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  • A Snapshot of Engineering Degree-Holders in the U.S. Workforce


  • Using Peer Assessment in Grading Team Projects
  • Preliminary Study Says Onboarding Programs Work


  • Stress in the Digital Workplace


  • We Need Moral Infrastructure


  • What’s On Tap for the January 2020 Issue of Prism?


By Carolyn Wilson

The National Science Foundation conducts a biennial survey of the college educated workshop with a focus on the science and engineering workforce, called the National Survey of College Graduates1. Using the 2017 dataset of the National Survey of College Graduates, this Databyte compares the terminal degree and degree field for the engineering workforce with the workforce opportunities for those with a terminal degree in engineering.

Among those individuals with a bachelor’s, Master’s, or Doctoral terminal degree in engineering, the majority currently work within the engineering workforce. Approximately 55% of bachelor’s graduates, 56% of Master’s graduates, and 50% of doctoral graduates in engineering currently work as engineers (Figure 1). However, this also means that 45% of engineering bachelor’s graduates, 44% of engineering Master’s graduates, and 50% of engineering doctoral graduates work in other areas of the workforce. Many of those individuals are working within the computer and mathematical sciences, science- and engineering-related fields, and fields outside of science and engineering. This distribution of trained engineers across various other fields and areas within the U.S. workforce highlights the transferability of skills gained by engineering graduates at all degree levels. Many occupations are interested in hiring new employees with critical thinking skills, problem solving skills, analytical skills, and computer technology skills. All of these skillsets are well-represented within the engineering higher education curriculum, creating more opportunities for engineering graduates as they enter the workforce.

Overwhelmingly, the engineering workforce itself is filled with individuals who hold a terminal degree in an engineering field. Within the engineering workforce, approximately 86% of bachelor’s graduates, 75% of Master’s graduates, and 79% of doctoral graduates hold a terminal engineering degree (Figure 2). While engineering degree-holders can work effectively within other areas in the workforce, trained engineers are necessary for the engineering workforce. Within the engineering workforce, less than 6% of employees, overall, hold degrees from other fields. Non-engineers are better represented at the master’s level (16%—mostly MBAs) and at the doctoral level, where 12% of employees hold degrees in physical and related sciences.

1NSF’s National Survey of College Graduates. https://www.nsf.gov/statistics/srvygrads/

Figure 1

Figure 2


Team projects have become very popular in many college courses, particularly in engineering. The benefits include requiring students to apply newly-received technical knowledge to real applications, which develops their teamworking skills, gives them a deeper understanding of the material, and enhances their ability to communicate. One hurdle for instructors, however, is how best to assess the group work. Giving each member the same grade may be unfair if some students worked less hard than others. One solution is for teachers to use Peer Assessment of Individual Contribution, or IPAC. Some academics are wary of the methodology because it empowers students to mark their peers and have an impact on the final grade, and because they think it can be time-consuming to administer. But a recent paper presented at the EDULEARN 2019 conference in Palma, Spain, last July finds that the IPAC methods work well and fairly. The paper’s lead author is Pilar Garcia-Souto, a teaching fellow in biomedical engineering at University College London, who was part of a university-wide consortium that investigated IPAC assessments collected from 11 different courses during the 2017–18 academic year. The paper notes that there are two approaches to come up with an IPAC value that can be incorporated in the final group mark, and both require students to assess themselves and their peers using a rating scale based on contribution levels and professional behavior. One method uses the students’ assessments as an added percentage, the other as a normalized factor.

The study found that when IPAC values are added as a percentage of the final grade, students tend to give everyone high marks. Students are more “forgiving” and “generous” of their peers in this method because doing so doesn’t affect their grade. When IPAC values are normalized using a multiplying factor, the “values seem to be more meaningful” and honest because they can affect the average group grade. But the paper concludes that using either method is safe and beneficial. “The mere fact of informing students that the IPAC methodology is to be used is an effective way of encouraging students to engage and behave more professionally during the group work, improving group dynamics and efficiency.” The final grades in both cases are fairer, it adds, and it works as “the carrot in front of the horse, i.e. encouraging engagement and professional behavior among students, which is an excellent by-product.” The paper also notes that implementing IPAC methods needn’t be overly time-consuming if instructors use dedicated software. UCL, it says, has, for instance, developed software that allows teachers to use IPAC in a time-saving fashion. LINK: (https://www.ucl.ac.uk/centre-for-engineering-education/sites/centre-for-engineering-education/files/edulearn2019_paper_pilargarciasouto_published.pdf)


