School daze: Do you need a degree to be a real engineer?

-November 04, 2011

Suzanne DeffreeDuring a recent conversation over lunch with some co-workers, I made a statement that turned a few heads. One co-worker’s daughter had plans to look at colleges over the weekend, and I noted that my husband and I don’t expect our son to go to college. This comment was somewhat surprising because both my husband and I are college graduates who look back fondly on our days in school and because our son is a toddler and his college years are more than a decade away.

My point, however, was that, with the rising cost of a college education and so many success stories about people lacking a degree, he may choose a path that does not ultimately include a stop at college.

Talkback buttonThis lunchtime conversation occurred a few days after ESC (Embedded Systems Conference) Boston 2011, where EDN and its sister publications hosted a networking event for students and young engineering professionals as well as experienced engineers (Reference 1). About 25 people attended, including some of the smartest 20-somethings I’ve had the pleasure of meeting in the more than 10 years I’ve been covering the electronics industry.

School daze: Do you need a degree to be a real engineer? imageMany of these newbies were from local universities, and all spoke positively about their schools. Yet, college for some of these young men and women seemed more like an avenue to opportunities than an isolated learning experience. In speaking with these students, I heard them talk more enthusiastically about their hands-on efforts at internships, student groups, lab time, or design competitions than about their classes.

For some, college can be a stifling experience. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak made statements to that effect a few months earlier when he spoke at ESC Silicon Valley 2011. The late Steve Jobs also had made similar comments on numerous occasions.

Two of the three minds behind Apple lack a college degree. If a company of such influence and that offers products that dominate the market on a worldwide scale could be born with two of the three founders lacking a sheepskin between them, I wonder: Do you need to go to school to be an engineer, or is that idea just a mindset?

Clearly, you must educate yourself and always be learning, but do you need to learn at a college or a university? Does an engineering hobbyist deserve the same respect as a professional electrical engineer?

By the time you read this column, my son will be 20 months old, a far cry from the 20-year-old students we chatted with at ESC Boston a few short weeks ago. However, because I work at EDN and sometimes read the articles to him instead of nursery rhymes, he’s already—I am convinced—showing the early signs of STEM (science/technology/ engineering/mathematics) talent. He takes apart everything he can, methodically categorizes his toys, and does some basic math. In other words, he has what EDN Technical Editor Margery Conner and Dilbert creator Scott Adams describe as “the knack.”

My son will grow up to be what he wants to be, but, if he decides to pursue a career in engineering, will he need to go to college to do so? Please let me know so that I can start looking for a second—and, perhaps, a third—mortgage now.

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  1. Deffree, Suzanne, “Engineering the next generation,” EDN, Sept 8, 2011, pg 10.

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