Authors: Lena Gumaelius, Associate Professor; Anette Kolmos, Professor, Dr Ásrún Matthíasdóttir, Ph.D.; Panagiotis Pantzos, PhD student
Universities: KTH Royal Institute of Technology; Aalborg University, Reykjavik University
Academic publication/Link to full research:
L. Gumaelius and A. Kolmos, “The future engineer, work in progress“, 126th Annual Conference & Exposition, ASEE 2019.
L. Gumaelius and A. Kolmos, “The future of engineering education : Where are we heading?,” in SEFI 47th Annual Conference : Varietas Delectat… Complexity is the New Normality, Proceedings, 2020, s. 1663-1672.
L. Gumaelius, I-B. Skogh, P. Pantzos and Á. Matthiasdóttir. ”Implementing Digitalisation in Engineering Education- A Case Study. Submitted to European Journal of Engineering education 2021.
H.W. Routhe, M. Winther, M. Magnell, L. Gumaelius and A. Kolmos. ”Faculty perspectives on Future Engineering Education”, in REES AAEE 2021, The University of Western Australia, Perth, Australia, 2021
H.W. Routhe, M. Winther, M. Magnell, L. Gumaelius and A. Komos. Faculty perspectives on Engineering education. Full paper. Expected submission 2022.
M. Magnell, L. Gumaelius, & A. Kolmos. External actors’ competence needs and suggestions on the future of engineering education: a case study across four Nordic Countries. Expected submission 2022.
Sub-study 1 – Interviews with 20 faculty members in academia
In all Nordic countries, the general understanding is that education is a crucial part of the responses to contemporary engineering challenges. However, the Nordic countries face challenges in terms of identifying future competence profiles and developing adequate capacity within innovative and sustainable competences across traditional engineering discipline boundaries.
Until now, the Nordic countries have applied various strategies for meeting the contemporary social challenges, but we believe that a common knowledge base and collaboration among its countries will empower the Nordic region and eventually also strengthen global progression.
This study is carried out with the aim of serving as a scientific basis for further cooperation and development of engineering education in the Nordic countries. Reports and articles are expected to be used by those who are in any way involved in developing tomorrow’s Nordic engineering education. Why, what, how? And who is it for?
What should Engineering education institutions consider when developing the engineering education of the future?
- Remember that not all engineering education disciplines can be lumped together. Different disciplines have different needs and competences in sustainable development and digitalisation will need to be integrated in different ways depending on the engineering discipline.
- Today’s societal challenges require new insights in new areas. We will probably see an increased presence of courses/programs in ethics, circular economy, and programming. New programs are expected to be created to educate t-shaped or i-shaped engineers; however, we should keep in mind that this has been tried before without being as popular as we thought, this time we need to learn from our mistakes.
- Digitalisation means that many people need to develop their skills, this also applies to all university employees, including professors. Today, the older generation relies to a large extent on the younger, something that is both positive and negative. It is important to be aware of this and to consider how to organise and ensure the quality of university operations.
- Sustainable development (SD) is here to stay. Education is being adapted to sustainable development and the five universities have chosen different paths to achieve this. We believe that there is much to learn from each other and the field of education for sustainable development would probably benefit from collaboration across university and national borders to achieve the most effective results as quickly as possible.
The labour market appears to be changing. On the one hand, it is expected that engineers will have more interdisciplinary skills and on the other hand, it is believed that the labour market will evolve towards being more flexible, more people will change jobs more often and thus skills are needed to cope with this kind of change, something that universities should ensure that students can acquire
Expanded research description:
Today’s society faces a number of major challenges where we know that engineers play a key role, especially in developing the opportunities we face in terms of digitalisation, or in developing technological solutions that can take us towards a sustainable society. With this study, our intention is to understand, on a comprehensive level, how engineering education should develop to meet the societal challenges we are currently facing. This is to provide advice in the form of a scientific basis to the stakeholders involved in the development of tomorrow’s engineering education.
In order to investigate how engineering education should/does address these challenges, the project has chosen to conduct two sub-studies in a Nordic context. In a first study, we asked professors at five Nordic universities what they think about the development of future of engineering education. The professors represent four different engineering disciplines and five different countries, which allows us to observe whether there is a convergence of views on the future of engineering education between the different countries and between engineering disciplines.
