Is Engineering Fulfilling?

Each semester, I visit with Freshmen in our Living Learning Communities.  Last week, I met with a number of students from our Developing Leaders in Engineering (DLE) group.  As always, I arrived with a stack of plain notecards, handing one to everyone in attendance.  (This is an old trick that I learned from Dr. John White, former Dean of Engineering at Georgia Tech and Chancellor at the University of Arkansas.)  Getting strange looks from the students, I asked them each to write down any question that they wanted me to answer.  Once I explained that the cards would be collected, shuffled, and handed to me, they understood that I would not be able to ascertain who wrote which question.  Therefore, the questions could be asked with pure anonymity – and one could truly ask anything.

This past week, I received a disturbing question: “Is Engineering Fulfilling?”  Yes, disturbing.  Not because it is an offensive question, but rather, because it has to be asked.  I believe this is an indication of the failure of my field – Engineering — to promote itself.  That is, if people better understood the good that Engineers do, then it would be abundantly clear as to how fulfilling an Engineering career can be.  And if people understood this better, then more people, especially from underrepresented backgrounds, would likely pursue careers in Engineering.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “fulfilling” as “providing happiness or satisfaction.”  Can you think of another career that provides more happiness or satisfaction to humanity?  Think of the different products or services that Engineers have designed and built in order to improve the human condition: from automobiles and airplanes to bridges and highways; from computers and smartphones to rockets and heart rate monitors.  From the seemingly mundane (vacuum cleaners) to the exotic (robots), Engineers are continuously developing new technologies to move us forward.  One only has to imagine the future to ponder what Engineers will build for a better tomorrow.

This is why the question troubled me.  Every Engineering discipline provides happiness and satisfaction to humanity — because every discipline contributes to improving the human condition. And that is why Engineering is fulfilling as a profession.  Improving the human condition is a truly satisfying endeavor.

If all understood this, then I believe more would pursue Engineering as a profession.

 

Get to the Career Fair!

Spring is always a great time of year because we have numerous prospective students visiting campus and we have a number of students getting ready to exit campus with degree in hand.  Most of those graduating students have lined up jobs, but I am sure there are a number that are still looking or weighing options. Naturally, I would expect to see those students at tomorrow’s (Thursday, March 29) Career Fair.  However, I urge ALL of our students to attend!

Generally, our Fair attracts about 200 companies to campus with recruiters eager to speak with students about career opportunities.  A majority of these companies come to meet Engineering majors. What students need to realize is that a Career Fair can do much more than provide a job lead. Rather, attending can help answer a number of useful questions, regardless of your year in school, such as:

  • Does my favorite company hire my major? (Analogous to “Which major(s) does my favorite company hire?”)  It has been my experience that students often struggle with declaring a major, because they do not necessarily understand the differences between the different engineering degrees.  However, today’s students do seem quite able to name their favorite employers – often listing SpaceX, Apple, Microsoft, Intel, Amazon, Google, J&J, etc., to name a few.  Therefore, it is only natural that attending the Career Fair can provide answers to those questions.
  • What do graduates with my major do for a living? The benefit of walking around the Career Fair is that every booth housing a company or agency has a poster declaring the majors that they are hiring and level (i.e., full-time, intern, and/or co-op).  So, by walking around and just reading, one can easily identify companies hiring their major – and then ask those recruiters about specific job functions.  One does not need to be looking for a job to ask those questions.
  • What do you look for in a new hire? Graduation is the worst time to learn that your dream employer only hires students that have had previous internship or co-op experience with the company.  If you have a dream company – or a list of companies of interest – talk to them early (Freshman year!) and learn what is important to them.  It could be something straightforward, such as a minimum GPA, or it could very well be something outside of your major – community service, leadership in a certain society, etc.  This is not something you want to learn about when it is too late!

I realize that it is hard for students to envision a post-graduation life.  But it is important for students to realize that this will be the easiest and most convenient opportunity in life to network and meet multiple employers at one time and in one place.  Future jobs will not be found at Career Fairs, but rather through networking.  So take advantage of the opportunity, and get to the Career Fair!

 

 

An Engineer, Defined

As part of our Engineering Week celebration this past week at UMass Lowell, I presided over our Order of the Engineer induction ceremony.  I always enjoy this event – although it is a bit somber, as we reflect on the history of the Order, which originally started in Canada, motivated by the collapse of the Quebec Bridge during its construction in 1907 and again in 1916.

In our ceremony, we further reflect on the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster of 1986, as our alumnus, Mr. Roger Boisjoly staunchly raised objections to the launch on the day before the disaster.  He correctly predicted that the O-rings would fail in cold weather, which ultimately led to the shuttle’s failure.  Boisjoly ultimately received the Award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility for his work.  We use this example to illustrate the deep responsibility that we have as Engineers.

