Engineers of the future
2014-05-14 | Text: Tatiana Petukhova | Photo ©: Archive of Phillip Sanger | 12127

If you want to grow an engineer of the future, you need to be an engineer of the future yourself – so Phillip Sanger thinks. He is a professor at the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering of Purdue College of Technology and Director of the Center for Accelerating Technology and Innovation. Dr. Sanger told us about the key points of future engineers’ training.


– Philip, what difference do you see between an engineer who worked 20 years ago, today's engineer, and engineer of the future? Or is there no difference? 

My father was an engineer, and as an engineer he needed to be well educated within his discipline. It was not critical to have additional knowledge. Today the engineer must be multi-disciplinary, and have broader additional knowledge. Most of the engineering problems are multidimensional, and their solution requires knowledge in more than one discipline. Furthermore the engineer of the future, in 3-4 year’s time, may have a completely different job – one that doesn’t even exist today. And you need to be flexible enough to adapt.

Let me explain with an example from my own experience. I have a degree in physics with my advanced degrees in nuclear engineering. But I have spent my entire career spinning off or developing a broad range of technologies into new real products and applications.  I worked with a team that developed superconducting magnets for M.R.I., magnetic resonance imaging.  At that time superconductivity was a new technology being applied to a real medical need.  As my career continued to evolve, I had enough flexibility to successfully move in other dramatically different areas such power electronics, glass drawing, and SiC semiconductors.  Engineers of the future must be prepared to move in the same way; –Engineers should always be lifelong learners (self-directed learners), continually improving themselves, expanding their knowledge, being willing to learn and not be afraid to enter new areas of knowledge. If you are doing your job and suddenly there is a need to learn something new, you have to jump in with confidence to explore new things and continue with that attitude for your whole life. And this is one of the challenges that the engineer of the future faces that’s different from what I did and what my father had done because technology is changing so quickly and we can easily be left behind.

Above all, the engineer is a solver of problems at all times. If you look at all engineers: electrical, mechanical, nuclear – they are all solving problems. They do it in different ways, using different tools and their expertise in a particular discipline may also be different. But the common thread for all engineers, the heart of their profession, is to solve problems.

– Is thinking aimed at solving problems "switched on" only when you’re at work or does it follow the engineer round everywhere? 

I believe that an engineer is an engineer 24 hours a day, at work, at home, on vacation… because solving problems is the way an engineer’s head is wired. When he or she comes home, they think the same way as in the workplace. Solving problems is a way of life and it's not something that you can turn off. If your husband or wife is an engineer, you just have to recognize it and accept it as the way it is. 

– Does thinking like an engineer help the person in real life, or it is it a hindrance? 

It certainly helps. Engineers approach problems is an organized way, always looking for solutions. And so it doesn’t matter whether the problem is a technical one or an organizational one, or a social one.  We just analyze the problem and look for solutions.  Your question brings to mind the book “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus”. In that book one of the things that cause conflict between men and women is exactly this:  the men are always trying to solve their wife’s problems. According to the book, women on the other hand often only want someone to listen to them while they sort out the issues and solve their own problems.  You can imagine the trouble that the engineer husband might get into just doing his problem solving “thing”.  So even if you are the best engineer in the world, problem solving may not bring peace and tranquility at home (he laughs). 

– So, do you think a woman can be a good engineer? 

Absolutely yes! We don’t have enough women engineers in the U.S.  In Russia there are three times more women engineers than in the U.S. I have found that women bring new dimensions that are very valuable when working in a team. They often have a different perspective, and women can refresh the ideas. So when a team includes both men and women, this group becomes much more dynamic and exciting.


Dr. Sanger working with Brandt Price, an Engineering student at WCU, to design and build a machine to help elderly people recover from knee replacement surgery. On photo with Dr. Cliff Faull, an orthopedic surgeon, and his patient.

– How do you teach your students? 

I try to teach by doing and by personal example. I try to convey to them the excitement of being an engineer.  My students are the engineers of the future. I try to teach them to be lifelong learners, to be open minded, to welcome new knowledge, and take on challenges with vigor.

– How do you motivate them to lifelong learning when even five years of study can be a burden for some people? 

This is a real problem. Today's children are impatient about life.  They always seem to want multiple activities going on.  Just note the earphones. But they are not used to just stopping and thinking… just for a moment. And they have very serious problems around communication. In order to learn a new technology, first you need to be able to study the issue yourself, and that takes time. Then, when you have some basic knowledge, you can call the company that uses this technology, and ask them everything about it. They will do it with great pleasure. I find it interesting that one of the things today's generation finds difficult is to call someone and just ask them for help. If they cannot get the information electronically on the internet, they throw up their hands and say they couldn’t find it.

