Ethics, Creativity and Teamwork Enhance the Mechanical Engineering Undergraduate Experience

Five students wearing safety goggles work on a project

By Jenny Blair

Self-driving vehicles may cut traffic congestion and improve mobility, but if an unavoidable crash looms, will their software’s split-second decisions be ethical? Can wind energy be “green” when rotor blades end up in landfills? And why did Google engineers quit the company over a 2018 project to improve military drones?
Traditional engineering education tends not to emphasize the thorny or holistic questions that surround new technologies. But at UMass Lowell, the Department of Mechanical Engineering will soon train students to grapple with just such issues.
The aim is to prepare students to thrive professionally in the Fourth Industrial Revolution — our era of tech-driven societal transformation, hyperconnectivity, fused technologies and machines that analyze vast amounts of data faster than humanly possible.
“The skill sets students are going to need in the future are not just the ability to do math that a computer can do,” says Assoc. Prof. David J. Willis, the department’s associate chair for undergraduate studies. “Looking at the changes that are coming, it’s good to be aware of how society is going to change, and how much more an engineer needs to have that ‘meta’ viewpoint.”
In June 2019, the Davis Educational Foundation awarded the university a three-year grant totaling nearly $294,000 to transform the undergraduate curriculum in mechanical engineering. Founded by retired Shaw’s supermarkets chairman Stanton W. Davis and his wife, Elisabeth K. Davis, the foundation supports undergraduate education at New England colleges and universities.
Willis is spearheading the effort, along with Asst. Prof. John Hunter Mack and Assoc. Prof. Christopher Hansen, both of the Mechanical Engineering Department, and Philosophy Asst. Prof. Nicholas Evans, who is an expert in the intersection of technology and ethics.
In the 18th century, water and steam power touched off the First Industrial Revolution. The Second Revolution saw the rise of electricity-powered mass production. The Third Revolution is digital. And in the Fourth Revolution, as described by World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab, innovations like quantum computing, nanotechnology, 3D printing, synthetic biology, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things are bringing together the physical, digital and biological realms. These changes are disrupting countless industries and demanding fast adaptation on the part of entrepreneurs, regulators and engineers.
To meet these unprecedented challenges, nine mechanical engineering core courses will be updated to cover topics like interfaces among humans, software and hardware; interdisciplinary thinking; teamwork and emotional intelligence skills; and how to bring ethical and cross-cultural perspectives to the profession.
Because humans are expected to remain more creative than machines for the foreseeable future, the enhanced courses will emphasize creativity and idea generation. Students will learn to assess the trustworthiness of data sources and sift efficiently through mountains of information. They’ll explore the skills needed to work across disciplines and they’ll do more computer simulations and programming.
To help mechanical engineering faculty revamp their courses, STEM education experts will be brought in to lead professional development seminars. The grant will also fund an artificial-intelligence platform that assesses which pedagogical methods are working, thereby deploying a Fourth Industrial Revolution training tool to help personalize the students’ education.
The Davis Educational Foundation’s most recent award is far from being the organization’s first to UMass Lowell. Since 2005, the university has received more than $665,000 in grants to fund projects like a virtual student center, a new core curriculum and student financial literacy initiatives.
“The professors have the support of the dean and the provost. All the pieces were in place,” says Leanne Greeley Bond, the foundation’s director of grants and programs. “We’re excited about this partnership with UMass Lowell.”
Students will see the new course content starting in the fall of 2020. In 2021, the faculty will refine these modified courses. After that, as faculty mentor colleagues in and beyond the department, Willis expects the changes to spread.
“My hope,” he says, “is that what we produce is a program that is on the leading edge of engineering education.”