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.

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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

Engineering and Design: Ever Connected

It is hard to believe that the smartphone revolution started just 10 years ago this year, with Apple having delivered its first iconic iPhone in 2007. I often have trouble remembering my life before my first smartphone. I vaguely remember my Nokia 3210 and Motorola Razor, while also owning a digital camera and a digital calendar (PDA). I also vaguely remember a time when I could not access my email 24/7. (I’m not here to debate whether that is progress!) Continue reading

Is Graduate Study Now Required?

In my last blog, I lamented that not enough engineers pursue graduate education (as well as the fact that there are not enough engineers eligible to pursue graduate education!). I often get asked: Why should I consider graduate school? There is an easy answer: you should never stop learning, especially in Engineering. Technology continues to move at a brisk pace and the only way to stay ahead of the game is to be continuously learning. Does it always have to be formal? No – one can stay abreast of changes by reading journals and trade magazines or attending technical conferences. But if you need to take a deep dive into a topic area, then perhaps a certificate or a master’s degree is ideal. The added benefit of these formal procedures is that they provide a credential that is widely recognized in the workplace.

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American Time Use Survey (part II): Educational Pursuits

In my last blog, I took a look at commuting travel time for Americans from data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and its “American Time Use Survey” (In this note, I wanted to examine the amount of time spent on educational activities.

The survey breaks out “Educational Activities” according to attending class, homework and research, and related travel time. Additionally, it breaks out whether class attendance is in pursuit of a degree, certification or licensure.

In College, we stress lifelong learning to our students. In Engineering, the accreditation body ABET specifically states this as one of 10 required student outcomes: “a recognition of the need for, and an ability to engage in life-long learning.” It should be clear that this is a requirement in the field of Engineering, because technology continues to evolve at a dramatic pace. Thus, Engineers must continue to educate themselves, formally and/or informally, to stay ahead (or at least keep pace).

According to the survey data, 8.3% of Americans aged 15 and over participated in educational activities. This number plummets to 2.2% for those employed full-time and increases to 16.7% for those employed part-time.

How does this relate to a decade ago? All of the percentages are down, from 9.4%, 3.8%, and 19.4%, respectively. Interestingly, the data doesn’t show tremendous variance over the decade (range is between 7.9% and 9.4% for the overall cohort) despite covering a recession and recovery period.

Taking a deeper dive into the data according to age, 37.4% of those between the ages of 15 and 24 (inclusive) are pursuing education. This drops precipitously to 6.0% for those between 25 and 34 (inclusive) and to 2.5% for those in the 35 to 44 year-old range.

I want to focus on the data for those in the 25 to 34 age range, because given the age divisions provided by the survey, this group encompasses the most recent college graduates and those that are most likely early in their career. The 6% participation is one full percentage point lower than the average over the past decade, and 2.6% lower than the high for the decade, although it is not the lowest. A regression line through the 10 years worth of data is relatively flat, signaling little change over time. As an educator, I am more concerned about the low percentage.

A look at census data on educational attainment in the United States, from the U.S. Census Bureau gives us further insight into the meaning of the participation rate. The bureau reports on educational attainment of the American population aged 25 and over. The time use survey reports rates of participation in educational activities as 3.6% (ages 25 through 54 years), 1.4% (ages 55 to 64 years), and 0.7% (ages 65 and older). As the population of the United States is distributed roughly at 48%, 13%, and 15%, respectively, for these age brackets (also from Census data), we can compute a participation rate in educational activities of about 2.5% for the population aged 25 and older.

In America (according to 2016 Census data), 30% of the population aged 25 and over has attained an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. This drops to 21% for a bachelor’s degree and 12.6% for a master’s, doctorate or professional degree. So, if (rounding) 13% of the population has an advanced degree by age 25, that means that 8% of the population has the ability to pursue an advanced degree (difference between bachelor’s degree holders and advanced degree holders). But, as computed above from the time survey data, only 2.5%, or less than 1/3 of those eligible, choose to pursue education. In fact, the percentage that could be pursuing an advanced degree is actually lower, because the 2.5% figure includes the entire population, which may not have a bachelor’s degree.

