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A disheartening disconnect

March 29, 2004

By Mark Rosenzweig

Collaborative engineering is becoming a watchword in our industry. The extent and importance of such work-sharing has undergone a step-change recently, as Editor at Large Nick Basta points out in our cover article this month.

Yet, this seemingly unrelenting push toward greater collaboration doesn't extend equally. One key constituency of our profession seems almost left out: academia. Chemical engineering consultant and curmudgeon Ben Horwitz says, "There has been a growing disconnect between academia and industry ever since Bird, Stewart & Lightfoot's 'Transport Phenomena' gained traction at schools in the early 1960s." Since then, many faculty members have placed increasing emphasis on fundamental science over engineering.

One outgrowth of this has been that undergraduate engineering students, most of whom are destined for jobs in industry, are exposed to less and less real-world practice in their coursework. For instance, students now get no exposure to topics like filtration and centrifugation. Horwitz complains that the problems students tackle in courses rarely have any relationship to what the engineers will face in industry. One reason, Horwitz cites, is that too many professors have no industrial experience upon which to draw to make class problems reflect the real world.

The overall number of faculty who have worked in industry is small and growing smaller. So, the disconnect is bound to grow. But can it? Horwitz says the gap already has become "almost infinite."

The standard rebuttal from campuses is that a thorough grounding in fundamentals is essential to effectiveness in industry. There's certainly merit in that argument, but there is also merit in giving students a better grounding in engineering practice so they can be effective in their jobs sooner.

This disconnect also hampers broader collaboration between colleges and companies. Yet, many academics say they are eager for stronger bonds. With government research funding tight, these professors would welcome more support from industry. The problem is that faculty generally want such collaboration on their terms. They seek funding to do their favorite fundamental research, which may not necessarily have near- or even medium-term value to companies.

Today's competitive landscape demands a faster payback on the plant floor and in the research laboratory, as well. That may be unfortunate, but the situation is not about to change anytime soon -- in fact, it is apt to become even more pronounced. Until more academics adapt to that reality, the prospect for fuller collaboration with industry seems remote.

Mark Rosenzweig is editor in chief of Chemical Processing magazine. E-mail him at [email protected].

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