As you might imagine, reflecting on these two tragedies can lead to a somewhat depressing induction ceremony.  However, we close by talking about the great advances in technology, and society, due to the efforts of Engineers and the world of opportunity that awaits the next generation of Engineers (our audience at the ceremony).

To aid in this discussion, I took the liberty to look up the definition of an Engineer.  Here is the Oxford Dictionary  version:

“1    A person who designs, builds, or maintains engines, machines, or structures.

  • A person qualified in a branch of engineering, especially as a professional.
  • A person who controls an engine, especially on an aircraft or ship.
    • (North American) A train driver.
  1. A skillful contriver or originator of something.”

Other common sources, such as Merriam-Webster and Dictonary.com were no less glamorous.

It’s not that any of these definitions are false (although I have never wanted to be accused of being a “contriver of something”), but rather, there is no explanation as to “why” we design or “originate” something.  In my mind, this is misleading, as Engineers are driven to solve important problems under various constraints.

In my continued search, I found a number of references to the definition of Engineering from ABET, the leading accrediting body of Engineering programs (although I could not find the exact reference on the ABET website):

“The profession in which a knowledge of the mathematical and natural sciences gained by study, experience and practice is applied with judgment to develop ways to utilize, economically, the materials and forces of nature for the benefit of mankind.”

This is a vastly improved definition, as our motivation to be Engineers is stated clearly: to benefit mankind.  But my years in academia want a more explicit definition.  Thus, here is my attempt to define an Engineer:

“A person who applies the laws of science and technology to the design, build and implementation of solutions that improve the human condition while considering performance, safety, economic and ethical impacts on the user, society, and the environment.”

I believe a first step in attracting more people from all backgrounds to our profession is making it clear that the purpose of Engineering is not to “contrive” things, but rather, to provide solutions to problems in order to improve our quality of life.

Choosing College

I’ve Been Admitted.  Should I Accept?

We are fast approaching the time when colleges and universities mail acceptance letters, if they have not done so already.  UMass Lowell has contacted early admission applicants and will soon reply to students who applied during the regular process.  If a prospective student receives acceptance, the decision is literally in their hands.

A timely article in The Chronicle for Higher Education looked at the prospective student’s decision of college choice through results of a survey of 90,000 college-bound high school seniors by Eduventures.  In summary, more than 70 percent of those surveyed identified at least one of the following criteria (below, in bold) for selecting a college.  I have added my opinion as to how each criterion relates to UMass Lowell Engineering:

  • Affordability:  As a public institution, the cost of attending UMass Lowell can be extremely appealing to residents or those that can take advantage of proximity programs.  However, even non-residents can find it affordable when compared to attending a private institution.  Furthermore, UMass Lowell offers a variety of scholarships, grants, loans and employment opportunities for undergraduates, as well as graduate students. Please note that affordability refers to cost, not value, which is noted in the following criterion.
  • Value of education for cost of attending:  Value is in the eyes of the beholder, but payscale.com ranks schools based on their return-on-investment (ROI), which is an annualized measure of one’s median income 20 years after graduation when compared to that of a high school graduate (24 years later), less the cost of attending college.  Lowell ranks 33rd in annual ROI amongst over 1,800 schools ranked nationally, second in the state of Massachusetts.  This affirms that a UMass Lowell degree leads to a productive career at a reasonable cost.
  • Availability of a desired program:  I am often asked why one should attend a “bigger” school.  The answer generally comes down to options, as larger schools can offer more programs.  For example, we offer undergraduate degree programs in Biomedical, Chemical, Civil, Computer, Electrical, Environmental, Mechanical, Nuclear and Plastics Engineering, with a number of additional options and minors.  The number of programs grows considerably at the graduate level, which is important for undergraduates seeking work in research labs or access to advanced courses for technical electives.  Also, larger schools, tend to provide more options outside of the classroom, including co-op programs, student clubs, and sports.  While UMass Lowell’s enrollment does not define it as one of the largest schools in the country (i.e., over 30,000 students), it is one of the largest undergraduate engineering programs in the Northeast and big enough (roughly 20,000 students at the University) to provide a wide variety of both curricular and extracurricular programs and activities.
  • Career outcomes/job opportunities for graduates:  Engineering is a profession, and thus, engineering degrees are defined as professional degrees.  Therefore, it is important, and expected, that an engineering degree will lead to gainful employment, albeit potentially after graduate school.  I am repeatedly told by employers that our students are in high demand.  This is supported by our placement rate (percentage of graduates gainfully employed or in graduate studies within six months of graduation) which has been over 90% for all graduates over the past few years, with some majors approaching 100%.  Why?  In addition to our hands-on approach to education, we provide students numerous opportunities to prepare for a rewarding career upon graduation, including a professional co-op program; interdisciplinary senior design projects sponsored by industry; and access to a variety of services from the Career and Co-op Center designed to prepare students for all aspects of finding and starting a job, including resume posting, interviewing, negotiation, and professional etiquette.
  • Reputation/academic quality: There is truly no substitute for quality.  ABET, formerly known as the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, assesses programs, upon request, across the country on six-year cycles to ensure that programs are up-to-date and continuously improving.  Our established programs are all ABET accredited while we will seek ABET accreditation for our new programs after the first cohorts graduate – a requirement of ABET.  In addition to accreditation, there are many rankings for reputation with U.S. News and World Report generally considered the leader as it considers surveys of peers and employers, as well as statistical program data, in its graduate program ranking.  UMass Lowell Engineering is currently ranked 67th among public engineering programs and 104th overall, having risen over 35 spots in just the past four years.
  • Feeling of fit:  This may be listed last, but that should not minimize its importance.  Every school has a “feel” or “character” and it is important that one can envision themself as a student on campus.  The best way to do this is visit!  We would be happy to take you on a tour and even shadow a student.

