Teaching engineers troubleshooting for the real world

Troubleshooting work-management challenges in our personal lives, as well as solving the technical problems we encounter on the job, is an issue we all encounter. Being able to do so successfully, applying the things we know and can learn, is another matter!

This is one of the factors that motivated me to move from industry to academia. Onboarding was really rough for some young new hires and easier for others. I watched whom we hired, how they performed, and how long it was before they felt comfortable in their new environment. The amount or quality of their education is not generally a factor in this, given that the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) and other organizations provide accreditation criteria for college and university engineering programs. Rather, these students' ability to apply that knowledge in a practical way to problems presented to them in the workplace becomes an issue.

Onboarding is sometimes problematic, and students' or recent graduates' ability to solve a problem is, too. It becomes imperative to present problems in the classroom that mimic those found in the workplace, specifically in those workplaces that students will go to. Sometimes that is a conundrum. What can we do to help students through those periods?

I recently had a student in my office trying to do too much at once. He was concerned about having too much anxiety and shared a number of things that he was experiencing. I reflected back on my post from December, "Combating 'senioritis' – in the classroom and in the workplace" and asked him if he was experiencing senioritis. After a moment of contemplation, he agreed that that may very well be his issue. The volume of busywork, projects, and things unrelated to what he wanted to do left him finding all of the required work overwhelming. Knowing this, we were able to talk through his senior project and come up with a topic for it that was related to all of the things he was doing and was interested in.

Why do I share this? This student feels absolutely overwhelmed and is unable to focus on practical application and the use of what he has learned and is learning. Through consideration of his situation and level of frustration, we were able to develop an amicable solution. Is this student going to be able to make sense of real-world problems? Will he be able to think through how to apply the knowledge he has to the issues presented to him at work? This concerns me. Are too many projects being given to students simultaneously?

I was speaking to one of our undergraduate advisers about this. She was concerned that professors were giving too many projects with conflicting due dates. Students were getting overloaded, she found, and those with anxiety issues were experiencing enhanced symptoms. Sadly, students preparing for the end of their undergraduate career and the transition to their next step were experiencing anxiety, too. What does this mean? Most of them, instead of focusing on the application of their knowledge, are using their limited resources to plow through assignments that are due at nearly the same time.

Have you seen similar issues in your workplace? Perhaps new hires or members of a specific functional team struggle with competing deadlines and demands. What can we do? Personally, in the classroom, I’ve adjusted due dates per in-class discussions. Students share their frustrations and we discuss amicable solutions. Some work harder to apply the material they have learned and are learning to successfully complete problems that are found in the "real world.” Whether in the classroom or in the workplace, the solution is complex, but central to it is having those in leadership positions – in our case, faculty – listen to those who are completing assigned tasks and assess their ability to complete work with competing deadlines. Faculty members need to work on introducing real-world problems in the classroom and work with students to come up with technically sound, cost-effective, and practical solutions.