University engineering departments, pillars of support for Japan's manufacturing industry, are losing their footing. Though faculties are generating large numbers of research papers, it is being pointed out that prowess in the "design process" of the discipline, by nature the very essence of the profession in which practitioners find and solve problems for the benefit of society, is weakening. What can be done to rectify this problem?
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Including electronics producers, Japan's manufacturing industry, which formerly boasted overwhelming strength in global markets, is now struggling to compete with Asian rivals.
Though a wide variety of factors can be attributed to the industry's slump, technological development and the training of capable human resources are seen as two areas critical to recovery. On both these fronts, university engineering faculties play an important role in supporting the industry's foundation.
Though engineering may evoke a sense of sobriety and unpretentiousness, at national and public universities the faculty attracts the largest number of students. The discipline is positioned on the front line of the struggle to solve a variety of challenges, ranging from the local community level through to those global in scale.
However, critical eyes are now being cast upon university engineering faculties, questioning whether the discipline's original mission of producing research results that benefit society is not being forgotten. Ayao Tsuge, chairman of the Japan Federation of Engineering Societies, is one such person questioning the current state of engineering education. Tsuge, a former executive officer of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., has also served as the president of the Shibaura Institute of Technology.
Seven years ago, in 2005, education for the engineering field in Japan was severely criticized from abroad. The Japan Accreditation Board for Engineering Education (JABEE), which certifies whether university technical training programs are meeting the standards demanded by society, was given the following critique after an examination of its application to join the Washington Accord, an international agreement recognizing the equivalency of engineering programs accredited by signatory bodies.
"Most Japanese engineering programs emphasize the learning of relevant scientific principles more than the application of those principles in a design context." Critiques also pointed out that Japanese engineering education is somewhat different from those that found in many of the Washington Accord countries with little hands-on engineering design experience.
Design as it is being talked about here refers to more than simply thinking about prototypes and drawing blueprints. It involves the ability to leverage a variety of academic and technical skills to find feasible solutions to problems where there is not necessarily a correct answer. For this aspect, it is said that Japan lacks sufficient training.
AN ADVERSE EFFECT OF GENERATING TOO MANY PAPERS?
Originally, engineering in Japan regarded a balance between academic learning and practical training as being important.
Henry Dyer, a Scotsman who wrote the curriculum for the Imperial College of Engineering, founded at the beginning of the Meiji Era (1868-1912) in Japan, thought that science-based technique was important despite the belief in England at the time that general engineering education should focus exclusively on teaching technical skill. In Japan, Dyer developed an educational program for engineering that maintained a solid balance between theory and practice, which from his point of view was ideal. The Imperial College of Engineering became part of Tokyo Imperial University (now the University of Tokyo), which became the first comprehensive university in the world to have an engineering department.
Science and technique became the twin strengths of engineering departments in Japan. The discipline, while supporting Japan's period of rapid growth by training countless engineers, also produced Nobel Prize winners.
However, according to Tsuge, for the past 20 years or so, research has leaned more toward analytical science; leading to weakness in practical technique, an intrinsic aspect of engineering.
A factor being blamed for this situation is a trend that emphasizes the publication of academic papers and essays. Since the 1980s, an index placing importance on the number of articles published in leading scientific journals has been used as an indicator when evaluating studies and allocating research funds. Research dealing with real world application, the essence of engineering, is at a disadvantage as themes on which papers can easily be written tend to be chosen.
From the start, Hiroyuki Yoshikawa, a former president of Tokyo University who also served for a period as head of the engineering department, has emphasized the importance of design in engineering. When working as a professor in the faculty of engineering at the end of the 1970s, he wanted to train engineers capable of creating things that did not already exist in the world, and chose the development of robots that could perform maintenance work at nuclear power plants as his research theme.
Though in the end, electric power companies rejected his ideas and the robots did not come into being, his work served as original research that helped robotics become a specialty of Japan. Looking back, however, Yoshikawa said his research was difficult to turn into a paper and he struggled to get funding.
