Practical Engineering Curriculum Helps Ground Students for the Working World

At 48, Richard Sheryll, a biological oceanography and electronics graduate student at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., is definitely one of the senior-most men on campus. Sheryll went back to school to learn how to build the equipment he needs for his own biotechnology company. And while his real-world experience has helped him there, he has also learned a great deal about work...

By Kathryn M. Rospond, Contributing Writer August 1, 2004

At 48, Richard Sheryll, a biological oceanography and electronics graduate student at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., is definitely one of the senior-most men on campus. Sheryll went back to school to learn how to build the equipment he needs for his own biotechnology company. And while his real-world experience has helped him there, he has also learned a great deal about working with young people he may one day employ.

“These young kids are great,” Sheryll says. “They’re thinking in ways I never thought of. You show them one method of doing something, and then you let them come up with one of their own. It’s fascinating.”

Nurturing that creative energy is definitely a challenge facing engineering institutions today. At the same time, schools are trying to balance interest in the theoretical with practical experience necessary to succeed in the modern workforce.

Dr. George Korfiatis, dean of the School of Engineering at Stevens, has been a major influence in shaping his school’s curriculum.

“Up to the 1960s, we offered only one degree—mechanical engineering,” Korfiatis says. “It had tremendous breadth and led to careers in all disciplines, but over the years, we were faced with a lot of pressure to include more and more disciplinary courses.”

Today, students at Stevens are introduced to courses in specific disciplines from the start of their freshman year—a trend Korfiatis says other schools are mimicking. Another change has been to shift from a traditional classroom, lecture-at-the-blackboard form of teaching to a more project-based, principle-by-application approach.

“The students love it because it engages their creativity,” Korfiatis says. “And, there’s much more interaction with the professor.”

At Northeastern University’s College of Engineering in Boston, practical application of theories in the form of cooperative education has been an integral part of the school’s curriculum for nearly 100 years. Both students and faculty take great pride in the program, which has been ranked first in the country by U.S. News & World Report .

“What rises to the top about co-op,” says Robert Tillman, associate professor in Northeastern’s cooperative education program, “is that it’s the opportunity to learn all those things you can’t learn in class: how to communicate with the client, how to interact as a team, how to take on more responsibility.”

“For us, it’s a real passion and a wonderful opportunity to mentor students,” adds George F. Kent, P.E., electrical and computer engineering co-op faculty.

Students participating in Northeastern’s program can spend up to two of a five-year program gaining on-the-job experience—generally alternating six months on and off the campus. One of the strengths of the program, according to Kent, is the ability of students to bring back what they learned and experienced on the job and introduce problems for discussion among their classmates.

“It’s not just a focus on the practice,” Kent says. “If that were the case, you’d be in a trade school, and Northeastern is not that.”

Another way Northeastern’s program distinguishes itself is through the preparation co-op staff give students prior to going on assignment. Participation in the program is not a given by any means—students must submit resumes to prospective employers and undergo rigorous interviewing.

Emphasize ‘consultant’

A criticism often leveled at engineering graduates is a lack of a well-rounded education, particularly a deficiency in the social skills required to engage and interact with clients. In other words, the “consultant” in consulting engineer implies one needs to be out in front of people, not just behind a CAD station. This is not lost on universities.

“I had one student who was the second choice for a job eight times,” Kent says. “He was brilliant academically, but his interviewing skills were not great.”

Encouraging students to keep trying, helping them improve their interviewing skills and teaching students how to work are all key elements of the co-op staff’s role. And on the rare occasion, they must be disciplinarians.

“Sometimes student do get terminated,” Kent says. “They’re in big trouble with us. But we don’t throw them away—this is all about education, after all. But, before they can go out on co-op again, they have to demonstrate that they’re ready for primetime.”

Computer savvy

While there’s definitely room for improving social skills, one area where today’s young engineers are excelling is in working with technology.

“Students are much more computer fluent every year, and that’s phenomenal,” says Kent. “We have kids coming out of high school that are familiar with computer programs that students from a few years before had never heard of.”

Computers are undoubtedly important tools in today’s academic environment, but Korfiatis adds that computers and online tools should be just that—tools to assist in the classroom experience, not the only source of learning.

Yet these tools are actually helping students to be able to offer a real-world service to prospective employers. For example, at the graduate level, Stevens students are experimenting with virtual teaming assignments in which project components are handled individually but managed online. Another tool being developed at the university is the concept of remote laboratories which allow students to monitor experiments from their dorm rooms or study halls.

“In the collaborative culture that exists today, graduates will surely be called upon to team with people they never meet face-to-face … or to work in diverse geographic locations,” Korfiatis says.

Real world cynicism?

Of course a basic question academics and would-be employers should be asking themselves, is why, exactly, are these kids pursuing a career in engineering? The answer may be surprising.

“I wanted to be a philosophy major, but I didn’t want to be poor. So, I thought a more practical approach was necessary,” says Peter Stahley, a civil engineering senior at Stevens.

Adds Yasser Khodair, a doctorate student in structural engineering at the school: “Salary is an important factor for many in making the decision about which discipline they’re going to study. Personally, I didn’t think that way, but hopefully, I will make good money in the future.”

The co-op experience not only allows students the opportunity to see if engineering truly is their calling, but what branch of engineering suits them best.

For Shawna Liff, a graduate of the class of 2003, her time in a co-op was a defining experience. Liff was considering changing majors as a sophomore, but today she is in a doctorate program in mechanical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Academics, according to Richard Harris, director, Northeastern University Program in Multicultural Engineering, want to see more young women like Liff succeed in the profession, but that means they need to get out in front of more real-world female mentors.

“Dad may say, ‘You can do it,’ but another woman can say, ‘I’ve done it,'” says Harris.

On a final note, the co-op experience often gives students a new perspective when they head back to campus.

“I don’t have that feeling in class that ‘I’m never going to need this,'” says student Jennifer Prugnarola. “Instead it’s, “Oh, I can see how I can use this.'”

ASHRAE Offers Jr. Member Grade

In the hopes of attracting younger members and meeting the needs of members in developing regions, ASHRAE has announced the creation of a new member grade. “The Society’s new affiliate grade will help ASHRAE broaden its appeal and remain vibrant by reaching out to younger members and those who live in developing regions,” says Ron Vallort, P.E., ASHRAE president.

ASHRAE currently has some 7,000 student members. However, only about 100 of those transfer to associate member or member status each year. The new grade will help bridge that gap, according to Vallort.

In addition, the new grade will be used to attract members in countries outside North America. ASHRAE currently has members in 134 countries.

“However, the developing world greatly needs the information, resources and networking opportunities that an organization like ASHRAE can provide,” he says. “Many young professionals in these developing nations have a strong desire to become members but do not have the financial resources to support a full membership.”

The affiliate grade is open to new members under 30 and can only be held for up to three cumulative years. Annual dues are $40.

Benefits include access to members-only pages of ASHRAE Journal and ASHRAE Insights, HVAC&R Industry and Society Connections newsletters and a 20% discount on publications, ASHRAE Learning Institute courses and registration meetings.

For more information, click the “join ASHRAE” link at