The project has also chosen to conduct a sub-study two where industry representatives from the five Nordic countries were interviewed. This is to see if there is consistency in how universities and industry view the desired development. As a next step, it would be desirable to also interview the students to understand whether the wishes of these stakeholders are in line with the views of the other stakeholders, this has however not been done.
Four professors at each of the five partner universities were selected to participate in semi-structured interviews. Out of the 20 interviewees, the majority hold a position as full professors and the others hold positions as associate professors, representing the following four engineering disciplines. 1. Biotechnology engineering 2. Mechanical (or production) engineering 3. Energy engineering 4. Civil engineering. Most of the informants have some sort of managing position within education at the university. To a varying degree, teaching is/has been included in the informants’ duties (c.f. lectures, course responsibility). The chosen engineering disciplines were selected because they constitute ordinary engineering disciplines that have existed for a relatively long time. They also represent different types of engineering
disciplines, where production and civil engineering are seen as disciplines originating from the needs of industry, while biotechnology, chemistry and mechanics are more closely related to the traditional academic subjects.
The interviews were transcribed and analysed using N-vivo software. Several thematic analyses were conducted, where the themes were partly consistent with the interview questions and other themes were developed through a more inductive process. Several different researchers analysed the results. Different theoretical frameworks were used to strengthen the scientific grounding (see publications). The following is a brief presentation and discussion of the findings.
Results and discussion
How will engineering education be developed due to digitalisation?
There is a relatively large difference in how professors from different disciplines think about the change that needs to be done due to digitalisation. Those representing fields close to natural sciences, express a concern that digitalisation requires a lot of space in education. They fear that too much focus on digitalisation and programming is crowding out the opportunity to give students a solid ground in their respective majors.
On the other hand, the professors who work more closer to production, see that programming is a highly sought-after skill and see that education needs to provide a solid foundation around programming for students to be able to participate as graduated engineers in the enormously rapid developments that are taking place in Industry 4. 0, AI, big data.
In between there is also a group of professors representing other disciplines, who see that education needs to change to enable students to learn the digital methods and tools developed in industry, but, they do not see that students need a deep knowledge of programming to be able to work as engineers.
Our conclusion is that engineering education as such cannot be lumped together, but that developments look different depending on the engineering discipline. It is probably important to have discussions internally in universities across disciplinary boundaries about how they want to integrate digitalisation into education to benefit from each other’s competences and develop good education on an overall level.
How will engineering education be developed due to Sustainable development?
The contemporary situation when it comes to what role sustainable development plays and how SD seem to be integrated in the educational programs varies between universities. Whereas some professors claim that SD is the base for everything:
“…talking about sustainable development, it’s clear we are in the heart of that. So, I think for what I’m doing, it’s really sustainable biotechnology and so on. So, we don’t really see major changes, we are in the changes… (Denmark 3, bio)”
other see SD as an area that will be developed in the nearby future:
… and I think that will be more in the years to come, much more… now when you’re going to construct a building, you think costs. That’s the main issue. Cheapest as possible. But I think the environment and the CO2 footprint will be more significant and not only price will be the issue (Norway 1, civil).
Most professors agree upon that Engineering education will get an increased focus on SD in the next-coming period, with the exclusion of the informants in Denmark that claim that they are already in the heart of this process. Another professor points at the fact that SD needs to be implemented in education in a smart way. ´Today, we see a trend where focus on SD also means more general engineering programs – i.e., focusing on general engineering skills, something that can prevent us from training the specialist skills that are also highly needed for us to be able to solve the sustainability goals’ (Sweden 4).
The interviews show that the different universities approach the task of integrating sustainable development in a variety of ways. A couple of universities have set up special centers for sustainable development, which are tasked with supporting teachers in their efforts to integrate SD into their respective courses, or with collaborating with industry and other public stakeholders in SD education. Others monitor the integration of SD in all their teaching in a systematic way, and there are examples of universities that do not directly work on SD.
How will the future labour market look for future graduated engineers?
When looking towards the future, a trend is seen towards more job opportunities for consulting companies and less permanent positions (Nor 1 or 2) at larger multinational companies. This is seen as an effect both from the beneficiary for the larger companies to not have to lay off people at an eventual crisis, but also because of the digital world where people can easily work from home in other parts of the world. It is also seen that people of today – including engineers- are more flexible and are moving around much more at different companies and positions, something that is seen as something that will be even more common in the future, due to the fast technology development, and the need of new or different technology. A Norwegian professor talks about how amazed he was when he witnessed the change in Norwegian oil-industry, both persons and government stood up behind the desire of changing fields:
“ … the oil industry is not as big as it has been (in Stavanger), what can be done instead, many fields are developed (in the wake of the oil industry)… (Norway 3)”.
