BY EVA KAPLAN-LEISERSON
In October 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik. The world’s first artificial satellite was only as big as a beach ball, but it produced outsized effects. Sputnik not only spurred the US-USSR space race but also drove scientific, technological, political, and military developments.
Among those was a change in engineering education. To develop engineers who could help the country reach the stars, academia shifted away from a hands-on focus to a more theoretical one. Engineering programs increased their emphasis on math, physics, and engineering sciences and removed laboratory courses. Engineering technology (ET) programs—offering both associate’s and baccalaureate degrees—took on some of what engineering had dropped.
Two-year degrees often lead to jobs as engineering technicians. But the role of four-year engineering technology graduates is less clear. If engineers experience a lack of knowledge about what they do, these individuals face even more challenge. Technical colleagues may see them as performing “engineering-light,” while the general public may be completely unaware of their function.
The National Institute for Certification in Engineering Technologies (NICET), a division of NSPE that certifies both engineering technicians and technologists, offers the following definitions:
Engineering technicians are the “hands-on” members of the engineering team working under engineers, scientists, and technologists. “They have knowledge of the components, operating characteristics, and limitations of engineering systems and processes particular to their area of specialization.”
Engineering technologists are the members of the engineering team who work closely with engineers, scientists, and technicians. “Technologists have a thorough knowledge of the equipment, applications, and established state-of-the-art design and implementation methods in a particular engineering area.”
NICET Board of Governors Chair Thomas Frericks, Jr., CT, earned a bachelor’s degree in electronic engineering technology. He was attracted to the field because it was practical rather than theoretical. It enabled him to focus on “if you do this, what’s going to happen in the real world.”
He believes there could be great demand for ET roles if the public better understood what they are and can provide.
Although some have pushed for engineering technology to rebrand as “applied engineering,” that terminology has thus far not taken off (by some reports because engineering programs also consider themselves worthy of that term).
Meanwhile, ET faces a branding problem.
Into the Light
About six years ago, members of the Engineering Technology National Forum, a group within the American Society for Engineering Education, reached out to the National Academy of Engineering’s Greg Pearson.
As Pearson, scholar for K–12 Engineering Education and Public Understanding of Engineering, wrote in the summer 2017 issue of NAE’s The Bridge, the ET leaders wanted to bring increased attention to the field. They believed it has a lot to offer but operates in the shadows of “traditional” engineering.
Pearson admits he was “woefully ignorant” of ET. But after some research, he was struck by the “almost complete absence” of engineering technology in discussions about the need for engineering talent. “Why this apparent blind spot?” he asks.
Such questions turned into a study of engineering technology education funded by the National Science Foundation.
As the study’s report explains, most Americans are unfamiliar with engineering technology, even though “workers in this field play an important role in supporting the nation’s infrastructure and capacity for innovation.”
Among the report’s findings:
- Of employers surveyed, 30–50% had never heard of engineering technology education.
- Among respondents who were aware of engineering technology, one-third did not know the difference between work performed by engineers and work performed by engineering technologists.
- Various factors, including branding and marketing challenges, curricula and skills that overlap with engineering, and gaps in research and data collection, contribute to the lack of knowledge.
- The lack of awareness also exists in the K–12 education system. There is little evidence of formal outreach to K–12 teachers, students, or parents.
- The large number of degree titles (nearly 50 by the committee members’ count) associated with engineering technology further complicates the brand.
The committee members called ET a “stealth profession,” existing under the radar of prospective students, educators, and employers. Yet, it “provides important value to employers and rich opportunities for job security and meaningful work for those in the field.”
The Academy report offered various recommendations. Among them:
- Leaders of two- and four-year engineering technology programs must engage more meaningfully in discussions with leaders in postsecondary engineering education about the similarities and differences between the two types of engineering and how they can complement each other while serving a diverse student population.
- The ET education community should consider ways to make the field’s value more obvious to K–12 teachers, students, and parents, as well as employers.
- Research is needed to understand the increased diversity of engineering technology and why women are less attracted to the field. Understanding these trends can help both ET and engineering attract and retain more diverse populations.
Hit the Ground…
Walt Buchanan, P.E., F.NSPE, professor and past head of Engineering Technology and Industrial Distribution at Texas A&M, served on the committee. Buchanan has taught in ET at multiple institutions, but he didn’t learn about the area until he was working on his master’s degree at Purdue and asked to serve as an adjunct for an ET course.
