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Top>Opinion>The Role of Higher Education in Engineering Education


Mitsunori Makino

Mitsunori Makino【profile

The Role of Higher Education in Engineering Education

Mitsunori Makino
Professor, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Systems Analysis, Visualization, Computer Graphics

Read in Japanese

The scandal involving Volkswagen’s installation of fraudulent control software in its diesel engines, which was exposed in September this year, is not just a problem for Volkswagen. Investigations are starting to extend to other diesel car manufacturers as well.

There has been no mention in media reports to date that there was any kind of bug (an error not intended by the designers or producers) in the software. Therefore, in terms of realizing its objective of both passing emissions tests and improving fuel economy, the software would appear to have been working properly. There has also been no mention of any illegalities such as infringement of copyright or other intellectual property (in that respect, the “illegal software” term being used in some quarters is inaccurate, so this article will use the term “fraudulent software”). So, what about this properly working software makes it “fraudulent?”

Firstly, it could be noted that the objective of the software itself is fraudulent. For a diesel engine, reducing environmental burden and improving fuel economy have always been viewed as mutually incompatible goals. Therefore, unless the priority and importance of objectives is set more appropriately in the order of passing emissions tests and consistent application of technology to reduce environmental burden (benefiting society), then improving fuel economy (benefiting the consumer), followed by making a profit (benefiting the company), those objectives would not be acceptable to society or the environment.

On the other hand, even if we assume that the actual objectives established were not wrong, it could also be said that the means for achieving the objectives were fraudulent. In fact, it is widely known that there is a gap between a vehicle’s test data and the actual performance of the vehicle when it is driven around town. In Volkswagen’s case, however, it has been reported in the media that environmental burden reduction measures that other car makers were implementing even under conditions different from testing conditions had been stopped by the software in question. That kind of attitude of “anything goes as long as we’re not caught” is unacceptable.

In general, technology that is the most suited to achieving an objective under the given restrictions is the one that is chosen. The restrictions, objectives and choice of the most suitable technology are all decided by humans, and as such, the insights of the people involved in those choices will be put to the test.

Engineer’s Ethics

Exactly where responsibility lies for this scandal is still under investigation at this stage. It has been reported in the media, however, that the company that made the software recommended to Volkswagen that it should not be used for general purposes. This leads us to assume, therefore, that the engineers who produced and supplied the software had an accurate understanding of what the software did. If the people and/or company that produced the software were aware of and tacitly approved of Volkswagen using it for the objectives described above, then the question arises of whether or not the software company acted appropriately based on its professional code of ethics, while also upholding their confidentiality obligations towards the contracting company, regardless of whether or not there would be penalties for violation of the law or social sanctions. The same question would also be asked about the engineers at Volkswagen who installed the software in the engine control computers of vehicles for retail sale. Written codes of ethics that engineers should possess exist in the industrial sector and they are taught in university engineering courses (even before any code of ethics for researchers).

For example, in Japan, the Information Processing Society of Japan (IPSJ) has a Code of Conduct for its members, which states as follows (excerpt from window)

2. As professionals:
2.3 We shall give due consideration to the influence and risks information technologies may impose upon society and users.
2.4 We shall honor contracts and agreements with clients and preserve the confidentiality of clients’ privileged information.

Similarly, the Code of Ethics and Code of Conduct of the Institute of Electronics, Information and Communication Engineers (IEICE) states as follows (excerpt):
Code of Ethics ( window (in Japanese))

3. [Recognition of importance of technology] The members of the IEICE shall understand the importance of electronics, information and communication in social endeavor and shall make clear, in an objective manner, the effects that such technologies and their use may have on human beings, society and the global environment.
5. [Observation of Contracts] While taking the public interest into consideration, the members of the IEICE shall observe contracts that they enter into as professionals.

Code of Conduct ( window (in Japanese))

2-3 In the course of research, development and application of electronics, information and communication technologies, the members of the IEICE shall not pursue efficiency and performance improvements alone but shall also pay due consideration to the public interest.
4-3 In the course of their professional duties, the members of the IEICE shall not only meet the requirements for quality that their customers and users expect, but shall also take the requirements of society (compliance, environmental conservation, recycling, etc.) into due consideration.

In other words, people who are involved in technology, such as engineers, in addition to the knowledge and skills directly related to technology, must possess a wide range of knowledge and the ability to apply that knowledge and to make correct judgements before taking action.

The Role of Higher Education

To obtain the kinds of insight and conduct as an engineer as described above, there needs to be somewhere that can supply a good balance of academic study and practical training. What would be the first place that would be appropriate for this aim?

Readers may have heard of the IEA Graduate Attributes and Professional Competencies. The International Engineering Alliance (IEA; window) is a meta-association that consists of a three-agreement framework to ensure international mobility for technology-related professionals and an alliance of three education accreditation agreements, including The Washington Accord, that ensure international consistency of higher education leading to technology-related professional qualifications (organizations responsible for assessment and accreditation of professional qualifications or education are the signatories to these agreements). The IEA sets the standards for knowledge and competencies that technology-related professionals are expected to possess, and the Knowledge Profile (KP) and Graduate Attributes (GA) that graduates of tertiary courses who envisage becoming engineers are expected to possess. These standards act as the benchmarks referenced by the accreditation bodies of the member economies.

