The Engineers of the Future Will Not Resemble the Engineers of the Past

Stanford engineering professor James Plummer addresses the IEEE Vision, Innovation, and Challenges Summit in San Francisco
Photo: IEEE Awards

Important innovations are on the horizon in a host of fields, including energy, medicine, transportation, robotics, and artificial intelligence. And engineers will play a key role in inventing the technologies of the 21st century. But they won’t be much like the engineers of the past.

That was the message delivered by Stanford engineering professor and former dean James Plummer; Plummer’s talk kicked off the first IEEE Vision, Innovation, and Challenges Summit, held in San Francisco last week. The aim of the conference, a full-day event preceding the ceremony where IEEE’s annual honors are bestowed, was to bring together tech leaders and visionaries to consider the future of technology and the impact engineers can have globally.

The engineers who will invent that future, Plummer said, “will be a different breed of people than the engineers we educated in the 20th century.” There will be fewer jobs for people in a world with more automation, he pointed out, and therefore educational systems have to focus on producing tech professionals who do what computers can’t do.

For engineering education, Plummer indicated, that means a number of things. Doctoral programs likely won’t change much, he said, other than to become more interdisciplinary. But masters-level programs, at least at brick-and-mortar schools, “will just go away,” he predicts. “Instead it will be about lifelong education and just-in-time knowledge, and that will be done online.”

And undergraduate engineering education, though it will persist, will change radically.

“Today, students are expected to be job-ready with a B.S. degree, so 75 percent of their education is technical courses. Freshman year is designed to be a filter; we send them off to take math and science and tell them to come back if they survive, so dropout rates are 50 percent or more,” Plummer explained.

This kind of education, which shuts out opportunities to explore the liberal arts is structured so that, “most students say, ‘Why do that when I can do more interesting things in life.’”

And the world is not so structured anymore. “Careers are becoming global and unpredictable,” he said. “Lifelong learning is essential. The half of life of engineering knowledge is three to five years.”

“As dean,” he continued, “I used to tell students it doesn’t matter what we teach you because it will be obsolete when you graduate, so go out and have a good time.”

Plummer advocated broadening engineering education to include more liberal arts exposure and more life skills, with the aim of preparing future engineers for unpredictable careers. Engineers will need communication skills, the ability to work in teams, global knowledge, and an entrepreneurial outlook as much as they will need technical depth, he said.

He pointed out that at Stanford, small seminars, some of which are organized around the Grand Challenges issued by the National Academy of Engineering, have been one way of tying engineering to problem solving. Stanford’s d.school approach of assigning student teams real-world problems, Plummer insists, is another important innovation. And dramatically changing the introductory electrical engineering course to organize it around maker projects instead of lectures, Plummer indicated, has been instrumental in drawing students into engineering and keeping them there.

Still challenging, he says, is teaching students that failure is acceptable and showing them how to recover from failure. “It is an important life skill,” Plummer said. “I haven’t found a way to successfully do it in a traditional classroom setting. It’s hard to encourage failure and grade students. The best success we have had in teaching failure is outside the classroom, by setting up student competitions and creating environments in which there are opportunities to work on ill-defined problems.”

“Today’s engineering programs, [which emphasize] creativity, innovation, project-based earning, and working in teams—things I didn’t get as a student—change how young people in the programs come out into the world. They make it cool to be an engineer,” he said.

These changes have also helped bring more diversity into engineering, Plummer believes. “Overall, the diversity of our engineering programs is substantially better,” he said. He noted that women make up 50 percent of some engineering majors—not electrical engineering or computer science, but bioengineering, environmental engineering, and product design. Those are the engineering disciplines that focus on tackling real world problems in teams.

“Maybe the women have historically been smarter,” he added. “They didn’t want to put up with the more traditional engineering work environment.”

Plummer pointed out that even with the changes that have begun to pervade engineering education, 90 percent of college graduates in the United States are not engineering students—at a time when we need more engineering graduates in order to create the world we need to have. He challenged the IEEE Summit attendees to think about how to propagate educational changes that build life, entrepreneurial, and other skills down through the K-12 level.

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