2019 is in full swing, and for most of us, it can be hard to take a breath and recognize how fast things are changing. In 1999, The West Wing debuted on television, Michael Jordan retired, Bluetooth introduced “cool” wireless earpieces, and there was endless panic about Y2K.
Things were different, especially for engineers working in an industry that – even then – was always in flux. So how has higher education for engineers changed over the last two decades?
3D printing has become ubiquitous
3D printing has technically been around for about 40 years, so it was still just an awkward teenager in 1999. The end of the 90s brought great advances in 3D printing, including breakthrough uses in medical science and a shift toward open source systems, paving the way for fundamental changes in the way we use it. Now, engineers are exploring ways to use additive manufacturing on construction sites, or as an integrated part of the human body, or even in conjunction with artificially intelligent robots who perform all sorts of tasks. The last 20 years have brought incremental, but very meaningful, change to what 3D printers can do and how they’re used by engineers.
Today, 3D printers are commonly found in public libraries, making them more easily accessible and democratizing usage. Engineers have a level of access to experimentation with 3D printers that would turn their counterparts from 20 years ago green with envy.
This shift to open source systems and the ubiquity of 3D printing has changed engineering education by pioneering a new generation of engineers who have hands-on experience before they even step into a classroom. Formal education, then, is supplemented by real-life experimentation in a radically empowering way.
CAD and the cloud
While computer-aided design (CAD) has been around for longer than 20 years, things have really taken off over the last two decades. Near the end of the 20th century, the industry began to consolidate, and software companies shifted to more all-encompassing tool offerings. Instead of just design, CAD programs address the lifecycle of a product, transforming how engineers were working and learning. Suddenly, products were more reliable, less expensively produced, and more customer-friendly in the long run.
Today, engineers are able to use CAD software to accomplish tasks once completed by specialized engineers with years of irreplaceable industry expertise. Cloud-based programs like Autodesk’s Fusion 360 allows students anywhere in the world to collaborate with one another in an efficient and effective way. Instead of manually learning design technique, engineers now explore product design via a one-stop-shop software solution. This allows for streamlined workflows anywhere there’s an internet connection.
What’s next for engineering education?
In a 2018 report from the New Engineering Education Transformation initiative at MIT, experts pointed to some major shifts in approaching engineering education, including challenges like aligning goals of government with those of higher education to provide learning to large groups of students and rewarding teachers who continued to perform well. The report pointed out that engineering is increasingly becoming more global. By focusing on student-centered learning with a curriculum that addresses 21st-century challenges, higher education leaders can deliver student-centered coursework on a large scale.
Ultimately, the report acknowledged that leading engineering programs should fuse off-campus, online educational opportunities with experiential learning in co-operative corporate placements and project collaboration on college campuses.
Engineering education today doesn’t look like it did twenty years ago, and it won’t look the same even five years from now. Instead, today’s engineers are being educated in an agile and adaptive ecosystem based around an industry in the crux of innovation, providing them access to great online resources, functional tools, and professional development.
Fusion 360 is free for students and educators.