Increasingly, undergraduate engineering programs have added out-of-classroom learning experiences to their curricula, including senior design capstone projects, project-based learning and service learning, a recent work-in-progress research paper notes. The upshot is that students now graduate better prepared for professional practice. That said, employers still need to invest significant resources in onboarding programs for early-career engineers, notes the paper, written by Bunmi Babajide and Hassan Ali Al Yagoub, graduate students at Purdue University’s School of Engineering Education. The exploratory paper, presented at the IEEE Frontiers of Education Conference in Cincinnati in October, reported on a study of the efficacy of onboarding programs in preparing newly-hired engineers for professional practice. These programs, the paper explains, may include a combination of classes, technical department rotations and mentorships. Employers, including the Indiana State Department of Transportation, Caterpillar Inc., and General Electric, say their programs include technical elements (like design), professional skills development (leadership), and, often, mentorship. The paper notes that while there’s much research showing that project-based learning and service-learning in undergraduate programs do prepare students for the workforce, there’s been little study done to determine if onboarding programs further develop the know-how and skills of recent graduates, and if they build on the knowledge they received as undergraduates. But this work-in-progress indicates they’re worth the effort. “Preliminary findings suggest that the transitional onboarding programs in engineering practice strengthen competencies, such as working on multicultural teams, networking skills, and develop project management skills.” LINK: (https://engineering.purdue.edu/ENE/News/understanding-the-role-of-employers-onboarding-programs-in-preparing-earlycareer-engineers)



Today’s IT professionals must keep up with both continuous demands for new skills and new ways of learning.

By Aditya Johri

For engineering professionals, workplace learning is in a turbulent state. As the work of engineers and technologists continues to change, so does the knowledge required to perform that work. Accompanying the requirement for continuous learning is the need to adjust to new ways of learning. Most critically, the fusion of changing knowledge and ways in which that knowledge can be acquired is giving rise to new practices of learning that are novel because they are both reified and malleable; they become entrenched but are also continuously changing. More than any other aspect of workplace learning, these shifting practices make technology work challenging.

Their dynamism and unpredictability mean that advance preparation is often inadequate and preparing for the future is akin to guesswork. So, how are technology professionals coping with these changes?

With one of my doctoral advisees, I just finished a field study of information security professionals working in the Washington, D.C., area. In this project, partly funded by the National Science Foundation, we wanted to understand how engineering professionals learn on the job when they work in fields where information needed to successfully complete tasks changes continuously. In information security, workers must keep abreast of all the latest changes in tools and techniques—both hardware and software related—to stay ahead of those who are trying to take advantage of vulnerabilities in systems.

Most of the professionals we interviewed or surveyed had between five and 15 years of work experience. Notably, even those who had started just five years ago reported that they had received little or no training in their degree programs on the primary technologies and techniques that made up the bulk of their work. The biggest shifts they had encountered were a move toward cloud computing and the use of data analytics across various functions within their firms.

Study participants told us that in the work context, learning was motivated largely by the need to solve a problem that they faced on the job or by their aspiration to be prepared for technologies that were being introduced or were likely to become common. For problem-solving, professionals reported that they often relied first on coworkers or people in their network, depending on the sensitivity of the information, but they also used online resources such as websites of vendors who made a specific technology and online communities such as StackExchange or Reddit. YouTube was also a popular resource, especially for problems that had a linear, step-by-step solution.

When it came to learning for the future, things were a little complicated. The rapid pace of work made it hard to keep up, and their jobs afforded little time for exploration. Our respondents reported that they used online resources, especially social media such as LinkedIn and Twitter, blogs by experts in the field, and also online communities such as StackExchange to be “in the know.” Workers developed these approaches ad hoc, and often they were not shared within the organization or team beyond their close networks. Overall, we found that the ability both to exploit existing knowledge and networks and to explore new knowledge was necessary for professionals to succeed in a fast-changing work environment.

