If you are a parent or a prospective student you may have no idea what engineering technology is, and what kinds of careers are available for graduates of engineering technology programs. You might be surprised to learn that graduates of engineering technology programs are typically hired as engineers by companies.
To better understand programs titled engineering technology and how they compare with engineering programs, one should be aware of some history regarding engineering education. After World War II, it became clear that the engineering profession was beginning to bifurcate. On the one hand, you had engineers who were focused more on research and the scientific pursuits related to the design of new technologies. They were the people working on understanding and improving cutting edge technologies in areas ranging from jet propulsion to transistors. On the other hand, you had engineers who were focused on more “practical, problem solving engineering applications that will satisfy the needs of industry.” These engineers went into industry, designed and implemented products and systems for the betterment of the companies they worked for, and worked their way up either the technical or managerial ladder at the company. A study was commissioned by the American Society of Engineering Education, headed by L. E. Grinter, who at the time was the Dean of the graduate school at the University of Florida. The intent of this study was to “recommend the pattern or patterns that engineering education should take in order to keep pace with the rapid developments in science and technology and to educate men who will be competent to serve the needs of and provide the leadership for the engineering profession over the next quarter-century”. In the preliminary and unpublished report of 1953, the committee spoke of the two paths and the need for a divergence in the engineering curriculum.
However, the final report released in 1955 focused on only one path, namely the path focusing on research and scientific pursuits. In this path, a standardized curricular path was proposed that would include courses in the basic sciences (physics, chemistry), mathematics, core engineering sciences (thermodynamics, electrical theory, et al), engineering analysis and design, engineering laboratories (“when restricted to a few per semester”), and finally humanities and social studies to “help the student to arrive at a satisfying personal philosophy rather than to provide him with immediately useful technical knowledge and skill”. The report specifically discussed practical aspects of the curriculum by stating, “Shop courses and all other courses emphasizing practical work that tend to displace engineering science in the curriculum should be scrutinized critically in the light of the instructional goals already discussed.”
Later in the report, the authors address the preliminary report by stating that there was consensus among university respondents that engineering curricula should not be subdivided into two paths, and that in fact there was a desire for a deeper and broader level of basic sciences content. Finally, the report states that industrial representatives supported the recommendations of the report to not create a separate path, in fact arguing that they were “unwilling to sacrifice courses in engineering sciences to provide time for the study of technology…since they believe that these can be obtained under company sponsorship when needed”.
In engineering programs, the highest performing students will be in a great position for additional education. Graduate school looms for those undergraduates who are bright enough to succeed in all those math-intensive courses, with the lure of a highly sought-after tenure-track position waiting at the end, sometimes requiring additional post-doctoral experiences to help the prospective professor “develop an independent research focus”. But graduate school doesn’t pay much compared to industry, and for most of the graduating undergraduate students, student loans and the lack of a high grade point average push the graduates towards a career in industry.
When a company hires a new graduate, the company would like for that new employee to have relevant skills that transfer to the workplace. Consider the following results from a survey conducted by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME). The ASME is an organization that provides services for around 130,000 mechanical engineers including conferences, outreach, job placement, and training. The survey was completed by over 3000 mechanical engineering department heads, industrial supervisors, and early career engineers. Among the findings:
- Problem solving and critical thinking were rated as a strength by 48% of department heads but only 14% of industry supervisors.
- Interpersonal teamwork was rated as strength by 51% and 43% of early career engineers and academic department heads, respectively; but by only 20% of the industry supervisors.
- The industry supervisors’ four strongest (highest percentage) perceptions of weakness were practical experience—how devices are made or work (59%), communication (oral and written—52%), engineering codes and standards (47%) and having a systems perspective (45%)
The survey also highlighted the need for more diversity amongst graduates (especially women), offering more authentic practice-based engineering experiences, employing more faculty with significant industry experience and creating continuous faculty development opportunities, and providing more curricular flexibility that allows more concentrated learning in areas that better match with the needs of local industry. These are significant recommendations and highlight the rift that exists between the preparation students receive and the needs of employers.
Based on this survey data, the hiring company is often rewarded with a new employee that has almost no practical knowledge. And nowadays, many companies don’t have the time or money to commit up to two years of time and salary training new engineering employees.
People need to remember that engineering is an applied science. Engineers certainly need to understand the foundational principles in order to apply them. But, they aren’t of much value if they cannot also understand how to apply such principles. Application of these engineering principles is accomplished through a number of means, but the primary way is through laboratory activities. In lower division courses, students can follow prescriptive handouts to test the foundational theories, collect data, compare with mathematical and simulation results, and decide whether their results are correct. In upper division courses, students can apply their foundational knowledge to solve ill-defined problems in specific advanced areas, such as control systems or fluid power, and then test their design against a set of criteria. These types of activities test the true engineering skills of the student, because when their system doesn’t work is when the true learning begins. It could be because of a poor design methodology, or it could be because of a lack of understanding of the foundational principles, or it could be because what seems to work on a computer discounts real-world phenomena like saturation, non-linearities, tolerances of parts, thermal constraints and other “messy” issues.
Remember that “other” path in the preliminary Grinter report, the one focusing on practical applications that was essentially rejected in the published, final report? It turns out that some colleges and universities felt strongly enough about that approach that they continued to confer degrees with an emphasis on more applied engineering. However, since the engineering community essentially discarded these programs as not suitable as engineering degrees, they were forced to come up with a new name. These programs became known as engineering technology programs.