Does everyone need to pursue an advanced degree? Of course not, but I would argue that all engineers have to continue their education beyond the bachelor’s degree. Technology is changing too rapidly and one must continue honing skills in this ever-changing environment.

Now, I could be overly paranoid. The percentage of bachelor’s degrees conferred in Engineering and Engineering Technology in the United States is roughly 5.5% (from the National Center for Education Statistics, at nces.ed.gov). So, if 21% of the population aged 25 and over has a bachelor’s degree, roughly 1.2% of that population are engineers. Furthermore, if 2.5% of those aged 25 and over are pursuing further education, then maybe all of the engineers (and others) are continuing their education.

But having completed that computation, I am once again reminded of another concern: the low number of degree-d engineers in our population.

More to come…

 

 

American Time Use Survey: Engineering a Better Commute

Many media outlets have been reporting on the Bureau of Labor Statistics release of results from the “American Time Use Survey” There is a great deal of interesting data collected, piecing together “typical” days for Americans, segmented by various demographics, including gender, age, employment, and household occupants.

Being an engineer and an educator, I was particularly interested in two pieces of data from the survey: (1) commuting times to and from work; and (2) the amount of time spent on educational activities. The interest in the second set of data should be clear, as I work in the field of education. I am intrigued by the first set of data because, in theory, technology should help reduce this, frankly, wasted time.

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You’ve graduated… and now you need to decide on a job!

Jeffrey Sparshott of The Wall Street Journal recently reviewed an interesting article in the National Bureau of Economic Research working paper series by John Haltiwanger, Henry Hyatt, Lisa B. Kahn, and Erika McEntarfer concerning job place mobility. The conclusion, which perhaps was not surprising, was that small companies were viewed more as potential “poachers” of talent from larger companies, rather than vice versa. To me, this leads to an interesting question for graduates looking to enter the workforce – timely as we just held commencement ceremonies a few weeks ago.

What job is the best fit for me?

Honestly, this is one of my favorite questions to discuss with soon to be graduates: First off, it’s a great question because it means that the soon to be graduate is in a great situation of having multiple job offers. Second, it’s a great question because there is no right answer – but there are surely many aspects to consider which impact people differently. These aspects include location, job title, salary, industry, and, yes, company size, which is often related to culture.

So the question to ponder here is, “What is the better first job, one with a small company – such as a start-up, or one with a large company that is well established?” Again, there is no right answer, but many aspects to consider.

With a large company, there is likely to be more stability, as the company will (generally) have its funding in order and thus can concentrate on its core business. Start-ups are usually in a more precarious position with regards to funding, and thus, their employees are generally at a higher risk of turnover or job loss. Note: large firms are not immune to this, especially firms such as defense contractors that rely on winning government contracts – a lost contract can also mean lost jobs. But in general, large firms tend to be more stable. This may be important if one has obligations and must financially care for dependents.

Of course, the counter to stability can be exciting – working to stay in business can be an exhilarating experience. And for taking the risk, employees are often compensated with stock options such that if the company does make it – the employees still receive a financial “buffer”.

Another factor to consider is professional development. Large companies often have well-established programs that provide employees an opportunity to improve their current job performance, as well as benefit their careers in general. Such training may be “in-house” – soft-skills programs overseen by professional trainers or human resource teams. Some companies may choose to partner with universities to provide training that can lead to certifications and advanced degrees. Many firms may cover the cost of tuition completely (or a percentage), assuming the employee succeeds in the coursework (often measured by the resulting grade).

Small companies, for reasons already noted, do not generally have these training programs in place. However, the training they offer can be equally valuable – on the job training. A strong argument in support of taking a job at a small company is that one will generally have the opportunity to wear “many hats” while at the firm. A budding engineer may get to work on various projects while also selecting and validating potential vendors – a task that normally occurs through a sourcing department in a big company. It may also mean that a civil engineer hired to do some structural analysis will also be writing computer code to implement solutions – again, a task that may be handed off to a software engineering department at a bigger firm. Small company job seekers need to be prepared for the potential diversity in their job tasks, which can be enjoyable. However, one may never achieve the “depth” of a position that they desire.