Though the U.K., the home country of Dryer, who played a major role in promoting engineering in Japan in the early years, spawned the Industrial Revolution, it later neglected the discipline, leading to a steady decline of its manufacturing industry. On the other hand, the country placed a premium on science, allowing it to boast of a large number of Nobel Prize winners.
Still, even in the U.K., there is movement afoot that could be called a "return to engineering." There, an award known as the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering has been created to recognize and celebrate individuals whose engineering achievements have made significant contributions to humanity. The first award ceremony will take place next spring. At 1 million pounds (124 million yen, or $1.56 million), this "Nobel Prize" of the engineering field awards prize money on par with that of the Nobel Foundation. The prize is currently soliciting nominations from around the world. One of the stated aims of the award is to spark an interest in engineering and attract talented individuals, regardless of gender, into the field.
COMPLETELY NEW IDEAS ARE NEEDED
What is Japan to do? It has a solid foundation. Though it is said college hopefuls are losing interest in engineering, over the last few years the number of engineering applicants has shown a slight increase. According to a survey conducted by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, only 11 percent of engineering graduates did not land a job or continue their education after completing undergraduate work, the lowest percentage among the hard sciences. The percentage for graduates in humanities and the social sciences exceeds 20 percent. It would appear the discipline's ability to offer strong career prospects even in the face of a recession is attracting applicants to the field.
Several reform proposals regarding how engineering students should be taught have emerged.
During a meeting of the Engineering Academy of Japan at the end of May, Yoshikawa, the former president of Tokyo University, proposed a reorganization of the curriculum to place an emphasis on design.
In 2010, a report compiled by universities and corporate professionals titled Ideal Practical Training for Engineers at Universities was also released by the education ministry. While touching on Dyer's ideas, the report revealed the need for education that includes practical, hands-on components. Based on this, Hiroshi Noguchi, adjunct professor at Kogakuin University, and others released another report in April, reorganizing the knowledge and practical ability elements of engineering education and laying out what should be taught and how, tailoring the recommendation to each field.
Mutsuhiro Arinobu, a former adviser to Toshiba Corp., who took part in the discussions, said, "It is necessary to systematically implement education that will develop in students design capabilities allowing them to come up with completely new ideas." The reason: consumers are more concerned with "what" a given product can do than with the actual "product" itself, and the skills and technology required to increase existing product capabilities and lower manufacturing costs are currently lacking.
As for the skills demanded by companies of their engineers, logical thinking and problem-solving abilities are in high demand right alongside specialized knowledge.
On the front lines of innovation, too, expectations for "new ideas" are high. At the beginning of this year, Nissan Motor Co. established the "senior innovation researcher" program and started offering in-house researchers the opportunity to switch from regular full time to contracted employee status. If they produce successful results in three years they will be awarded compensation comparable to that of corporate officers. The company is aiming to strengthen its development capability.
Norimasa Kishi, one of the researchers who took up the offer, said collaboration with university researchers is indispensable for generating new ideas. What is expected, of course, is that "education and research can produce innovative things capable of changing the world."
Kishi, for example, is carrying out joint research with Masatoshi Ishikawa, a professor of engineering at the University of Tokyo. They are focusing their work on a robot with image processing capabilities 30 times that of the human eye. Given a bat, the robot can hit back any ball thrown its way. It can also read an opened book if the pages are turned. Ishikawa's motto is to not get hung up on writing research papers and to create things that will be valued by society, which can only be produced by an engineering department. Doubtless, potential for this current project will be found in a variety of places.
Engineering influences the direction of industry. Hopefully, the search to restore this field to a position of prominence will bear fruit.
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Atsuko Tsuji was born in 1953. An MIT science journalism fellow, she worked on the science desk, in the AERA magazine publishing department and in the U.S. General Affairs Bureau before becoming an editorial writer. She is in charge of science, technology and medicine.
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