In all, choosing a college is a difficult decision, and one that is critically important.  It is likely that one of the above reasons will drive your decision.  Thus, you must determine which of these criteria is most important and investigate accordingly a each school of interest, and visit to gauge the “fit”.  I invite you to do so at UMass Lowell!

In Memory of Bill Flood: Get Licensed!

The Francis College of Engineering mourns the recent passing of Harold William “Bill” Flood.  After a long engineering career, he served as Professor in the Department of Chemical and Nuclear Engineering from 1983-1995, including time as Chair. 

He was active in a number of professional societies, most notably, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AiCHE).  Furthermore, the Governor appointed him to the Massachusetts Board of Registration for Professional Engineers and Professional Land Surveyors. 

As you may have guessed, Bill was a strong proponent of licensure.  He felt it was an important part of being an engineer, especially in a complicated world of ever tightening standards.  According to the National Society of Professional Engineers (see https://www.nspe.org/resources/licensure/why-get-licensed), there are five reasons to get licensed:  Prestige, Career Development, Money, Flexibility, and Authority.  To me, the first four reasons are linked, as PE’s are generally in higher demand for their documented abilities, and thus tend to earn more and have greater career flexibility.  With this comes some measure of prestige. 

But what sets a Professional Engineer (PE) apart, is the fifth reason: Authority.  In explaining Authority, NSPE states that “Only PE’s can sign and seal engineering drawings; and only PE’s can be in responsible charge of a firm in private practice or serve as a fully qualified expert witness.”  This is a compelling reason for licensure for anyone wanting to lead a business, consulting or otherwise, someday.

The licensing process requires four steps: (1) Graduate from an ABET-accredited engineering program; (2) Pass the Fundamentals of Engineering exam; (3) Work as an engineer for a required amount of time with proper supervision; and (4) Pass the Professional Engineering exam.  See www.nspe.org and www.ncees.org for more information.

Does every engineering job require licensure?  Of course not.  But according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics , the median number of years that a salaried worker spends with the same employer is 4.6 years (in 2016).  This is much lower than in previous years.  Thus, with mobility, and thus uncertainty, increasing with respect to future employment, it makes sense to seek out licensure now, so it does not inhibit job prospects later.  Thus, I, just as Bill Flood would have, urge you to get licensed.

I most recently saw Bill this past fall.  While his mobility was limited, he was sharp as a tack.  As with my previous visits, I enjoyed hearing about his work in the field and his time at Lowell.  He will be missed.  My condolences to his family, especially Jeanne, his wife of 71 years!

The Power of Innovation

If you were to ask an educator to name one of the biggest trends of today, they might point to the ever-increasing number of programs on campuses dealing with entrepreneurship and innovation.  UMass Lowell has been a leader in this movement, with its DifferenceMaker program set to host its sixth Idea Challenge this spring, awarding $50,000 in prize money to deserving student teams that generate (and sell) ideas with appeal and potential.

In an effort to further prepare our students for the Idea Challenge, the Francis College of Engineering hosts a Prototyping Competition each Fall.  The finals were held last week, with winning prototypes that included an inexpensive wound dressing for use in the field; a smart pill dispenser; an automated paint mixer (matching color to a digital picture); and an app for students to more easily find a job on campus.  As novel as the potential products were, I saw more potential in the students – ranging from freshmen to graduate students from across the University. They were not competing because it involved a grade or was required – they were participating because they had an idea that they wanted to pursue and share.