One “myth” that I believe does exist is that only smaller companies are looking for employees with entrepreneurial mindsets. While smaller companies undoubtedly look for these traits in employees, it should not imply that large companies do not seek employees with these skills. Large companies need similarly thinking employees in order to forge new areas for business, whether it is new product development or expanding current products into new markets. These types of “moves” require thinking that is often out of the box, or entrepreneurial. This is why our Chancellor started the DifferenceMaker program at UMass Lowell – to allow every student to engage in entrepreneurial endeavors during their time on campus.

In Engineering, we have expanded these options to include a prototyping competition, student club competitions, and externally sponsored senior design projects.

An entrepreneurial mindset will help with any future company – whether you are the first, second, or 1000th employee at the firm.

The Perfect Capstone Experience

ABET, formerly known as the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, requires an integrative experience for all accredited programs. Specifically, according to abet.org:

Baccalaureate degree programs must provide a capstone or integrating experience that develops student competencies in applying both technical and non-technical skills in solving problems.

To me, the key to this experience is the application of both technical and non-technical skills. Interestingly, when employers are asked to rank the importance of different skills for new workers, they generally focus on non-technical skills. In a recent survey of employers, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) ranked leadership; ability to work in a team; communication skills (written); problem-solving skills; communication skills (verbal); strong work ethic; and initiative, ahead of quantitative and technical skills in terms of importance.

This is why it is critical that students gain experience during their schooling, and why I champion co-ops and internships. However, if designed properly, the capstone experience that is required by ABET provides another opportunity to develop integrated technical and non-technical skills. The key ingredients to these capstone projects are:

  • Complex design problem defined by external stakeholder and faculty mentor.
  • Teams of interdisciplinary teams working towards a solution.
  • Significant and ongoing opportunities for written and oral communication between the student teams, mentor and stakeholder.

I truly believe that the best projects come from outside the ivory tower. This is not to say that a Professor cannot define a great project for a student team to tackle – surely they can. However, they cannot provide an “outsider’s perspective” on the provided solution. That is, if a problem is defined by an external stakeholder (i.e., company, government entity, non-profit agency, etc.) that has a vested interest in the solution, then the students will be required to communicate the development of the solution over time with that entity. This is an important skill for students to develop – even engineers have to learn to “sell” their solutions, to co-workers, administrators, and clients. Furthermore, this generally requires both written and oral communication. (Note: it is assumed that the design problem posed by an external stakeholder is properly vetted and scoped, and that a faculty mentor will also work with the team.)

Our Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) program has been working with non-profit agencies for years through its Assistive Technology Program. Through these projects, students develop technological solutions for people in need (i.e., physical or learning disabilities, etc.). The program continues to grow in scope, with projects starting to reach beyond just ECE capabilities.

Other Departments work with external partners too. Our Civil and Environmental Engineering Department has completed projects with the Massachusetts State Police while our Mechanical Engineering Department has completed projects with the National Parks Association. ME has also partnered with Physics to work on satellite design projects for NASA.

Turning to industry for that “outsider’s viewpoint”, we launched a new Interdisciplinary Senior Design program two years ago with great success. This year, we ran 16, year-long projects for Computer, Electrical, Mechanical and Plastics Engineering majors with sponsors that included Analog Devices, BAE Systems, Brooks Automation, Dell EMC, MACOM, MKS Instruments, Nypro (A Jabil Company), Raytheon, Skyworks, Symbotic and UTC Aerospace Systems. In general, the students proposed a solution in the first semester (after significant research) and built a prototype in the second semester.

While the solutions were great, I was more excited about the ongoing communications during the semester. The student teams were required to write a memo each week, detailing the advances for the week, next steps, and current (or potential future) concerns. This provided a running development log (augmenting project management plans as well as student engineering notebooks) and introduced the concept of risk analysis to students (by forcing them to identify current or potential concerns). It also served as a basis for weekly discussions between the students, the stakeholder, and the faculty mentor.

In addition to the memos and engineering notebook logs, the students were required to write multiple reports, develop a summary poster, and deliver numerous presentations. The final presentations were delivered in front of all teammates, classmates, faculty advisors, and stakeholder liaison engineers. It was the perfect culminating experience to the capstone program for this year. And it illustrated that a properly defined and executed capstone design project can advance those skills identified by NACE to be highly desirable by industry.