Engineering research without student mentoring? I don’t think so

Engineers are enthusiastic about research because it involves methods that typically come naturally to us. We engage with a spectrum of research problems. Some of these are curiosity driven, of a “blue sky” or “fundamental” nature, while others are applied and motivated by the potential benefits that their solutions might bring to our society and economy.

How research is conducted varies across disciplines. Popular films offer stereotypes to us – of the lone mathematician in the attic, the individual historian in her study, and the solitary theoretical scientist scribbling away in a notebook. Many of these stereotypes are just that – clichés.

But even formulaic movies get something right. An engineering research lab is generally depicted as a beehive of activity where many false starts are overcome by optimistic workarounds that lead to eventual triumphal conclusions.

What films get wrong is their description of a dictatorial hierarchy in the lab. You’ve seen this movie before. A megalomaniac technologist in a state of the art lab  wants to destroy the world. He must be stopped by an altruistic and grounded engineer and she reminds us of MacGyver. With chutzpah and imagination, she is able to develop a counter technology in a scrappy garage, which overcomes the megalomaniac and consequently saves the world just a second or two removed from imminent disaster.

While bad engineers do sometimes do bad things, the character of the delusional navel gazing technologist is for most part a myth.  The altruistic and tenacious engineer, however, is a likeness that is more true to life.

Also true in the usual movies is the collaborative nature of engineering research and the mentoring that it entails. In a university, that mentoring involves professors and students.

In a higher education institute, and here please note an emphasis on education, a primary responsibility of any scholar is to mentor students. Therefore, I am astonished when some of my engineering colleagues, not only at McMaster but across the world in various universities, claim that they are moving the needle of scholarship, but while involving students minimally in their research.

Wouldn’t these colleagues, who are otherwise pleasant people to share a beverage with, be better off working in a national laboratory or in industry? Why do they bother to work in an engineering school?

Teaching and learning are inextricably linked in a university.  Isn’t it our task as engineering professors to enable students to learn how they can to add new knowledge? Isn’t that our ultimate legacy over our careers?

Shouldn’t our grants enable graduate students to pursue doctoral degrees, or for undergraduate students to learn about research and methods in our laboratories? Don’t we have a responsibility to those who pay for our keep?

Frankly, beside the responsibility we have as engineering educators, there’s another compelling imperative. If we don’t realize that teaching students how to do research and helping prepare them to become the scholars of future is of paramount importance, then the innovation economy will ultimately reside with our global competitors.

Aren’t our colleagues who resist the integration of research with learning effectively wishing our children’s futures an early goodbye?

(Recommended reading10 Reasons to Go to a Research University.)

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