In their first job out of college, many engineering graduates are overwhelmed by the amount of hands-on work they are required to do. To better prepare students for the demands of the workplace, many colleges are opening engineering labs. The labs give students firsthand experience in the design, development, testing, and prototyping processes that are common in engineering firms.
The traditional model of engineering education teaches students fundamental concepts in the first year or two; in fact, most schools have courses titled "Fundamentals of Engineering." As education research changes, however, many universities are moving to a more project-based education. Engineering labs play a big part in helping students apply the fundamentals. Lab work is often completed concurrently with coursework, so students can immediately see the application of the engineering theory they learn in class. As a result, students going to college for engineering can get a head start on practical projects.
Engineering labs benefit students at all levels. At the undergraduate level, students may complete lab components for courses or participate in undergraduate research programs. Graduate engineering students often spend a great deal of time in labs, particularly at the doctoral level. Most graduate work involves a significant research component, which is crucial for students who plan to work in industry or education.
Companies in the engineering industry have long recognized the possibilities that can arise from college engineering labs. Many companies are entering into partnerships with colleges around the United States and providing the funding needed to open industry-specific labs. According to a recent article published by the University of Michigan Engineering Department, Ford Motor Company and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation put in funding to open a new battery engineering development lab. The facility will focus on energy storage issues, particularly those relating to sustainable energy. Students and professors working in the lab will design, build, test, and analyze batteries, and—following the engineering trend of mixing disciplines—the lab will host people from across campus, from materials scientists to mechanical engineers.
As more engineering labs open in colleges across the country, students and professors are finding unique uses for the facilities. In an effort to bring more girls into the engineering field, many colleges hold after-school programs or workshops for local elementary school children. Students going to college for engineering often serve as guides, instructing kids on basic principles. Other universities use their labs to develop cutting-edge research for industry clients. Still others host design competitions to bring together people from across campus in engineering challenges.
Industry professionals and academics agree that engineering labs benefit both the campus and the community. Through outreach programs and partnerships, the labs have the potential to increase engineering expertise and encourage world-changing innovation.
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