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Engineering branches out

A new Poli-USP program plans to train engineers who specialize in solving large-scale problems using multidisciplinary approaches

ZanskyThe University of São Paulo Polytechnic School (Poli-USP) plans to launch a new program called complexity engineering. Now that the program has been approved by the Congregation, the school’s advisory and decision-making body, it is being set up with researchers from the Écoles Centrales Group, which comprises five of the leading engineering schools in France. It will have a broader focus than the other courses Poli offers. “The idea is that complexity engineering will develop strategies for designing new products, production processes and innovation and research activities based on multidisciplinary approaches,” according to Laerte Idal Sznelwar of the Department of Production Engineering at Poli and coordinator of the team in charge of designing the program, which still needs to be approved by the University Board, USP’s most powerful collegial body.

As is the case for the other types of engineering, complexity engineering at Poli will be based on physical and mathematical sciences. However, once its course requirements are established, it should also be possible to incorporate concepts from other fields of knowledge which, according to Sznelwar, engineers should take into account in their professional activity. “Increasingly, these professionals will face situations that require solutions based on areas of knowledge they have not necessarily mastered,” says naval engineer Bernardo Andrade of the Poli Naval and Oceanic Engineering Department and member of the executive committee in charge of the new project’s design. “We propose investing in training engineers who can combine knowledge from various fields to develop more integrated solutions for large-scale problems.”

The complexity engineering program is expected to be offered at the Poli campus in Baixada Santista, on the coast of São Paulo State, near the port and the Cubatão industrial complex. The idea is to bring students and professors closer together to address the challenges companies in that region face. Students will have to carry out projects to apply the knowledge they acquired throughout the program to solve problems and design projects in areas such as planning and integration of urban mobility activities, environmental recovery and preservation, development of technology innovation centers, and processes to explore maritime resources.

An up-and-coming field
The field of engineering has grown into one of the most attractive careers in recent years in Brazil. In 2000, nearly 18,000 professionals were trained in Brazil; in 2014, the figure jumped to almost 68,000 according to the Survey of Higher Education of the National Institute for Educational Studies and Research of the Ministry of Education (MEC). Despite the considerable increase, it should be noted that, when compared to other countries, Brazil still lags behind in the number of engineers produced.

According to data from the Institute for Statistics of the United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO), Russia had the largest number of engineers trained in 2015, with 454,436 professionals. The United States ranked second, with 237,826, while Iran came in third, with 233,695. The figures for training engineers in South Korea, in fifth place, are impressive. In the 1980s, South Korea reorganized its education system to boost training for these professionals. In 2015, South Korea trained 147,858 engineers.

In Brazil, engineering programs are still dealing with a high dropout rate. In 2013, the rate was 28% for private programs, well above the 10% in the public education system for the same period, according to a report by the USP Observatory of Innovation and competitiveness (OIC). “We don’t know why students drop out since there are no detailed studies on this topic,” explains professor Mario Sergio Salerno, coordinator of the Poli Innovation Management Laboratory and one of the authors of the study.

One possible reason is how the programs are organized. “Many are full-time and require students to have a solid base in subjects such as mathematics and physics, which are essential for training good engineers,” Salerno explains. “But in many cases students have to work and are unable to reconcile their jobs with their study obligations.” For private universities, in addition to the high cost of engineering programs, many students come in without a good knowledge of disciplines that are important for the field. “Faced with growing problems, many drop out of school,” Salerno says.

Salerno also commented on the relationship between the demand for engineering programs and the pace of economic activity in Brazil. He believes this is because engineering is usually sensitive to Brazil’s economic investment scenario. The OIC found that between 2009 and 2010, new enrollments in engineering programs in Brazil were up 19%. In 2011, the figure was 26% compared to 2010. The highest percentage of new enrollments was between 2011 and 2012, at 31%. Programs with the strongest demand were civil and production engineering. In 2000, 5,220 individuals graduated with civil engineering degrees, and 344 received production engineering degrees. One decade later, in 2013, there were 13,619 graduates in civil engineering and 12,181 in production engineering.

With regard to the labor market, the report found that the number of engineers hired in Brazil has soared in the last three decades. In 1985 there were 156,584 employed engineers. In 2013 that figure climbed to 272,110. There were two periods of hiring peaks for engineers: 2007-2008 and 2009-2010. Despite the prevalence of civil engineers (about 30%), more hiring of production engineers was observed. In 2003, these professionals accounted for 10% of the roughly 150,000 engineers hired, and in 2013, they accounted for 15% of the total.

Jobs in the engineering field tend to recover more quickly after economic downturns and increase faster than in other categories, according to electronic engineer and economist Carlos Américo Pacheco, former president of the Technological Institute of Aeronautics (ITA) and current Chief Executive Officer of the FAPESP Executive Board. “The challenge now is to offer better job prospects for engineers so that the market can accommodate all the professionals that graduate in Brazil,” he comments.

Engineering professors and researchers have had ongoing discussions concerning the profile of these professionals, improving teaching quality and preparing students for the job market. “In Brazil we are not training the type of engineers we need,” says electronic engineer Edson Watanabe, director of the Alberto Luiz Coimbra Institute for Graduate Studies and Engineering Research of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (Coppe-UFRJ). He is referring to engineers who are able to develop innovative solutions in a different area, creating new technologies for products and processes and generating innovation in companies that work in a number of fields as they effect changes and new ways of doing business.

“The phase of super-specialized engineering is just about over,” says electrical engineer João Zuffo, retired Poli professor (see Interview). “An engineer has to be able to quickly delve into a field and have a strong foundation in mathematics, physics, and humanities. The world of tomorrow will not have room for purely technical professionals. Education has to be flexible to adjust to changes,” he adds.

According to metallurgical engineer Ericksson Rocha e Almendra, former director of the URFJ Polytechnic School, the interdisciplinary concept can no longer be separated from the science development process. Both have to be encouraged among the various types of engineering.

“Today it is unthinkable that environmental engineers would not work with sociologists on large-scale forest projects involving expropriations of residential dwellings,” he says. According to Pacheco, one strategy to achieve this is to invest in educational innovations. “It is also important to pay attention to experiences outside Brazil and to invest in internationalizing Brazilian schools,” he says.