A few years ago, UMass Lowell was invited to be an inaugural participant in the Pathways to Innovation program created by the NSF-funded Epicenter and VentureWell.  It was through this program that entrepreneurial endeavors, such as our Prototyping Competition and Interdisciplinary Senior Design Program, were started.  It was also through this program that faculty, such as Dr. David Willis of Mechanical Engineering, were encouraged to integrate innovation and entrepreneurship into the engineering curriculum.

Yesterday, I attended our MECH.1070 Project Expo – 45 teams of Mechanical Engineering freshmen showing off products built in their “Introduction to Mechanical Engineering” class (taught by Dr. Willis).  Specifically, students were asked to build a CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machine.  While we normally think of a CNC machine as a lathe or mill, the students were tasked with being creative and turning their 2- or 3-axis machines into something “useful”.  Cleverly coupled with multiple sensors, I witnessed machines that: read text and printed braille; dispensed ideal amounts of toothpaste and mouthwash; folded a shirt; dispensed medication; mixed vaccines; played chess; and whimsically made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (just to name a few projects).  I learned, and laughed, and was extremely impressed, as each team “pitched” the value of their product.

It was clear that the students had learned a lot – about design (and CAD), manufacturing (machining and additive), and control (sensors and lots of MatLAB code).  But it was also clear that the students had fun – and had a purpose.  When asked about their motivation, they all had good answers – usually wanting to solve a problem or making the world a better place.  That is the power of innovation.

 

Studying? Put away the smartphone!

At the invitation of Dr. Jay Weitzen, I addressed students in our Electrical and Computer Engineering section of “Introduction to Engineering” this past week.  I truly enjoy speaking with our students, especially those new to UMass Lowell – my goal always being to reiterate the countless opportunities available to students on campus – from finding that ideal career path (NOTE: Career Fair, tomorrow 4:00 – 7:00 PM) to tutoring resources and even catching a great show – while emphasizing the need for students to attend to their studies.  I recounted tips for success that I have summarized in previous blogs, including ensuring that enough time is allocated to classwork and studying.

As we are in the heart of midterms with midterm grades due soon, I thought it appropriate to take a closer look at studying. I was drawn to a recently published study from the University of Texas at Austin in which the researchers examined the impact of smartphones on cognitive ability. The study, published this year in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research (Volume 2, Number 2, 2017), asked roughly 800 participants to complete an exam, that required concentration, while stowing their smartphones during the test according to one of three situations: (1) phones at desks, but turned upside down; (2) phones in nearby handbags or pockets; or (3) phones in another room.  The researchers found that the participants with phones kept in another room significantly outperformed those defined by (1) and slightly outperformed those in (2).  The conclusion was that the mere presence of the phone diminished cognitive activity. (A nice summary of the study can be found in ScienceDaily.) Interestingly, the researchers found that it did not matter if the smartphone was on or off, face-down or not.  The mere presence was sufficient for distraction.

Dean Jim Canning of our Honors College routinely holds study sessions in the library on Saturdays – with no cell phones, smart or not, allowed.  With midterm exams in full-swing, this sounds like sage studying advice for all of our students.

So You Want to be Rich….

Generally, when I talk to potential students about pursuing an education and career in Engineering, I focus on the application of Science and Technology to solve the problems of today and tomorrow in order to make the world a better place.  However, I do not recall ever telling a potential Engineering recruit that this profession could make you rich – I mean really rich.  But it is nice to read that it is possible. The sales recruiting firm Aaron Wallis recently released an analysis of the top 100 billionaires in the world, listing data on net worth, first job, job category, first degree and degree type.

Continue reading

Plan Your Time: You Cannot Get it Back

In my last post, I provided some keys to success in Engineering. At Convocation last week, the Chancellor gave some detailed pointers on how to spend time – including class, study time, sleep and working. I thought I would elaborate a little more on the topic, and gear it towards Engineering.

In my experience, a significant problem first year students face is their newly found “freedom”. That is, no “guide” is present to manage their calendars and time. While this feeling is often exhilarating, it can be perilous – as one can feel as if they have unlimited free time. First, let us get rid of the notion of “free time” as there is no more expensive commodity than time – the minute that just flew by to read this is gone, and cannot be recovered. Second, because time is no longer free, it cannot be wasted. This must be understood if you are going to succeed in College, and have an experience to never forget.

Let’s look at a typical 7-day week, which gives us 168 hours with which to work, starting with our coursework.

