Coping with the real world

Our secret blogger believes that better training in the use of statistics would help engineering graduates deal more effecitlvely with the uncertainties of the real world.

A little while ago I filled in aquestionnaire that included the question, “did your academic experience prepare you adequately for the working world?” Now it is a long time since I was at university, but my answer was yes, albeit with the caveat that I think it is really the employer’s job to do this training. I do think, however, that there was at least one area that my university course did not cover in sufficient detail.

The sort of people who gravitate towards engineering, are by definition good at maths and physics. Those who go on to engineering tend to do maths with mechanics at ‘A’ level and so don’t do statistics. These subjects are deterministic. 2+3 always equals 5. However when you add part A to part B, you don’t always get the same outcome.

Understanding, and coping with variation is a key fundamental for successfully engineered designs. This is something I’ve observed time and time again, from problems with assembling flat packed furniture, to resolving issues with a complex lever mechanism that had to allow precision movement but connected two floating structures.

The key to resolving most of the faults I’ve come across in my career has been an understanding of the tolerances and variability.  When it comes to statistical analysis, there are no right answers and from experience that doesn’t sit well with the way we train our engineers. After I had been taught about the use of statistics to manage variation, and then started to spread the ethos of “on target, with minimum variation,” I looked back at my university notes and realised that we had, indeed, covered some of the concepts on a brief course wrapped up with a few other things.  The content had been miniscule and the link to real world had been almost non existent. In short the module was almost useless as I couldn’t even remember I’d done it.

I’ve had a look at some current course syllabus summaries, and it looks like there may be some statistics getting taught, but from what I’ve seen of the graduates coming through (who are usually very good incidentally), the link to the real world importance of these things is still missing. So, I still think that in general employers should train graduates in workplace skills. However, I think that training in statistical methods to allow an understanding of how to deal with the variation we encounter in the real world, along with practical examples, is an area that could be covered more fully during our academic courses.

Furthermore, I think that given sufficient emphasis this could significantly improve the ability of our graduates to come up with capable designs.