Engineering in the Modern Age

Engineering in the Modern Age

There is a growing social chasm developing in society in general that we will have to address: the value of formal education.

When I grew up this never was an issue; you finish school, go to college and then have a successful career. But today this view is being challenged — mostly by the younger generation, but also by industry leaders — most notably Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO and founder of Facebook.

Formal education has always been the cornerstone of my “universe,” where you gain a solid knowledge base and then add specialized skills as needed, i.e. — the fundamentalist approach.

Many college professors advocate that they focus more closely on the teaching of specialized knowledge and emphasize skills and tools that are currently in demand. As a fundamentalist, I have never been a proponent of that approach. Technologies change quite rapidly and without solid fundamentals you create the “throwaway programmer,” who will be left behind as these changes occur.

I had always assumed that my children would automatically and without question go to college, especially as I agreed to pay for it. But I am finding out that the younger generation has their own ideas — they believe that skills and experience are more important than formal education. This makes for many interesting discussions in our home, but nobody is really interested in that.

The real lesson here is that it forces me to reflect on my own past and critically review and reconcile these different views. I grew up the “old fashioned” way and graduated with a Masters in Engineering, which I later “upgraded” to a Ph.D. My first job out of college was with a small Midwestern company that specialized in factory automation that involved a lot of field work, and I learned a lot at 2 am in the grease pits when the plants were shut down.

When I was in college, I chose electrical engineering and tried to avoid any classes that were not directly to my interest, such as the Intro to Mechanical Engineering etc. The first surprise was that I had to address mechanical issues as much as I had to deal with electrical- and control system-related issues.

In fact, I learned more about mechanics and other subjects while working and not in school. Not exactly what I had anticipated in engineering school and, needless to say, I did not have a lot of formal education to support me. So I learned by observation and with the input of my more experienced peers; reading books or, lately, web searches; making mistakes but, in the end, I became knowledgeable in these subjects — or at least sufficiently so to perform my job. At the same time, much of the engineering knowledge that I had learned was never put to use, or at least not in any way where I could directly point to something relevant that I had learned in college.

Of course, we did learn how to program and design with microprocessors — which was a very much needed skill; but most of that was acquired outside the classroom working with fellow students on projects of interest.

It appears that I have just made the case that formal education may, in fact, not be required in order to become a productive individual; but I am not sure that I am ready to do that. I have always maintained that there are bright individuals who can learn and excel without attending a formal school environment, but many others require structure and will not do nearly as well on their own.

The other observation is that self-learned persons often know how to do a task but they do not fully understand the environment in which they are operating, e.g. — programmers know how to program, but they do not understand how the computer works internally and how instructions are processed internally, or how the compiler decomposes the code.

As a result, programs have grown in size and they do not always operate efficiently. This can, of course, be easily fixed by using a faster computer and adding more memory for most applications. But in some instances this will not work, such as converting code into custom hardware solutions where efficient coding is a “must.” Admittedly, this is a fringe application but it is gaining rapid importance in many embedded solutions.

The point is that a self-taught person without the proper fundamental theoretical background may not be suitable for such specialized programming tasks in which a fundamentalist should be able to adapt and excel.

Now I wonder how much better I could have performed had I had formal education in “motion control” — the nuts-and-bolts, the mechanics, the customers, the business considerations and all those things they never taught me in school. OK then — education is a hybrid approach composed of formal education and practical training. The difference is in how we balance these aspects.

What I am willing to concede is that we probably need both: those that place a higher emphasis on self-training and those that have a broader fundamental basis that is acquired via formal education. I am also willing to concede that the “doing” is more fun than the classroom, and that skipping all formal education is often a symptom of the “instant gratification” generation that is growing up around me. But it is also possible to make a conscious decision to do the hands-on approach and work hard at it, and you may do just as well as with a college education.

As a betting man, I take the formal education approach with slightly better odds.

About Author

George Holling

With over 70 publications and 9 U.S. patents on sensorless and efficient motor controls and low-cost power circuits to his credit, George Holling (PI) is an in-demand consultant to many major U.S. and International corporations for motors and drives. At present he holds significant influence in two companies — as technical director of Electric Drivetrain Technologies (2011– present) Moab, UT and as CTO of Rocky Mountain Technologies (2001– present), Basin, MT. Holling is a graduate of the University of Aachen, earning his B.S. (1974), M.S. (1978) and Ph.D. degrees there, while picking up his MBA here at the University of Wisconsin. His career has spanned both the commercial and academic arenas, the latter including stops at (Dean, Computer Science & Engineering) Utah Valley University, 2001 – 2003; and (Adjunct Professor), Western Michigan University, 1997 – 2002. From the commercial side, apart from his current positions, Holling has served as Project Engineer and Product Line Manager, UNICO; Franksville, WI (1978-1981); Project Engineer, General Electric, Medical Products Division, Milwaukee, WI (1981-1983; Manager R&D, Pacific Scientific/Honeywell Motor Products, Rockford, IL (1983-1985); Vice President of Engineering, Regdon Solenoid, Brookfield, IL (1988-1990); President, Advanced Motor Controls, Sun Prairie, WI (1990 – 1999); and Vice President of Engineering, Cordin Company, Salt Lake City, UT (1999 – 2000). Holling has also spearheaded projects for the development of high-efficiency motors and drives up to 400 kW, and has successfully negotiated licensing agreements with U.S., Chinese, Japanese and Indian customers for the licensing of motor and drive technology.

Write a Comment

Your e-mail address will not be published.
Required fields are marked*