These findings have two major implications for the preparation of the future technology workforce in higher education. Since most courses and curricula are focused on training students to be good at exploiting knowledge, there is little encouragement for students to explore new information. Even in the case of projects and assignments that are more open-ended and research-driven, there is little explicit guidance on how to approach information seeking and skills that should be developed to maintain these practices over time. The findings also alert us to our own need, as educators, to make better use of technology and new techniques in the area of data mining and machine learning to be able to explore relevant information online and incorporate it in our teaching. There is also a need to develop better interfaces and platforms for learning that are focused on both exploitation and exploration to support student success.


Aditya Johri is a professor of information sciences and technology at George Mason University.



The engineering profession’s inadequate responses to both the climate crisis and our lack of diversity share the same root cause.

By Alice L. Pawley

I study gender and race in engineering education, and, prompted by the recent death of my scientist and climate activist father, I have started to think about and explore through scholarship the way our profession’s thus-far insufficient action on diversity may be related to other issues that need more action, like preparing engineering students for a world governed by anthropogenic climate change.

George Lakoff (Don’t Think of an Elephant, 2004) helps us think through our insufficient action in engineering education on diversity and inclusion, and on climate change. He makes the case, first, that people are excellent at thinking about individual causation and poor at thinking through systemic causation; and second, that using what he calls “enlightenment reason”—data, facts, figures, and science-based rationales—to persuade people to counteract climate change is ineffective. Instead, he writes, we should draw on moral arguments to convince people to change. Gert Biesta, writing in the Journal Educational Theory in 2007, argues that not all important educational questions that professions (like engineering) need to answer can be answered empirically. But I think we as engineers don’t engage in many venues to have those conversations, nor are we trained in how to have them. Dorothy Smith’s work (Texts, Facts and Femininity, 1990) shows me how social relations are produced by actors drawing on texts, and often acting not in their own interests but in the interests of a ruling group. And finally, Derrick Bell argues convincingly (Faces at the Bottom of the Well, 1992) that a majority group will promote justice for minority groups only when justice also serves the majority group’s own interest.

Two journalists’ exhortations concerning impending climate catastrophe provide additional context. Writing in the Washington Post in January 2019, Dan Zak asserts that we can’t afford to freeze and instead should “[h]old the problem in your mind. Freak out, but don’t put it down. Give it a quarter-turn. See it like a scientist, and as a poet. As a descendant. As an ancestor.” In a July 2017 article published by the Guardian, Martin Lukacs castigates neoliberalism in society at large, which he says makes the necessary large-scale action on the climate crisis not only politically impossible but unthinkable.

You may be thinking, what’s neoliberalism again? How does this relate to diversity? Good grief, you say, I teach sophomore thermodynamics. Why should I spend my time reading this when I have much more immediate problems to think about? And indeed, Zak’s piece hits on just this point:

“But here’s where you stop reading, because you have a mortgage payment to scrape together. You have a kid to pick up from school. You have a migraine. The U.S. government is in shambles. You’re sitting at your desk, or on the subway, and deep in the southern Indian Ocean, blue whales are calling to each other at higher pitches, to be heard over the crack and whoosh of melting polar ice. What do you even do with that?”

These writers and scholars help us see that our insufficient collective professional action on climate change shares a root cause with our insufficient action on diversity: an inadequate moral infrastructure for thinking and talking about solutions. Instead, we rely on a largely techno-rational one. But we need to build this moral infrastructure—create the discussion forums, for instance—and quickly. We need to help students understand neoliberalism as a moral choice for engineering, and see that we could collectively choose otherwise in order to improve diversity and respond to the climate crisis. We need to “freak out,” and keep asking ourselves how we are preparing the more than 615,000 engineering students in college now to design not just a diverse profession but a literal world making 50 percent fewer climate-changing emissions in 11 years—a tipping point, according to a U.N. panel. My ancestor self, who hears my dad still, says we’d better get moving.


Alice L. Pawley is an associate professor of engineering education and affiliate faculty member with the Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies Program and the Division of Environmental and Ecological Engineering at Purdue University. This article is adapted from “Asking questions, we walk: How should engineering education address equity, the climate crisis, and its own moral infrastructure?” in the Fall 2019 issue of Advances in Engineering Education.


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FEATURE: FUSION—Startups vie with an international megaproject to be the first with a workable source of fusion energy.

FEATURE: NETWORK—A look at Gilda Barabino, engineering dean at CCNY, and efforts to boost the stature of academic women of color in engineering.


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