Michigan Engineering News

Why engineering needs new approaches to education

Three reasons engineering education must innovate its online and professional education.

Diane Landsiedel is the executive director at Nexus, the home for online and professional education at the University of Michigan College of Engineering. With years of experience in both corporate education and higher education, she has helped to transform online and professional learning in a changing marketplace. In this Q&A, we ask Landsiedel to explain why she thinks engineering education is at a crossroads, and what universities can and must do to meet the challenge.

You’ve said there’s never been greater urgency for engineering education to embrace new models of learning. Why? 

Yes, it’s never been so urgent, but neither has the opportunity been so great. And I see three main reasons for this.

First, the scale of the problems are bigger. We’re facing complex challenges that require collaborative, interdisciplinary solutions that universities need to figure out how to meet. Second, industry has new talent development needs and are eager to partner with us to meet them. And third, continuing education is critical, as working engineers need to be retrained constantly.

That’s a lot. Could you break down each of those a little bit more? For example, you mentioned the increasing scale of the challenges.

Problems are so broad and interrelated now. To solve them, we need not just a mechanical engineer, or a computer science engineer – We also need a psychologist, a public policy expert, an economist. 

Mobility is an excellent example of this. To solve challenges in mobility, we need to not only drive technological change, but also understand and drive societal attitudes. We need experts who can apply sound business concepts to engineering applications, often across a diverse team distributed across the globe. We need educational experts, legal experts, process experts – the list goes on. Top research universities are really the only place where breadth like this exists.

But change can be slow because of how established our organizations have become. Because online education is relatively young, it has the flexibility to evolve in faster ways. Universities need to use it, along with continuing education, as a sort of laboratory for trying new things, without some of the restrictions of traditional degree programs. And universities need to find ways to energize and support their faculty as the vanguard for leading the way – that’s why resources like Nexus are so vital.

You mentioned industry. Are companies really open to this new way of thinking?

Yes! They are clamoring for it, actually. The rapid changes we are seeing through technology have been playing out for decades in industry, but it’s driving change faster than ever now. The skills of the workforce are changing so quickly that businesses are looking for mechanisms to upgrade their people, and they are open to innovative ways of teaming up with universities. 

And they trust universities. At Michigan, they partner with us because we have proven results. We’ve been leaders in distance education for more than 80 years, and have been providing high-quality online degrees for more than 20 years. Some of our programs were even designed hand in hand with our industry partners. 

For example, the College of Engineering and the GM Technical Education Program partnered to design and deliver two customized online Master of Engineering degrees that keep GM’s engineering community technically current and on the forefront of energy systems, manufacturing and product development.

That brings us to the third thing you mentioned – retraining working engineers. Why does that add to the urgency?

The rapid change in industry inevitably means rapid change for individuals. Modern estimates place the half-life of an engineering degree at between 2.5 and 5 years. According to some, the half-life of skills is also diminishing fast, with some skills having only an 18-month window. That requires a new mindframe for workers to stay fresh and relevant in their skill set – and opens a gap to be filled by universities. 

Some of this is practical as well. The number of high school graduates in the U.S. is declining, as documented by the Chronicle of Higher Education and many other sources. As universities consider the possibilities of enhancing and strengthening their role for lifelong learning, they will remain relevant and true to their public mission.

So in some ways, it seems like the players you’ve mentioned need each other.

Yes, I think that’s right. Universities need to serve new populations of diverse learners. Industry needs the breadth of expertise that universities can offer. Engineers need new ways of updating their skills as the workplace changes around them. And society at large needs problem-solvers who are trained to think in innovative and interdisciplinary ways.

Online and professional education is a key environment where these needs overlap. If engineering schools can get this right, then we become the innovators of what comes next for engineering education in 21st-century.

About Nexus

Nexus is the College of Engineering’s home for online and professional education. Nexus seeks to engage full-time professionals, company sponsors, and University of Michigan alumni through professional certificates and online graduate degrees.

Nexus also supports online teaching and innovative instructional strategies and technologies that enhance the classroom learning environment. Faculty and academic units from across the College are encouraged to work with Nexus to design and develop new programs that further extend Michigan Engineering’s reach and impact.

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