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From the Editor: Engineers’ Concerns Have Only Multiplied Since the Pandemic

Robert Schickel on January 28, 2022 - in Articles, Column

Two years ago, I asked the following question in the February 2020 issue of Informed Infrastructure:

“How will engineers respond to alternative energy sources, global warming, dwindling water supplies, deteriorating infrastructure and any number of future demands? What will we as engineers do in this next decade that will make a positive impact on our way of life and environment?”

This was just before the pandemic officially arrived; I didn’t know we would also have to deal with that. During the following two years, the pandemic has altered the way we live and work, and I’ve been impressed by the progress engineers have made in adjusting to different procedures and working remotely. But we still need to be concerned about all those items I mentioned in that previous column … while dealing with the pandemic.

Two Steps Forward …

We finally have an infrastructure-improvement funding source in place. This should help resolve—or at least begin to correct—some problematic issues such as deteriorating infrastructure, safe and consistent water supply, and the need for alternative energy. And now more people are trying to address the global-warming impacts. But what we decide to do immediately with this funding is critical. There are long-term effects developing as we delay the major steps required to ensure the health of our planet.

In addition, there are continuing consequences as a result of this pandemic. While we have adjusted to many of the changes in our work environment, the long-term effects are still to be realized. We don’t yet know what these effects are and how they will change our education system and profession.

In fall 2019, I started my first teaching experience with seniors at Valparaiso University. It turned out that classes would be held online with Zoom. We (admittedly mostly me) struggled with the platform a bit, especially with exhibits but also student interaction. In the end, I think we did OK, but as with long-term COVID, we might not know the results of the effectiveness of online classes—in colleges and all levels of education—for some time. I’m not an expert on education and methods of teaching regarding in-person and online classes, but I know from personal experience that many issues arose due to the pandemic.

Some Notable Concerns

The American Society of Engineering Education published a report, “COVID-19 and Engineering Education,” wherein a number of concerns were brought up through a survey of faculty and students. (Numerous articles about the effects of COVID-19 and engineering education can be found at www.asee.org.) Issues described in the report include the following:

1. How do you simulate laboratory and hands-on experiences that are necessary in engineering education? Can one person demonstrate an experiment or procedure and effectively communicate those results?

2. Connections with students. How do you demonstrate teamwork to a group of students who can’t work together in person?

3. The amount of undergraduate and graduate research has been reduced, dissertations have been delayed, and there’s no telling how that may affect the future.

4. Conferences have been held online, which is somewhat productive but not in the way face-to-face conferences can be.

5. There have been—and continue to be—severe financial implications on universities, primarily on reduced enrollment and fewer international students.

6. Some colleges have gone to a pass/fail system of grading which, in my opinion, is never good in engineering education.

7. My students (for the most part) secured jobs after graduation but remain concerned about the workplace and how it may change. Along with that is concern about job security as we all witness the dynamics of the economy and employment.

8. Students these days also have a work/life balance in mind that’s probably different from even a few years ago. This has been altered as they witness parents trying to solve this dilemma while working remotely and trying to provide care and education for their families.

So Much Uncertainty

The professionals who study this (and I) are unsure of the magnitude of the changes in the engineering world. What I know from firsthand experience is that we need to recognize there’s additional stress caused by the pandemic on top of all the engineering and environmental imperatives that face us.

So, after two years, perhaps a similar question still is relevant: “What will we as engineers do to make a positive impact on our way of life and environment?”

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About Robert Schickel

Robert Schickel was born in New Jersey and received his BS in Civil Engineering degree in 1971 from Valparaiso University in Indiana. His career started as a bridge design engineer and expanded to include design of various transportation facilities, including highways, bridges, rail lines and stations, and airport runways. Mr. Schickel managed engineering offices ranging from 20 to 140 people. He also served as a consultant to a large utility company. Mr. Schickel currently resides in Indiana and serves as Adjunct Professor for the College of Engineering at Valparaiso University. He enjoys his retired life at his lake house, playing golf, listening to music and spending time with his family, especially his grandchildren.

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