finally, dont leave your training up to administration. If you want to design and build things in the future, design and build things now. Join a team and stick with it.

    Just my opinion.

  6. For this specific idea, my HS was able to compete with colleges, and many colleges are no doubt able to compete with universities here. I think you need to breed a Jr High marketing programme and combine, HS, college, and university curriculums, and attract those interested with Jr High programmes and bring them to tech/voc HSs.
    *They* said the Greeks never cared about outsiders. Probably qwhat they were getting at that the UK did. They referenced 800AD. Probably the Dane Law was culturally superior in giving everyone a chance to enjoy farming with fewer invasions then in most of EU. They said Shakespeare’s examples of heroes who prospered and villians who were punished was necessary. It is something Tudor England and the Greeks didn’t have. I guess the Christian version of human rights was better than the Greeks (who didn’t make it to utilitarianism), but stupid enough not to be applicable to world developing engineering.
    In addition to mental health, I’m thinking the future chain of command (needed to surveil global technology) should be based on utilitarian schooling, personal activities, and work. These can be simplifying into a points system. SNA employees without enough points don’t get access to databases and such forth. Engineers without such knowledge should build sensor, surveillance and WMD infrastructures. Columbia’s ethics curriculum is much superior to a community college’s (are 1/2 as good as a university as still provide a tax base eventually).
    I want engineers to learn ethics. Especially bio engineers.

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