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Dr Mahdi Nia on campus
Dr Mahdi Nia works on a better education for engineers. (Photo: Jos Wassink)

Technical universities can and should improve the way in which they prepare students for their future roles in technology, argues Dr Mohammad Mahdi Ghaemi Nia.

Dr Nia, who defended his PhD thesis Educating Future Engineers & The Image of Technology last month, experienced the mismatch between academic education and industry first-hand when he graduated in electrical engineering in Iran. He explains that in most non-western countries such as Iran, Turkey and the Emirates, the industry relies on imported technology and it has little or no technological innovation coming from universities. Industry has little or no ties with academia and neither does it fund academic research. Universities are thus mostly dependent on the state, which then determines the curriculum, which is typically strong in mathematics and physics but lacks social and entrepreneurial skills.

Surely the situation in Delft is better? It is, Nia agrees, but still, there is room for improvement. Nia quotes the underlying problem from his thesis: “Nowadays we attempt to educate 21st century engineers with a 20th century curriculum in a 19th century institution.” (Grasso & Burkins, 2010).

Dropping out seems a recipe for success

He reminds us that about half the students leave university after the first or second year. Some of them cannot handle the mathematics and physics required, others feel the curriculum is too abstract and they drop out in search of something more practical. Steve Jobs dropped out, as did Marc Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and scores of others. Dropping out almost seems a recipe for success.

Nia would welcome a more holistic approach to engineering education. Technology is so much more than solving differential equations. As an example, he quotes four aspects of technology as analysed by Carl Mitcham: artefacts (or objects); knowledge; process; and volition (longing for or rejecting certain technology). Nia wouldn't mind dropping some specialist content from the curriculum in favour of context, history, and applications. "I know I have learned stuff that I never used afterward, that I could well have lived without," said Nia.

He also argues that during the master degree, students should start thinking about what kind of engineer they want to become. Some will feel attracted to specialist knowledge, while others will blossom as a team leader or as a start-up entrepreneur. Nia cites four different types of engineers: specialists; integration based (manager type); frontend innovators (as in start-ups); and contextual engineers with good social skills and antennae for societal acceptance. "Students should explore the type of engineers they want to become," says Nia.

He himself will continue his work on improving the education of engineers as a postdoc for the 4TU Centre for Engineering Education (4TU CEE), currently based in the tower for Aerospace Engineering.

Mohammad Mahdi Ghaemi Nia, Educating Future Engineers & The Image of Technology , PhD supervisor Professor Marc de Vries (Faculty of Applied Sciences), 26 September 2107.


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