Class Time (20 hours): A typical Engineering major requires 16 credits of coursework per semester in order to graduate in four years. This generally means that a student will be in class for 16 hours per week, but we will round to 20 hours to allow for travel and the fact that some lab classes meet for more than the credit hour allotment.

Homework and Study Time (48-64 hours): A general rule of thumb is that each credit hour taken requires 3-4 hours of work per week to read, study, and complete assignments. Thus, for our 16 credits of work, we require about 50 hours of work per week outside of the classroom. While it is true that this number will increase and decrease over the course of a semester and between different classes, you will benefit from leveling the academic load over time. This can only be accomplished if you study early (starting before the night before the quiz or exam) and you begin your longer assignments, such as term projects, when they are assigned, not near the due date!

With 84-100 hours remaining, we can turn our attention to your health and well-being.

Sleep (56 hours): Sleep will vary over the course of a week or semester, but one should strive for 8 hours per night. By planning ahead, you can avoid the all-nighters. Sleeping will also keep you healthy, which is important to your studies and social life. Also, note that research is inconclusive on whether one can “catch up” on sleep – so don’t expect to get most of this on the weekends!

Eating (7-14 hours): You’ve got to eat! Finding time to do so will ensure that you eat well – protein and veggies will help keep your mind sharp and focused.

Exercise (3-7 hours): Joining an intramural sport team or hitting the gym regularly each week will keep you healthy and energized. Its also been shown to help one focus in the classroom.

This should leave us about 20 hours. Taken together, that is a lot of time! So what to do with it?

Job (0-15 hours): Many college students need to earn funds to help pay for College. Our math shows that this will have to be part time (about 15 hours per week) in order to succeed academically and stay healthy. Ideally, your job should match your needs for funds with your academic pursuits, such as working for a Professor in a lab.

Organized Fun (7-10 hours): UMass Lowell has over 250 clubs and organizations which provide opportunities for students to learn more about their major, explore hobbies, delve deep into culture, expand their horizons, or to just have fun. It is a great way to meet people, especially those that may be from another part of campus or have different interests. For most organizations, the expectation is to meet weekly, with additional organized functions spread throughout the semester. To get more involved, volunteer to be a leader and contribute to the programming.

Professional Development (2-3 hours): Engineering classes prepare you to become an Engineer, but additional “training” is needed to become a professional. Take advantage of offerings through Career Services to learn more about potential careers and how to land a great internship, co-op, and first job. Essentials include developing resumes as well as interviewing and presentation skills.

Intellectual Curiosity (2-3 hours): I am somewhat amazed when students do not take advantage of College. I don’t mean the classes and class work – I mean the opportunities that only come with being on a campus. This includes attending talks, discussions, debates, lectures, readings, shows, concerts, and tours. Pick any day on the school calendar and something “interesting” is happening. Take advantage. This is the only time in your life when these opportunities will literally come to you.

Downtime (5-7 hours): One needs time that is not filled by planning – to rest, think, read, play a game or talk with friends. This is critical to your mental health – do not ignore it.

Unfortunately, the 20 hours available to these endeavors are never in a block, but rather, scattered throughout the week and across each day – which means you have to be diligent in your planning. Keep a calendar and plan out each day – this will help you stay on top of things, especially as each week is never the same (with the exception of your scheduled lectures!).

One key to making this manageable is taking advantage of those “scattered” hours. If you have breaks from 10-11 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday between classes, then do not waste the time – head to the library and complete a homework assignment or study during the hour. Do not view this as “only” an hour, but rather, as an hour not to be wasted.

A second key is to get involved. Yes, I am advocating that you fill your calendar with a job, club activities, events and outings in order to have a full College experience – while making sure that you fill your obligations to your classes (68-84 hours each week!). In my experience, students that do not have a lot of free time are the ones that succeed – because they do not have time to procrastinate, and therefore, take advantage of the time they have to complete their work on time. (See the first key to ensure that you take advantage of all of your available time!)

Finally, be flexible – these are general guidelines. Day-to-day and week-to-week activities and requirements will vary greatly. This only furthers the need for good planning.

 

 

Thriving in College

With convocation being held this week, campus is bustling with the activity of thousands of new students. This includes about 850 new Engineering students at UMass Lowell, including freshmen and transfers. A recent post by Valerie Strauss, “Getting into college was the easy part. Staying there is becoming harder than ever, experts say,” in The Washington Post (August 14, 2017), which draws on a blog from Brennan Barnard, reminded me that the transition to college is not always easy for students. In fact, the article claimed that it is easier to get into college than to stay in college. I would disagree that it is easy to get into Engineering, but there is no doubt that one must be diligent to stay on track towards graduation. Continue reading