Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Engineering Education in Asia

One of the exciting parts of my job is the opportunity to travel the world to discover the ever changing trends in the education market. Although many will say, and I agree, it is a small world, there are clear differences in the way governments view education as a priority, how industry interacts with academia and the level of enthusiasm of the population towards the variety of education avenues offered to them.

We have recently established a new position at Quanser which focuses on regional channel sales. In particular, for this blog posting, I will focus on our increased interactions and focus on the Asian market. For the sake of clarity, at Quanser, we define the Asian market as consisting of ASEAN countries as far south as Philippines, China, Korea and Japan.

Long vs short term needs
The Asian educational sector demonstrates a wide variety of approaches to how best to train engineers. This is due to the differences in the needs and nature of industry of the various countries. In Japan and to some extent Korea, where the industrial sector is quite mature and where technology and innovation are culturally ingrained, we have found a higher level of interest in hands–on education of the theoretical aspects of mechatronic systems towards the training of highly creative and innovative engineers. While in countries like China and many of the ASEAN countries, the emphasis is still on meeting the short term human resources needs of local industries through teaching of industrially used “closed” solutions such as PLCs and less time on preparing the grounds for innovators who would find new and better ways of using technology.

Whilst the Chinese focus on short term, less creative engineers is logical when considering the incredible growth of the Chinese economy and the urgent need for immediately productive engineers, in the long term, the global competitive landscape (as said before, it is a small world) will incite countries like China to invest more and more in innovation and the training of creative minds. That is not to say that China does not create creative minds even now. It is simply not a focus of the educational system at this point. The short term needs are being fulfilled now with over 200,000 engineers graduating every year, and it is expected to see China invest heavily in creating more creative minds in the near future. This process is already underway through upcoming government funding opportunities forecasted to be focused on innovation in academia.

ASEAN region
In ASEAN, Malaysia and Singapore educational systems seem to play a balancing act between pure innovation (to distinguish themselves and avoid competition from low labor cost Chinese firms) and the obvious need for high productivity to follow the Chinese demand in those sectors requiring volume. A country’s need for high productivity quickly tends to force the educational sector to pump out bachelor degrees with only basics covered. The educational systems in other ASEAN countries such as Thailand, VietNam, Indonesia, Philippines etc… strictly tend to the needs of the local industry. This obviously has a tendency to have universities concentrate their funding on filling the immediate needs of their main funding source which often comes from the regional industrial sector. Innovation in such cases is dependant on the level of R&D performed locally which is quite rare in the countries listed which constitute mostly of low cost production facilities for multi-nationals.

Japan and South Korea
In Japan, where innovation had been a national focus for years, and to some extent South Korea, past enthusiasm for engineering seemed to disappear for several years. Many theories exist on why this is so, but one thing is certain, young people simply do not see the attractiveness in engineering that used to be there. Recently, governments and universities have been attracting students to engineering by getting them interested and engaged with technology at the high school level. This is done through low level and simple hands-on application of mechatronic basics through devices like the Lego Mind storm or other low level robotic devices. However, as experience has shown us in North-America, once students enter the university with the promise of learning through the application of theory, it is important to supply the platforms for them to do so. Often, the simple devices he used in high-school will not provide the flexibility and complexity for them to learn the more advanced concepts of mechatronics and controls needed to become innovators. Attracting students is one thing, keeping them in engineering to the graduate levels is another, which is still a challenge in this region.

How Quanser approaches this variety
By having a wide variety of products (over 70) and through Quanser's well known philosophy of modular and open architecture designs, Quanser customers are able to begin with basic SISO devices to teach fundamental dynamics and control theory but then add modules to begin challenging experiments and trigger creativity in students in more advanced courses. This has multiple benefits: students always learn new theory and their applications from a previously assimilated platform making it easier to absorb and imagine new applications and costs can be spread over multiple labs, courses and even departments. Another important benefit is the obvious cost savings by being able to use common peripherals for multiple experiments. Lastly, for situations where budgets come in slowly, modules can be purchased and added gradually over time while still allowing students the benefits of hands-on learning on basic systems.

1 comment:

control valves said...

It's my first time to hear about Quansar. Thank you for considering Asian countries. I wish you all good luck in your good cause.