With this development in mind, it becomes very important to give the students the opportunity to learn more entrepreneurship. A professor in civil engineering says that this is what needs to be improved in education, ´the students have the ideas, but do not know how to use the ideas to start up companies´ (Swe 3). Many professors agree upon that entrepreneurship is important for the student’s future carrier, even though some voices raise the standpoint that this is a worn-out term that is now implemented in education more as a mind-set (Fin 1, Fin 2).
Professors who work closely with industrial production in particular see that the future needs engineers who are more interdisciplinary than today. Both the integration of sustainable development and the development of digital applications mean that engineers need skills that were not needed in the past. Examples of areas that are important and relatively new in the engineering context are ethics, life cycle analysis and circular economy or mathematics and programming. Several of the professors discuss the importance of T-shaped or Y-shaped engineers. By this is meant that an engineer not only needs to train in one engineering discipline during his or her education, but also broaden this skill set with an understanding of the areas described above, or with other engineering disciplines, this in order to understand how to tackle today’s societal challenges.
Several of the professors testify that they believe that universities are lagging behind industry when it comes to digitalisation. Most of the time, they need to relate to the facts and try to keep up with what is happening in business and the public sector. Similarly, in sustainable development, they adapt to the wider societal debate rather than being a leading player.
Many professors talk about how difficult it is to redesign engineering education even if they see this need. The reasons for this are several. Professors do not feel that they or their colleagues have the time and opportunity to develop themselves in order to provide the education they want to provide – keeping up with digital developments or the discussion on sustainable development requires time to further educate themselves in these areas. Today, many feel that it is the younger generation that is driving knowledge in developments both around digitalisation and sustainable development. It is also difficult to develop educational programmes in purely administrative terms, as changes to courses and programmes are slow and time-consuming processes.
Sub-study 2 – Interviews with 10 industry corporations
In an earlier study within the NordenHub project, the perspectives of professors from engineering education institutions across the Nordic countries on the future of engineering education were at the centre of attention. In this study, the stakeholders’ perspectives are in focus, in particular in terms of future competence needs and suggestions for engineering education in the future. The idea is that by understanding the needs and perspectives of the stakeholders, we can offer a significant contribution to the development of engineering education. More specifically, this study identifies (i) stakeholders’ competence needs to meet future challenges in relation to sustainability and digitalisation/industry 4.0, and (ii) what changes in engineering education the stakeholders suggest to meet these challenges. To explore these issues, we conducted semi-structured interviews with eight heads of research and development or equivalent in five companies across the Nordic countries. The companies are in the following sectors: energy, biotechnology, mechanical, and civil engineering. This research is of particular interest for educational leaders, program directors and faculty members teaching in engineering education, and also for stakeholders with an interest in engineering education.
Future competence needs:
- Sustainability is very important for the stakeholders, most of them emphasize all three areas (social, environmental and economic sustainability). More specifically, they need competence in life cycle analysis, climate change, and low carbon solutions, among other things. The stakeholders also ask for a new type of attitude or mindset regarding sustainability, for example regarding the need to save energy.
- Digitalisation/Industry 4.0: all stakeholders consider digitalisation as important. Some of them see digitalisation primarily as a tool or enabler for sustainability. The stakeholders need competence in, for example, software, cyber security, AI, cloud technology, big data, digital twins, and robotics. They also have a need for digital skills in general and, therefore, they suggest aiming for stronger integration of digitalisation and digital tools into all engineering programmes.
- Other competence needs include commercialization, future business models, and teamwork skills. Moreover, the stakeholders ask for students with a holistic understanding, broader perspectives, and an understanding of how things are connected.
Suggestions for engineering education:
- Sustainability and digitalisation should be included in all engineering programmes.
- Less silo-thinking and more collaboration across programmes in engineering education to achieve a holistic understanding.
- The students need to work in teams in projects and they need to learn to work together.
- The students need to develop as human beings and consequently, the stakeholders recommend to continue with physical meetings where students work together. The stakeholders do not consider digital meetings to be sufficient to fulfil this need.
The project was financed by the Nordic Council of Ministers, the Erasmus+ Strategic Partnership programme and additional funding from the involved universities.
The European Commission’s support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents which reflects the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.