Monday, November 14, 2016

Research Is Education

My posts from a few weeks back (here and here) on the role of associations in the work of educating next generation professionals for the industries or professions that they represent have been getting some attention. Beyond the usual tweets and retweets, this time someone actually reached out to me, wanting to know more. In the ensuing discussion, as I began thinking more concretely about the work of my association and the challenges it has been designed to address, a couple of additional thoughts occurred to me.

One is the idea summarized in this post's title: Research is Education.

The industry my association represents is engineering and manufacturing-based. One category of high-skilled workers my member companies are looking for is college-degreed engineers with detailed knowledge of my industry's technology and products. The challenge is that only a tiny fraction of our nation's universities teach that technology as part of their engineering curriculum. As a result, most of my member companies are used to providing their own professional education in our technology. Their preference, however, would very much be that university graduates come to them with a pre-existing knowledge (and interest) in our technology, and much of the work my association has been engaged in is in an attempt to make this a reality.

The challenge is not a simple one. Getting universities to add something to their engineering curriculum generally means getting them to remove something else, and everything that's already there typically has well-entrenched advocates in place. We've tried numerous times to develop new courses and curricula in our subject matter, and also watched numerous times as the developed programs were rejected or failed to perpetuate in the larger curriculum the way we intended.

So, on the advice of some of our academic partners, we tried a different approach: supporting research projects related to our technology on the intended campuses.

There was some initial (and still some lingering) pushback from our member companies on the idea. They didn't easily see the connection between sponsoring research and educating undergraduate engineers in our technology. But, as I reported in one of those previous blog posts, we had already demonstrated that the number one factor in encouraging engineers to enter our industry was a positive experience with an academic faculty member already engaged with our technology.

What better way, then, the get faculty engaged with our technology then to sponsor research projects in our area? Research is key to a faculty member's tenure and career advancement. And since most research faculty are also educators, it is almost axiomatic that those faculty would be drawn to develop curriculum and teach courses that closely align with their research work. If you'll forgive the coarse way of phrasing it, we decided to stop paying faculty to develop and use curriculum they weren't interested in, and start paying them to pursue intellectually-stimulating research challenges related to our technology, and allow them to naturally bring that interest to both their graduate and undergraduate classes.

It hasn't been without its challenges, but so far, the process has worked pretty well. New classes related to our technology are generating on the campuses where we have supported research, and graduates from those universities are being hired in higher numbers than before by our member companies. And when we ask our members how satisfied they are with those hires, compared to the candidates coming out of the same schools ten years ago, we're consistently told that there is no comparison. They no longer have to introduce them to our technology.

Truly, we have seen that research is education.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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