The joy of being a 20th century engineer


I had the luck of being born and go to university in the 20th century. In those bygone times, students needed to study hard and spend long hours in the library to absorb all the course material. At no time did we need to demonstrate 21st century skills. Sure, good communication and the ability to work in a team are very useful skills, but are the engineers who got their training in the 1990’s really not suitable for the job market? How many of the 21st century skills are critical to success and how many of them are nice to have?

Since the establishment of the Bachelor College (and soon after the Graduate School) TU/e students have been bombarded with additional educational requirements concerning their 'professional skills'. It appears that an engineer that cannot fascinate the audience with his slick presentation or work seamlessly in a group of international colleagues is doomed to end up unemployed. I exaggerate of course. The job market is so hungry for young talent that I believe all our graduates, with or without 21st century skills will be hired.

But there is something disconcerting about calling these important capabilities (mostly behavioural and perhaps in-born) professional skills. In the evaluation of the Bachelor College, students were asked if they wanted more or less professional skills. An overwhelming percentage opted for more. But students did not mean they want to get more group work assignments or presentation moments. They wanted (depending on their program) to learn to better program, design, measure and analyse so they can become better engineers. Calling these skills professional skills suggests that those who fall behind on performing those are less professional. But maybe they are better at designing complex mechanical/electrical or chemical systems?

Even more alarming is the fact that professional skills are not taught by professionals in 21st century skills. Not at all. Albeit the TU/e any teacher can make any student a professional skills expert. If professional skills are so important, why are there no academic credits in the bachelor connected to demonstrate them? And why are we not hiring legions of instructors to ensure that all our graduating engineers are equipped with 21st century skills.

If we judge from the TU/e solution for professional skills, 20th century engineers are the most suited to teach 21st century skills. These make up most of our teaching body. These devoted and often overloaded teachers are asked to put some profession skills sauce on their courses (on top of the many duties) and guide students through the jungle of professional skills. Maybe we should let 21st century professionals teach 21st century skills and let our engineering professional use their 20th century skills to train the next generation of clever engineers?

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