Under the Washington Accord, graduates are, on the basis of the wide range of knowledge described in the KP, required to possess the appropriate attributes (GA) regarding engineering knowledge, problem analysis, design/development of solutions, investigation, modern tool usage, the engineer and society, environment and sustainability, ethics, individual and team work, communication, project management and finance, and lifelong learning. In other words, they must possess wide and deep knowledge and expertise, including generic skills. Under the Washington Accord, the acquisition of such knowledge and expertise requires at least four years of tertiary education.

Given the above, the extreme argument that “an engineer only needs to be able to make things that must be realized right in front of you” would not be acceptable internationally. For example, even if you are an engineer who works in your own country and deals only with domestic customers, it is essential that you possess knowledge not only about technology trends but also about the matters related to the technology itself, knowledge about legislation, the economy and commercial transactions both domestically and internationally, and the ability to interpret and apply all of that knowledge correctly. Therefore, at the very least, engineering-related professions must, in some respects and to some degree, be “global.”

The notion that an engineer needs to be more than just good with his hands is by no means a new one. I still remember a scene from the science fiction novel, The Rolling Stones, by Robert A. Heinlein, which I read as a boy, in which the father explains to his twin sons just how important mathematics is to engineering.

Indonesia’s Challenge

In Indonesia, preparations are underway to establish the Indonesian Accreditation Board for Engineering Education (IABEE). With a view to future membership of the above-mentioned Washington Accord, the aims of this organization will be to support quality assurance in engineering-related programs (departments, courses, etc.) at universities and other tertiary institutions and to raise the standard of engineering education in that country. The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) is supporting the IABEE’s establishment ( window; window) and I am personally involved in this project as the Chair of the Criteria Committee of the Japan Accreditation Board for Engineering Education (JABEE), which has been engaged by JICA. JABEE is a signatory of the Washington Accord and conducts assessment and accreditation based on KP, GA, and other criteria. IABEE’s rules for assessment and accreditation rules are being decided based on the experiences of JABEE and the signatory bodies in other regions. By providing assurance of the quality of their education, the Indonesians are endeavoring to make the attributes of their graduates internationally acceptable not on an individual basis but as an organization.

In a country to which a Washington Accord signatory body belongs, graduates of tertiary institutions accredited by that body become eligible to sit the qualifying exam to become professional engineers, or in some cases, be exempted from parts of that exam. In other words, whether or not an individual has received the appropriate education is a premise for determining how good that individual is. The rationale behind this is that whether or not they have acquired the requisite Graduate Attributes is not something that can be measured with a written test, so they need to have received the right education. This rationale exists in some other professions in Japan as well, and differs from many of the qualifications available today that require only that an exam be passed, with no educational or work experience prerequisites.

We live in a world in which companies’ activities extend across national and regional borders, and it might soon be commonplace for the engineers working there to have studied and worked in different places, and know almost nothing about the countries and regions in which the technologies and products they are involved in are being used. As seen in the Volkswagen example, the inappropriate conduct of engineers has the potential to trigger fraud and illegalities on a global scale. For engineers to hold pride in their profession, the quality of the tertiary education that fosters those engineers must not be inferior to that of other countries and regions. In this respect, ensuring and assurance of consistency will become even more important. Educators in Japan and other advanced countries and regions should draw a lesson from Indonesia’s challenge and continue in their own unremitting efforts.

Mitsunori Makino
Professor, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Systems Analysis, Visualization, Computer Graphics
Professor Makino was born in Chiba Prefecture in 1964, and graduated from the School of Science and Engineering, Waseda University in 1987. In 1992, he completed the doctoral program in the Graduate School of Science and Engineering, Waseda University and obtained his Ph.D. (Engineering).
After working as an Assistant Professor and Associate Professor at Chuo University, he took up his current position in 2004, serving as Vice Dean of the Faculty of Science and Engineering from November 2009 to October 2013.
His current areas of research are computer graphics, the fusion of virtual and actual reality (VR, AR, etc.), and visualization. His policy is to “build systems for creating images that, rather than just looking beautiful, will be of benefit to people and society.”
In addition to his academic endeavors, Professor Makino is actively involved in the education of engineering personnel and the accreditation of engineering education, holding positions such as Chair of the Criteria Committee of the Japan Accreditation Board for Engineering Education (JABEE), Deputy Chair of the Accreditation Policy Council of the Institute of Electronics, Information and Communication Engineers (IEICE), and Member of the Information Education Committee of the Japan Universities Association for Computer Education (JUCE). He is the recipient of the 17th Engineering Education Award of the Japanese Society for Engineering Education and was one of the winners in the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry’s “30 Courses for Cultivating Fundamental Ability in Working Professionals.”
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