Engineering programs face a simple reality: offer abundant lab time and practical experience to students, or graduate engineers who aren’t ready for the field. We’d all prefer the former.

Yet a 2019 global survey suggests real-world application is not being prioritized – not in classroom time or course grading. A deeper dive shows universities are coming across multiple barriers to offering more lab opportunities for students.

How can we overcome these hurdles?

Experienced Engineers are in Demand

With the rise of smart factory technology and innovation, job roles have become quite nuanced. Employers need engineers with the know-how to design, implement and maintain complex new systems. They also need to be well-versed in the most basic processes and technologies to upkeep current systems.

A report from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the upward trend for engineering employment. And yet, employers are finding that graduates don’t have the practical knowledge to manage these systems without additional training – which is time-consuming and expensive.

Global Survey: Practical Teaching in Engineering Education

New graduates shouldn’t be expected to have the kind of expertise that can only come from years of field experience. But they should have enough practical knowledge to take on a new role with confidence.

We’ve had conversations with engineering students and engineers in the field recalling their university days, and there seems to be a consensus: lecture time is essential, but learners desire more hands-on time in labs doing industry-relevant practical work.

A global study conducted by TecQuipment of the UK sought to understand the perspective of educators on this topic. The 2019 survey of 114 university instructors from around the world showed that 90% of professors believe practical learning is “extremely important” to the employability of engineering students.

So why is there a gap between what’s desired by students, employers and professors and what actually takes place in the classroom?

Practical Engineering Gaps & Barriers

University Engineering programs face numerous barriers to being able to offer additional lab time to engineering studentsThe survey delivered some concrete numbers on the current state of engineering education. For 73% of professors, lab time was weighted as less than 40% of the student’s total grade.

However, when asked what the grade distribution should be, a majority of respondents said lab time should account for 40-80% of a student’s grade.

Professors face a number of barriers to delivering their ideal engineering course structure:

  • knowledge of practical labs
  • class size
  • available space
  • lab time
  • available equipment, and
  • cost of procuring more space and equipment.

These certainly aren’t surprising; they’re much the same barriers educators often face. But students’ futures are too important to let roadblocks stop us from providing valuable hands-on experience.

One university found a solution, despite facing just about every barrier along the way.

How One University Overcame Barriers

The University of Northwestern in St. Paul, Minnesota recently launched an engineering bachelor’s degree program. For nearly four decades, the university could only offer pre-engineering as a precursor in a dual-degree program with the University of Minnesota.

When they launched their own engineering program, they wanted to focus on practical aspects that would give students relevant experience. But they faced space, budget and equipment barriers. “Our current lab space was renovated from art studios and kitchens, which means space is a high concern,” remarked Lab Technician Rachel Friesen.

University of Northwestern St. Paul student uses TecQuipment engineering education lab experimentsThe University partnered with TecQuipment to outfit their new labs. Friesen commented on how the “compact” benchtop models save space “while still being big enough for groups of students to work on them together.” Additionally, she noted that the equipment was “cost effective” and TecQuipment’s large range of products allowed them to purchase everything they needed.

They weren’t shy about displaying the new labs (and just how skilled their new graduates would be as a result).

“We’ve had groups from our alumni community, human resources and the local community come along to the department, get hands on…with this piece of equipment. It allows us to show them that engineering is not all equations and work on computers.

You can read the University of Northwestern’s full story here: https://labmidwest.com/university-of-northwestern-st-paul-builds-new-engineering-program/

Engaging Students, Graduating Great Engineers

The process to transform engineering programs to a more hands-on focus certainly won’t be easy. But it will be worth it for the students going through the program.

Educators are inspired when they see students motivated and passionate about learning. As part of the TecQuipment survey, professors were asked what could improve student motivation. The responses include:

“Clear outcomes – relevant and linked to real-life engineering problems and how they can be implemented into different sectors.”

“Students are motivated when we introduce real-life engineering problems for them to solve.”

“State-of-the-art equipment that will simulate real-life scenarios.”

The path to overcoming barriers may involve developing industry partnerships, securing more grant funding, creating multi-disciplinary lab spaces, and/or scouring the world of engineering lab equipment for the best manufacturer.

The process will look different for each university. But ask the ones who have found ways to offer more practical experiences, and they will tell you it is worth the effort.

Facing Barriers in your Program?

If you can relate to the sentiments shared by the 100+ survey respondents, then rest assured you’re not alone. We worked closely with the University of Northwestern in their program upgrades. We’ve done the same for universities and colleges across the Midwest. If implementing more hands-on labs interests you, fill out the form below and we’ll share programs and equipment that have transformed engineering courses for our customers.