Engineering technology programs typically offer either associate or baccalaureate degrees (and sometimes both), with a primary focus on preparing graduates for work in industry. Associate degree graduates will generally work as technicians, repairing and maintaining equipment and generally supporting the manufacturing processes at a company because of their hands-on skills and foundational knowledge of basic machine design, electronics, and computers.
Baccalaureate degree graduates will predominantly be hired as engineers by these companies. These students don’t receive all of the complex mathematics required of engineering students. Instead, they are taught the math that is most likely to be employed in the workplace. For example, electrical engineering technology students may not take a differential equations course from the math department, but will take a “linear systems” course that uses Laplace Transforms to algebraically solve differential equations relating to circuit analysis and theory. One should note the subtle difference here. The engineering student would take the differential equations course because it’s part of the foundational background of engineering science, and then employ relevant parts of it later on to areas such as circuit analysis. The engineering technology student is focused on understanding the elements of differential equations necessary for when they enter industry, so they learn differential equations when it’s appropriate to their specific learning objectives.
By focusing on the applied nature of engineering, engineering technology programs will generally eschew portions of the foundational math and science background that are not relevant to industry, and replace this material in their plan of study with laboratory experiences that deepen the understanding of the lecture material. Often, these programs will use industrial-quality hardware to mimic what is seen in industry and better prepare them for life after graduation. The ultimate goal is for these graduates to “hit the ground running” when they walk in the door of their new employer, requiring less training because of their preparation for a career in industry.
Both engineering and engineering technology programs strive to become accredited by demonstrating minimum levels of competency in areas that often mimic the expected outcomes expressed in the Grinter report: design, analysis, teamwork, communication, etc. The accrediting body in the U.S. used to be called the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, but now simply goes by its acronym, ABET. Within ABET are councils that separately accredit engineering and engineering technology programs.
Among a list of 11 “student outcomes”, students from ABET-accredited engineering programs are expected to
- “apply knowledge of mathematics, science, and engineering”,
- “design a system, component, or process to meet desired needs within realistic constraints such as economic, environmental, social, political, ethical, health and safety, manufacturability, and sustainability”, and
- “use the techniques, skills, and modern engineering tools necessary for engineering practice”
Students from ABET-accredited engineering technology programs are expected to
- “select and apply a knowledge of mathematics, science, engineering, and technology to engineering technology problems that require the application of principles and applied procedures or methodologies”,
- “design systems, components, or processes for broadly-defined engineering technology problems appropriate to program educational objectives”, and
- “select and apply the knowledge, techniques, skills, and modern tools of the discipline to broadly-defined engineering technology activities”
Note how similar the two sets of “student outcomes” are. Both call out design, modern tools, and application of knowledge. Yet, many employers, parents and guidance counselors are unaware of the option of an engineering technology degree that may be a better fit for students who learn best through integration of math, computer work, and experimental work.
Prospective students and their parents should be aware of some additional elements of engineering technology programs.
First, in engineering technology programs, faculty members are hired because of their strong desire to be educators. They generally have a higher teaching load per semester as compared to their engineering colleagues and are less productive researchers. But they generally teach both lectures and labs, providing a continuity of instruction. And engineering technology faculty are required to have a minimum number of years of industry experience to provide the real-world perspective for the material they teach.
Second, don’t assume that engineering technology programs are “weak in math”. Whereas engineering programs require calculus in their first semester, engineering technology programs usually begin with one or more courses in algebra and trigonometry before matriculating into calculus. One should be careful here. For graduate study in engineering, a strong level of foundational math is critical for success, especially if one is pursuing a masters or doctoral thesis where new knowledge is being created. But in many cases, a position in industry simply requires strong competency in algebra and trigonometry. Having advanced calculus and differential equation courses is great if that interests you, but has very little impact on most jobs in industry. Almost all graduates today should have a background in statistics, but most engineering and engineering technology programs already include statistics in their curricula today. In any case, the advanced math has been replaced in engineering technology programs with an experiential learning component that more closely aligns with the needs of industry.
So, this has been a somewhat long-winded discussion about undergraduate engineering and engineering technology education. What are prospective high school students and their parents to do as they start embarking on a path to become an engineer? Here is some advice.
First, decide whether the interest is to focus on graduate education, or employment in industry upon graduation. If you are interested in graduate education, an engineering degree from most institutions will accomplish this by providing the necessary foundational math, science and engineering science to prepare you for further studies.
However, if the desire is for a career in industry, you should be looking for programs that provide more experiential learning opportunities, whether it be in an engineering program or an engineering technology program. When you visit a campus, look at the curriculum and determine how many courses (outside of science courses) include a laboratory component. The more laboratory experiences, the greater the opportunity to receive experiential learning within the curriculum. And ask about the size of lab sections, as they can indicate how much attention you can get from the lab instructor.
Second, capstone design projects are now offered in almost every undergraduate engineering and engineering technology curriculum. Look at prior projects and make sure there is a design, build and test component in most of them. Capstone projects that run two semesters are more likely to have the build and test portion that allows students to troubleshoot problems, which is a very important skill in industry.
In conclusion, baccalaureate engineering technology programs prepare students for engineering careers in industry. The experiential learning, taught by faculty with industrial experience, complements the knowledge provided through the foundational mathematics.
We hope that you are now better acquainted with engineering technology. If you have more questions, feel free to contact the faculty in the program of interest, or the engineering technology department chair.