It is possible to motivate them but often it means gently pushing them outside their self-imposed limitations. To do this, we have to create situations in which students must come out of their comfort zone. In many U.S. engineering programs, students take part in real projects that are supported by industry. Each project is a real problem for a company and because a solution has value to the company, they are willing to pay the University to explore solutions. At Purdue, we give the students at the beginning of the year a catalog of industry projects from which they can indicate their preferences. From their preferences and the skills needed for the project, we form teams. A distinctive feature of our projects is that solutions are not known at the beginning and the students must gather data and choose the best solution. This is what we call “open ended problems”.  Students have to work with a lot of information and sort the facts. This is self-learning that I mentioned in the beginning and very challenging.  But not knowing what the correct answer should be, students can become afraid that they cannot cope with the task. At the end of the project, they are pleased with the fact they have done a good job and solved a real problem. Their project was not a homework problem that you never put into practice. This is a real engineering solution that has to work.

Working with industry is important for the faculty too since we get to see the latest technologies. Industry must work at the edge of technology to remain competitive, so a professor will inevitably learn from them while working on a project for that industry.  In doing so you raise yourself up to the next level, you stay current, because the decisions that are required for industry must be based on the latest and best technologies available. And this is a wonderful mechanism that keeps renewing the skills of engineering teachers and enables them to stay aware of what is happening around them.

To help you better understand, I’ll tell you a problem that one of my student teams are tackling right now. There is a huge truck manufacturing plant in Indiana. In this plant the assembly of the truck begins in an inverted position and then is turned over where the remaining parts are attached and the assembly completed. Not very often, but often enough to be a nuisance, the flipping operation is not completely successful and the truck assembly does not land in the correct position.  So a group of my students is developing a high precision vision system to correct this situation and give the automated controls the ability to move the assembly into the good position and avoid shutting down production. This is an example of the kind of real world problem solving that my students have now experienced.



Students from WCU design and built a motorized climbing machine to help U.S. Air Force Paramedic climb cliffs quicker and faster.

– Who are your students? 

Over half of them come from the state of Indiana which is a rural and farming area in the central part of the United States.  We also have many students from large urban centers like Chicago.  And finally we have a very large number of foreign students from all over the world but mostly from China and Asia. 

– For whom is it easier to learn: for those who grew up on a farm or in the city? 

That question is not easy to answer. People who grow up on a farm know how to make things, how to use tools, how to solve problems. They realize that if the tractor has broken down, they just have to fix it. Urban students often do not have those skills but they are better able to express themselves in other skills like computer graphics that living in the city may provide. Both skills are important and valuable in the diverse workforce that today’s world needs.

– Do you know why children from farms decide to become engineers and not continue to the work of their fathers? 

Farming technologies have advanced greatly. Just look into the huge tractor of today’s farm – 15 meters across using GPS guidance and continually connected to the market and the internet while tilling the soil in the field….A modern automated factory on wheels.  So today you don’t need to have a lot of people to run a farm and there is not enough work on the farm for all the children.  All the children are not needed to run the farm and thus they have to find other careers. In addition, some farm kids just do not like farming and want to come to the urban centers.

– Do your students become good engineers? 

Yes, they do. We have graduates throughout the world working in major international corporations as well as being entrepreneurs owning their own businesses. We try to stay connected with our graduates and know that many of them have become very successful. One of the advantages of growing up on a farm is building of a strong work ethic. Farming is hard work but a farmer gets to see the fruits of his work, the harvest in the fall.  So these young men and women come to the university with the mentality of a good work ethic. The inner system of values ​​and work ethic dictates to them that they should work hard and will see the fruits of their labor if they do so. Whether you grew up in the city or on a farm, strong motivation and the willingness to work hard are what it takes to be successful and a good engineer. 

– How long does it take for a graduate to fully engage in work in a company?

It depends. Generally it can take about one to two years.  Many companies in America invest a lot of time in their young workers to help them develop. In the first year they move them from one part of the company to another so that they can get acquainted with different types of work and understand where they like it best, where they are better able to apply their knowledge. Doing the kind of projects that we talked about earlier shortens that transition time.  It takes less time for our students to adapt in comparison to a typical graduate engineer because even in the educational process they begin to work with the real thing. 


Students from Western Carolina University work on an external covering for the U.S. Coast Guard turbine engine.

– In Russia they think that it is necessary to start studying to become a good engineer from the 5-6th grade. What do you think? 

