What Should You Seek From An Engineering Education by Guest Editor Stuart Nachbar
Photo Courtesy of ThisisEngineering RAEng, Unsplash
College Scoops highlights Guest Editors to share their stories, advice, and articles on a trending topic relating to higher education. We enjoy collaborating with many experts in the field to provide our community with valuable content. This week Stuart Nachbar, an independent college and graduate school admissions advisor wrote an interesting post for students considering an engineering education.
What Should You Seek From An Engineering Education?
I always like to check out engineering programs when I visit colleges, even though I was not educated as an engineer. My father and father-in-law were engineers, as well as some of my college roommates. I heard about their struggles as well as their successes in their degree programs. Most of the prospective engineering students I meet are interested in going to a research university such as Carnegie Mellon or Rutgers. But sometimes smaller schools like Lafayette or Union College in Central New York will do more to help their students succeed in an exceptionally demanding curriculum. They put more emphasis on teaching undergrads. Faculty are more likely to involve students in their research, take more interest in student projects, and make a phone call to a contact at an employer or grad school.
A good college of engineering helps students succeed in introductory science and math courses.
I know no one who has liked the large-lecture calculus, chemistry, and physics classes that are part of every engineering curriculum. The typical practice in these classes is to have a faculty member conduct a large lecture. Teaching assistants, usually graduate students, conduct labs and recitation sections. These courses are called “gatekeepers” for good reason. If you can find the keys to opening the gate and doing well in the class, you should make it through the curriculum. However, you must be aggressive enough to ask for help, either by forming study groups or seeking out tutors.
The downside is serious: it will take more time outside of class to learn the material. I can imagine freshmen grumbling, saying: “I worked so hard to get into this school, to be taught by my friends, tutors, and TAs?” But there’s an upside: there will be many times in your working life at a large company when you will need to form groups to solve real-world problems that can cost you a job, maybe a career. A large university is a good place to develop and master those skills.
At the smaller schools, the professor handles all of the teaching and the labs. Those who find that they like science and math, but also need a good teacher to motivate them should look at smaller schools, or at the honors colleges within a larger one. If you’re an entrepreneurial thinker, you might also prefer a smaller school. The setting might be more supportive of original ideas that you can refine to develop a product as well as a business plan.
It is also possible that the career center at a smaller school will advocate for their students because the counselors will know them better. Graduates of these schools are also more likely to have double majors. Students who have a double major, for example, in engineering and a foreign language, are always in high demand.
Good engineering programs offer opportunities to “do engineering” beyond Senior Design
Engineering programs often have a “capstone” requirement, also called Senior Design. This may be an individual or group project. It may have an actual client or be strictly an academic endeavor. These projects have more value when they are evaluated based on business considerations as well as engineering principles. Unless you plan on further education towards a creative research career it might be better to take on a client with a business problem. If you actually solve the problem, you can get your career off to a very good start.
A good college of engineering will offer students an opportunity to tackle “real world” projects beyond senior design.In the past freshmen engineering students took Chemistry, Calculus, and Physics, an introductory course to an engineering field, and English Composition. They did a lot of problem sets, as well as labs. But none of this was original work. Engineering programs as small as Rowan University's and as large as Purdue's offer hands-on project-based classes as early as the freshman year. Purdue students have the opportunity to work with local non-profits on team projects for credit through EPICs, Engineering Projects In Community Service, even as freshmen.
A good college of engineering will teach you how to write and teach you about business in and outside class.
An engineer will not succeed unless s/he can write well. Engineers are always asked to deliver presentations and explain technical problems to non-technical people. Why is this skill important? Because that engineer will be asking for money or resources to carry out new projects. S/he will also need to explain how the employer will make more money or save more money. Engineering is the application of science and math to business problems. Engineers routinely design better products or find easier and more cost-effective ways to make them. Some might argue that engineering can solve social problems. But even a social solution requires a budget, human relations skills, and a marketing plan.
Employers expect their strongest candidates to present a resume that shows at least one internship where the student was involved in solving a business or engineering problem. A strong resume and good grades will do a lot to help engineering students find the job they want. It’s really tough to find a job with a low GPA and limited experience in the workplace. The more popular employers will expect prospective hires to have worked hard in school as well as on the job. Do everything you can in the college search to find the schools where you have the best chance to get the best grades you can. Larger schools such as Georgia Tech, Purdue, or Rutgers might attract more employers to campus. But their career centers are often asked to refer only the students with the best grades.
Many schools, large and small, offer the opportunity to do co-op versus internships. Co-op students work full time for half of a school year and attend classes during the other half. This is a paid work experience where the salary could be high enough to cover your housing costs and other expenses for the academic year. Co-op looks great on a resume when you can show that one or more employers trusted you with more challenging tasks and projects as you learned more in the classroom. Sometimes a co-op employer will keep you on during breaks or the summer. Co-op looks even better when you and the employer agree that you are a perfect match for a full-time job after graduation.
But co-op has its downsides. Aside from bad work experiences that come back to hurt you when you look for a new co-op or full-time job, co-op does not look good when your resume is “scattered,” meaning that you have different work experiences that have no relationship to each other. This happens quite often when engineering students change their minds about a major during their sophomore year when you do the first co-op at some schools, or when a co-op student discovers what they did not like on their first co-op, or possibly their first and second, and desires a new experience.
What does it take to get in?
Engineering has always been a direct admission program at larger schools. You must choose it when you apply. Median SATs for the engineering degree programs at the larger schools tend to be higher than they are for the rest of a freshman class. Only nursing and pharmacy programs have more competitive direct admissions. It’s extremely difficult to switch from Chemistry, Math, or Physics to engineering early in a college education. First-year engineering students take introductory courses that non-engineering students don’t take.
Colleges such as Loyola-Maryland, the University of Scranton, Lafayette, and Union place the engineering degree within a liberal arts college. Admission is not based on the choice of major, and there’s no pressure to declare the major until the end of the sophomore year. These might be a better option for those who are not sure that they want to be an engineer.
The engineering degree can be a draining experience as well as a rewarding experience for those who complete it.
College-bound students should consider fit from the standpoint of how they learn as well as the opportunities they are likely to receive. Not every college-bound student is a cutthroat competitor with the smarts that allow them to rise to the top of the heap at a large engineering school. Not to worry; these people do not always turn out to be the most successful engineers. The ones who choose the right school to fit their knowledge, skills, and abilities can.
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