Executive Director’s Take on Mechatronics & the Changing Face of Engineering Education

In mid-November FLATE was invited to attend a workshop at New York University (NYU) 
Engineering College. The workshop was specifically focused on innovations in mechatronics education and funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and sponsored by Quansar, makers of educational process control equipment that supports mechatronics and robotics systems laboratory courses. The attendees came not only from around the county, but also around the world with representatives reflecting strong interest in addressing the challenges as a result of a shift away from traditional discipline classifications in engineering education. With over 70 attendees primarily from baccalaureate and graduate engineering programs, there were lively discussions about various approaches to this blending discipline challenge. Suggested solutions were focused on meeting needs of industry at the bachelor and graduate level with peripheral, but useful discussion related to engineering and mechatronics technicians.  

The workshop shed light on how many four-year and graduate engineering and engineering
technology programs across the country are evolving to help graduates meet the fast changing engineering workforce needs of both private and public industry sectors in large and small scale mechatronic systems. Mechatronics is not typically addressed in two places one might first look—the classical electrical and/or mechanical engineering programs. From the teams of attendees, solutions included co-branded “interdisciplinary” courses that mingle the fundamental mechanical and electrical skills; interdisciplinary capstone project courses that may mix students and/or faculty from different departments; and totally new departments with new degree programs labeled “mechatronics; robotics, automation” etc. Unfortunately, these changes in four-year programs are highly dependent on the interests and expertise of the faculty driving the change. This results in baccalaureate and postgraduate engineers with expertise focused on specific objectives that may not necessarily encourage the production of engineers that can adaptively work in current and future manufacturing facilities.

Although not the primary focus, the need for our two-year technician level graduates was unanimously affirmed a number of times throughout the workshop and particularly emphasized by the participating industry representatives. An identified starting need for mechatronics education is a good definition of the specific fundamental skills needed at various professional (2-year technician graduates, 4-year engineering and engineering technologist graduates, and advanced degrees) levels. The summary report of the meeting will capture those results and be forthcoming early in 2017 from NYU.

In focus and more to the point for two-year programs was what do employers need from their
new graduate hires? The answer was loud and clear from the companies in attendance and echoed by educators who work closely with partner companies both in theoretical and applied research projects. Industry wants “system thinkers, creative thinkers” with “command and understanding of many technology fundamentals” so that graduates have the tools as well as practice in thinking “outside” our traditional disciplines to find solutions for current problems as well as developing new and innovative products. Besides the summary report, the leaders of the workshop and supporting industries are designing an online platform for sharing resources, program information, and curriculum. A follow-up meeting/s are also being considered to continue the conversation, and ultimately define the 21st century skills for mechatronics professionals at the engineer, engineering technologist and technician levels.

On a similar thread, FLATE and the PACE ME ATE grant out of Virginia Western Community College are sponsoring and hosting a monthly “Mechatronics Community Exchange” online meetings to foster collaboration, sharing and networking among two-year college faculty and program managers offering mechatronics programs, or those wanting to offer a new program, or transition an existing program. The MCE started with a core pilot group last spring, and became a great place to “learn from each other”.  “MCE” typically meets at 3 p.m.m one Friday every month during the academic year.  The next meeting is scheduled for Friday Jan 20, 2017 at 3 p.m. If you are interested in joining this conversation, or would like to be added to the emailing list please contact Jesse Kokotek, FLATE Curriculum Coordinator at 813.259.6419/kokotek@fl-ate.org and Dr. Marilyn Barger, Executive Director at barger@fl-ate.org.

Stepping aside from the regular topics, I invite you to read rest of the stories in this special holiday edition of the FLATE
Focus.Don't forget to take a stab at this month’s hilariously challenging sTEm puzzle, a special ‘North Pole Addition’. This and many more stories in this edition of the FLATE Focus. From all of us at FLATE have a holly, jolly, happy and safe holidays & a prosperous 2017!