How effective are mechanical design courses?

When I was still a student I came to my father, who was a mechanical engineer himself, and told him very proudly about my studies and mechanical design courses. I was very impressed by the ability to use mathematical tools to solve all sorts of theoretical problems. To my surprise, he told me that the most advanced mathematics he ever used at work was the operation of multiplication! I was baffled. Things must have changed in the thirty plus years since his graduation!

mechanical design courses - Studying

Learnings from Mechanical Design Courses

Now, 50 years later, I recently spent some time thinking about how much of the knowledge I use today originated from my studies. I was horrified to discover that I use practically nothing of it! I hardly remember even the names of most of my classes. In college I did develop some analytical skills and acquired a better understanding of the world. The scientific background is well embedded in me, but I cannot help wondering whether the way I studied was really the best way to make me a design engineer.

It’s not that I think I should have given up math, physics, strength and fluid dynamics, statistics, and all the other standard engineering subjects. They were all important at the time, but something was missing. A few years later I told a friend that I had mastered design in the five years after graduation. I was young and naive then. I did not know that it would actually take me ten, twenty or even fifty years to become a master of design. Can this long period be shortened somehow? Isn’t it a terrible waste of human resources?

Can History shape us?

A few centuries ago there were no engineering schools. Universities were places for research and for pure knowledge. Engineering was mostly studied by apprenticeship, rather than by formal studies.

Was it all wrong? University gave us some great masters of art and of engineering degrees. The two French engineers, the father and son Marc and Isambard Brunel, never attended any technical school. Yet they became very bright engineers and they left a significant mark on the history of technology.

Is apprenticeship still a good and efficient way to study engineering today, with the large demand for engineers and the sea of modern knowledge? Probably not, but maybe we should adopt some of it into our system of mechanical design courses.  After all, we all have to pass through a sort of modern apprenticeship before we become real designers. We just don’t call it by that name. Unfortunately, during this period of informal apprenticeship most of us are not privileged to be under a boss who is a master of design himself. Most of the time it is just another engineer, a few years older. In addition, not everyone has good teaching skills. Wouldn’t it be better if we had a sort of apprenticeship under real masters and eloquent teachers in the university?

About: Adam Rubinstein

Born in Israel, studied Mechanical engineering in the Technion, specialized in mechanical design and particularly mechano-optics. Over 50 years experience as a design engineer, and about 24 of them as an independent consultant. lately, partially retired and teaching mechano-optical design at BGU in Beer-Sheva, Israel. Interested in photography and classical choir singing

5 Responses to How effective are mechanical design courses?

  1. Rev.ATBear says:

    I think apprenticeship would be an excellent addition to modern curriculum.  Doctors go through it, why shouldn't engineers?  I can't tell you how poorly trained I was when I got out of school, and then into my first position where I was the ONLY designer, and no one was checking my work… Good gracious the mistakes I made then, and am still probably making in my second position, now 6 years out of school.  What I wouldn't give to have an official apprenticeship/training course!

  2. dbyram says:

    As a mechanical designer having only three years of drafting in high school and now almost 20+ years in the engineering field, the best thing anyone can do is finding a school, probably vocational, that spends time in actual hands on machining, or other related to the discipline. There is so much access on the internet to what engineers use to have to memorize that time would be better spent on understanding what happens to metal, or what processes are involved when  designing or engineering. Practical is better than professional training in my opinion regardless what the institutions of higher learning would have you believe. I was given a position at one of the top 100 companies regardless of not having a degree solely because I had practical experience. The same with a position I was given as a welding manufacturing engineer. The company wanted someone designing fixtures for them that actual understood what happens when you weld. I have worked enough college degree engineers to know that is true.

  3. in spite of what I claimed in the article, apprenticeship as such was good for its time, and it probably would not work today, for many good reasons. One of these reasons is economic efficiency. In our very fast moving era we probably cannot afford the long time required for apprenticeship in the old manner. Also, when you are an apprentice of somebody you are considered to his inferior, and it is quite a problem if you are the bright guy on your way to higher education, while he is a master of welding, perhaps with 20 years of experience, and about to stay like that for the rest of his life. Also, you should be apprentice in a machine shop as well, and perhaps in finite elements too. We have to find another way to do it!No, I don't have the optimal solution to the problem, but I do have some ideas and thoughts.Suppose, for one, that the university hire this old welder as a staff member, and let him have his class for welding. He does not have to be a full professor, but he should be carefully chosen and given enough honor and credit by the university. This is something that the universities that I am familiar with will find very hard to do.Another thought is to educate the students to respect the man at the machine, and teach him to always consult with him. I have found this too pretty dificult, and not in the genes of the academy. Actually I have found that there were two types of young engineers: the ones that felt that as engineers they must have all the knowledge in the world, and that it would degrade them if they asked the technitian, and, on the other side, those that were ready to talk eye to eye with the men at the nachine, and learn from them.Unfortunately, the first type, which I used to call the young roosters, were the majority. If we could make them the minority, this in itself would be a great blessing.

  4. Gerry J. Dail PE says:

    I guess I am confused.  A recent design engineering project required that I calculate the forces associated with the rapid acceleration and deceleration of a reciprocating machine that forms tubing.  These forces were large and the accelerations had to be calculated by establishing a model of the sinusoidal motion versus time.  This involved the use of some rudimentary calculus, involved the use of basic rotational mechanics and involved stress analysis resulting from the input of the results of these calculations.  How one could do this with only using "multiplication" is not clear.  I have been practicing engineering for almost 40 years and agree that much of what I have learned was not covered in my engineering design courses.  But it is also true that one of my most heavily used reference books is my original copy of Shigley's Mechanical Engineering Design.  I think that the core courses in Mechanical Engineering must be coupled with and expanded upon with experience gained in practice to truly be useful in today's rapidly changing engineering environment.  By the way, if you become a registered Professional Engineer, you have to spend at least 5 years as an "Engineering in Training" which requires the understudy of your profession with a tutor of greater experience.  Too often, those experienced engineers have left the profession to become "managers" making a good understudy experience difficult to obtain.  I was fortunate to have a wonderful set of experienced engineers under which to study.  I highly recommend professional registration if you wish to be considered a true professional.

  5. The story I brought about my father took place in 1962, and related to his experience in mechanical engineering, which started in 1933. Indeed, calculus is older, but Shigley was not there yet. Obviously some engineers need more mathematics than others, and of course learning and understanding strength of materials as well as other theoretical disciplines is very important and needed. However, universities are great in doing this and more, and finite elements and computers made possible calculations there could not be done before, in a much easier way. What I claimed is that design is much more, and "thinking design" is something that nobody is teaching, and universities do not know how to teach it. Also, there is very little understanding that the students gain in the university about the real "simple" problems that the design engineers encounter dayly. Just a couple of days ago I had to sit with a young (but not completely inexperience) engineer making a design review on his work. It was a design of an optical device, which is my expertize. Not a single word was spoken about any calculation, but the analysis we made was on a high level, including all sorts of design considerations, like, degrees of freedom, deformations, the order of solving the design problems, and also some machining considerations to achieve accoracies at low price. At the end he said that he never had such a good learning session, and that he was happy to had it. This is the type of learning I refer to. There is no shortage of Mathematical models and solving them in the universities, but there is nothing similar to this design review we did.

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