Buchanan liked that it was very hands-on. He explains that, although ET and engineering programs share a lot in common, “engineering is more emphasis on theory and upper-level math. Engineering technology is application and labs and applying it to industry.”
Accrediting body ABET offers very similar criteria for engineering and engineering technology programs. However, as the Academy’s report notes, a curriculum criterion to “develop student competency in the use of equipment and tools common to the discipline” appears only for engineering technology.
Although Buchanan acknowledges that engineering programs are moving to offer more practical experience, multiple people cited graduates “hitting the ground running” as a key benefit of engineering technology programs.
Marc Marini, director of R&D, data acquisition, and control for National Instruments, earned a degree in electrical engineering from Texas A&M and hires engineering technology graduates from the school for their practical knowledge.
As he explains, the program’s graduates tend to more immediately contribute. Company tasks often tie directly into what they learned in the degree program.
Marini cites the example of an electrical engineer with a broken desk lamp. He “could explain why it was broken and draw a circuit diagram, but he had no idea how to fix it.” The electrical engineering technology graduate “just said you need to resolder this connection and it’s all good.”
An Engineering Technology-Engineering Continuum Mode
SOURCE: THE AMERICAN SOCIETY OF MECHANICAL ENGINEERS. USED WITH PERMISSION.
NOTE: THIS GRAPHIC DATES FROM 2012 AND REFLECTS EDUCATION TRENDS AT THE TIME IT WAS FURNISHED TO THE NATIONAL ACADEMY OF ENGINEERING.
More in the Pipeline
This hands-on aspect of engineering technology often attracts students who transfer from engineering programs.
At Texas A&M, where the ET department resides within the College of Engineering, about 80% of ET students came from engineering programs, according to Buchanan. “They find out they like the applied hands-on and maybe not so much the higher-level math,” he says. “If we were not here, they would either leave A&M or transfer to another college.”
Brandi Barden, a test engineer at Georgia Power, earned a BS degree in electrical engineering technology after leaving an engineering program.
“Engineering technology was the embodiment of what I thought of when I hear ‘engineering,’” says the Southern Polytechnic State University graduate. “I have a short attention span, so theory quickly bores me, whereas the hands-on approach keeps my attention.”
She points to common misconceptions: that ET is a less-rigorous degree or a two-year pre-engineering program. But, she explains, she took the same math and science classes as an engineer. The only difference was that her classes had a required three-hour lab, whereas the engineering program has no labs.
Engineering technologists help close the gap between engineers and technicians, Barden says.
Brock Midkiff, an IT operations engineer at General Motors, was another transfer student. He changed from an industrial engineering degree to an electronic systems engineering technology (ESET) degree at Texas A&M.
Midkiff explains that the students learn most of the same materials as electronics engineers. The difference is that “they go into extreme details of the theories of how electronics work and we go into extreme detail on the technical aspects.”
ESET students graduate with skills in research, design, development, testing, validation, and product delivery, he says, as well as project management and communication.
The program is working hard to get name recognition—for instance, by competing and placing in engineering competitions at A&M and reaching out to middle, high school, and university students.
“I also think it is up to us graduates to promote the major through our performance in the working world,” says Midkiff. “That way industry will begin to realize we are not a lesser degree.”
Another major strength of engineering technology programs: diversity.
The Academy study found that compared with engineering programs, ET education programs—especially at the two-year level—are more attractive both to older students and underrepresented minorities.
For instance, ET degree earners are almost three times as likely to be black as engineering degree earners (11% versus 4%). That nears black representation in the US population (12%). Women, however, are less engaged in engineering technology than engineering. More research is needed on the causes for these factors, the report says.
A paper by Ron Dempsey, vice president for university advancement at Winona State University, examines engineering technology as either a “gateway or gatekeeper” into the field of engineering for African Americans. Also published in The Bridge, the paper is based on his unpublished dissertation research. His findings “suggest that engineering technology provides a pathway to engineering for African Americans, but not without obstacles.”
In addition to being attracted to the hands-on aspect, respondents to Dempsey’s interviews noted the increased flexibility of ET programs, which allowed them to continue working while taking courses. In addition, tuition was often lower than in engineering programs.