I think that it is true because children start making decisions on who they want to be at that age. They look and see professions that they admire and want to follow in those footsteps.  In the United States we start to form the ideas about future professions in the children’s heads when they are 5-6 years old.  And if you ask a child, "What does an engineer do?" the child will most likely say that he drives a train, because the child does not have a clear vision about engineering as a profession.  In English the name for the train driver is the same as the technical engineer.  The child sees what a doctor or nurse does, but not an engineer. Having a vision of and understanding what the engineer does is essential so that kids make good choices.  And that is one of the biggest challenges that faces the engineering profession, creating that vision for children of who we are and how exciting our life is.   For children in the US, the middle school years, when the children are around 11 years old, are critical. This is a critical point because, if the child at this age does not choose to study mathematics, physics and chemistry, they won’t have the solid base that it takes to go to college and become an engineer.

– It is clear about the students, so what are the challenges facing those who teach them? 

In order to turn the students in to the engineers of the future, teachers have to be engineers of the future themselves and that begins with being engineers in the present. Many engineering professors at the university have never worked as engineers in industry. It is very difficult to teach a student to become a practical engineer when you have not had the experience of been one yourself?  Many of my engineering colleagues at American universities are brilliant and talented researchers but have limited experience actually working in industry and practicing engineering.  I worked for 25 years in industry before I became an academic teacher, so I understand the importance of this.  I suspect that this situation is also being felt in other universities across the world as well.

But even if you are an experienced engineer, a very big challenge is keeping current in the technology.  Technology in all areas is advancing so quickly that being able to teach our students about today’s technology is difficult.

– Why is the difference between a scientist and an engineer so strong, because you know a scientist also solves problems...? 

I believe that the responsibility of the scientist is to create new knowledge, make new discoveries, and probe into the wonders of the world.  Yes, problems must be solved to make these discoveries, but there is often an engineer on the team that solves these problems.  Engineers, on the other hand, are usually not focused on new discoveries. While they come up with new technologies and new understandings, it is not the same as exploring how the world works. The engineer usually applies knowledge to solve problems and “applies” is the key word here.


Purdue team - winner of Stryker Robotics.

– What are you working on now?

Nowadays teaching is my passion, and I'm working on a new model for the graduation project (a capstone project). The point is that most of my students have never travelled outside of the state of Indiana, and only a very small number of them have been outside the United States. But the engineer of the future won’t be able to avoid the challenge of being a global person – and this is another important difference between him and the engineer of the present. To carry out projects in the future we will need to work with people from all over the world. My students do not have such experience.  They do not have sufficient funds to spend a year or even a semester abroad. So I’m developing a mechanism that will allow for the creation of teams at Purdue University, the Universities of Kazan and many other foreign universities to collaborate on projects with support from companies. Most of the project work would be carried out on the Internet using many of the tools that students already use in daily life.  But in addition I would like to arrange two one week trips to visit each other at certain stages of the project. Perhaps one of the trips will be on the project start date and it will help us all to organize ourselves, to develop the concept.  These trips would allow the students to meet each other as persons and get to know different cultures. I don’t think that this model has ever been done before, and I want to see this program running before I retire and bring it to such a level that it would be self-sustaining.

To be or not to be a global engineer largely depends on interpersonal skills. I jokingly say that in order to become a global engineer you must be able to play well in the sandbox like we did as children. Sometimes we can observe how three year olds play in a sandbox building castles together but then sometimes throwing sand at each other or fighting for toys. Maybe it's okay if you are 3-5 years old, but if you are 25, you cannot play by those rules.  You must listen to your friends and colleagues, and you must be able to work in a team. A global engineer is always looking to communicate ideas, otherwise they make mistakes. And if you look into their eyes and they don’t have any understanding of what you are talking about, you will just have to learn how to inform them in another way. I am hoping that this international graduation project will give my students a chance to start growing in cultural awareness.

– A difficulty in communication is one of the problems that hinder the development of engineering? 

Yes, communication is probably the most critical part of engineering.  For Americans, a serious communication limitation is that we only speak one language. Yes, today the whole world speaks English, but in fifty years (and perhaps sooner) this language could be Chinese. This could be a real problem. In this regard, students from other countries are in a better position: they know their native language as well as English and often a few other languages. Russia is experiencing a similar challenge in communication.  For many generations during the Soviet years, professors and researchers only needed to know the Russian language and Russian was all they knew.  Now those same professors in their late 40’s and 50’s are facing a world that requires them to know English.  I am trying to learn Russian and I know that our old brains are not easily trained in a new language and these very talent professors are having a difficult time.

– And finally, what could you advise for those who have not yet made ​​a choice in favor of any profession, and for those who are already studying to become an engineer? 

For children who have not yet made ​​their choice, I can say: be adventurous and do not be afraid – you'll be able to cope with everything and the world of engineering is exciting. Solving people’s problems and helping them live better is really satisfying.    If you do not like it, then you can try something else. The worst thing is to do nothing and not try…. because you can’t achieve anything through indecision. And for those people who have already chosen their profession, I ask them to remain open to new and bold ideas and give their all to making this world a better place to live in peace.

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