A group within ASEE’s Engineering Technology National Forum is examining this issue as well. According to Forum Chair Ron Land, their plan is to develop a survey or surveys to examine the reasons that ET programs attract a much more diverse population of students and, if possible, to identify ways that both engineering technology and engineering programs can benefit from that knowledge to increase their diversity.
Although many point to engineering technologists’ ability to work on the engineering team with engineers, some believe engineering technologists are engineers. This adds to confusion.
Walt Buchanan, who has visited more than 50 institutions as an ABET program evaluator, notes that he can “probably count on one hand” the graduates that end up with the title “technologist.” They go to work as engineers, he says, and very successfully.
A 2012 paper written by Land, “Engineering Technologists Are Engineers,” reported on the results of an ET National Forum survey. About 70% of employers surveyed “make no distinction between [engineering and engineering technology] graduates when hiring into engineering positions, nor do they make significant distinctions in assigning functions and responsibilities, nor do they note important differences in capabilities of either group while on the job.”
Land writes, “the oft-debated distinctions between engineering and engineering technology in the academic environment seem largely irrelevant to engineering industries.”
However, exceptions do come with job titles such as technician or technologist; or, on the engineer side, design, research, and senior engineer.
As Marini puts it, “If you have a very complex, theoretical job, that’s probably the tail end where you’re doing the engineering degree. And if you had a very hands-on practical job, that’s probably the other end of the spectrum. The stuff in between, either major could deal with.”
According to Rob Weissbach, P.E., Engineering Technology National Forum member, the survey gave statistical backing to the long-time faculty view that students were being hired for engineering positions.
Therefore, the forum wants to convince more states to allow engineering technology graduates to earn their PE license.
Thirty states allow ET graduates to take the licensing exams, although they often require additional years of experience. Weissbach, chair of Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis’s Department of Engineering Technology and leader of the forum’s efforts in this area, says that no data exists currently to show that those graduates are less qualified to sit for the exams.
A position statement from ASEE’s Engineering Technology Council, the forum’s parent group, “strongly supports the position that graduates from ABET-accredited bachelor of science engineering technology programs are adequately prepared to become registered engineers.”
But NSPE takes a different view. The Society’s Position Statement 1737 on Licensure and Qualifications for Practice emphasizes an ABET-accredited or equivalent bachelor’s degree in engineering as the “base educational requirement for licensure.”
Although positions on licensure vary, most agree on the need to increase the prominence of engineering technologists and the important role they can fill.
For example, without this option, students who find they’re not suited for more theoretical engineering programs may drop out of the technical workforce entirely.
Jim Wathen, P.E., F.NSPE, director of business development for NICET, believes that as STEM is promoted through outreach programs, there’s an opportunity to discuss the variety of paths available.
And Thomas Frericks points out that, once in the workforce, technologists (and technicians) can support engineers similar to the way medical assistants and technicians support RNs.
They can take over some tasks and bring down costs, he believes. But engineers need to be educated about this benefit and how to factor that into bid proposals. “In order for technicians and technologists to be successful,” he stresses, “it will take the engineering community, the PEs in the world, to embrace who these people are and what they can do for them.”
According to the Academy report, policy discussions about the US technical workforce often omit engineering technology. “The committee could find little evidence at either the federal or the state level that those responsible for determining education spending or policy include ET in their planning,” it notes.
The discussion needs to broaden, the committee members believe. “Our ability to attract and retain talented men and women across this continuum is necessary to maintaining the nation’s health, safety, and economic security.”
Download the National Academy of Engineering report Engineering Technology Education in the United States at www.nap.edu.
Two NSPE professional policies relate to engineering technologists and technicians.
In Professional Policy 66: The Engineering Team, the Society emphasizes that “achievements in technology are usually the product of the collective efforts of a team of multiple contributors working towards a common objective,” including technologists and technicians. “Successful accomplishment of a project involves the practical skills of all these disciplines.”
And, in Professional Policy 166: Professional Engineers/Certified Engineering Technicians and Technologists Relations, the Society affirms its policy to “support and encourage engineering technicians and technologists” to
- achieve and promote certification by NICET;
- achieve and maintain harmony in professional activities between certified engineering technicians and technologists and licensed professional engineers; and
- avoid actions and activities that place certified engineering technicians/technologists and licensed professional engineers in an adverse relationship.