DETROIT – The auto industry’s fast charge toward hybrid and electric vehicles and increasingly blurry lines between mechanical and electronic systems have created a knowledge gap leading engineering educators say they now are moving quickly to close.

“The industry has been facing a need, and academia should have been able to respond but was struggling,” Tom Lee, who leads educational initiatives for Canadian modeling-software developer Maplesoft, says during a panel discussion at SAE Convergence 2010 here.

“Now it is beginning to respond.”

Universities have been called out more than once by the National Academy of Engineering, which in 2004 said education was sorely lagging the pace of industry development, Leo E. Hanifin, dean and Chrysler professor of engineering at the University of Detroit Mercy, points out.

Among the barriers, educators want freedom to shape individual courses, but that’s at odds with the need for a more cohesive approach to the study of engineering, Hanifin says. Teachers sometimes have different priorities than practicing engineers, and industry hasn’t always been supportive.

NAE President Charles Vest, Hanifin says, once crystallized the situation this way: Faculty won’t play and industry won’t pay.

But programs such as the year-old collaboration between UDM and Ford Motor Co. that offers courses on advanced EVs are beginning to fill the void and may help shape additional educational opportunities for engineering students and professionals.

The UDM-Ford program was pulled together quickly, going from its initial concept to a fully fleshed-out agenda over a 5-month period in 2009. It was kicked off just four months later in January 2010.

That’s the kind of fast track needed if academia is to stem criticism it’s not up to the engineering-education task, Hanifin says.

Between concept and launch there were some snags, the UDM professor acknowledges. The program pairs a faculty member teaching a specific course with a Ford engineer considered an expert in the field.

The initial idea was to embed teachers at Ford for several weeks, allowing them to shadow engineers through daily meetings in order to get a feel for specific issues and demands that would help shape study courses. But concerns over exposing trade secrets held tightly by Ford and its suppliers tempered the amount of inside access the university was allowed.

Despite the early hiccup, the project has been successful, Hanifin says. Ford, which initially promised to send 125 engineers through the program overall, will sponsor 45 staffers in the next round that begins in January.

“That’s nearly double what was planned,” he says. Ford had 30 of the initial 45 seats for this year’s program, which has completed four of its seven courses so far.

Thanks in part to some public money, a number of other programs aimed at training engineers in advanced vehicle technology are cropping up.

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One sponsored by the Michigan Academy for Green Mobility Alliance (MAGMA), and backed by government funding, offers a multi-disciplinary approach to hybrid- and battery-engineering study at Michigan Technological University and Detroit-based Wayne State University.

The 1-semester course provides undergrad certificates in hybrid-vehicle engineering and graduate certification in advanced hybrids and electric drive systems.

In another project sponsored by General Motors Co., Michigan Tech offered hybrid-vehicle courses to some 60-plus unemployed engineers to give them the expertise auto makers are seeking.

GM opened up its powertrain facilities to the students, provided track time at its Milford, MI, proving grounds and turned its engine dynamometers over to the group for a day to provide students with some practical experience, says Michigan Tech Professor Jeffrey D. Naber.

“MAGMA now has additional funds, so there will be an opportunity for more engineers to take the courses,” Naber notes.

Other universities are focusing more energy on the marriage between mechanical and electrical/electronic systems, such as Lawrence Technological University, located in suburban Detroit. It now offers a new degree program in mechatronics that uses working experts in various fields to teach courses.

Systems integration is another industry challenge, and the University of Michigan-Dearborn is offering a specialized course using game theory to teach engineers from different disciplines how to work together, as well as with other departments, such as marketing and manufacturing.

Never think outside the box was engineering’s motto a decade ago, says UM-Dearborn’s Steven E. Underwood, director-Connected Vehicle Proving Center. “Today, you’ve got to be able to work outside your own area to build the vehicle.”

Educational gaps remain. Alisyn Malek, who joined GM in 2008 out of graduate school and now is involved in development of electric-vehicle charging systems, says there are more and more programs available to help engineers get the advanced training they require.

“But there still are not a lot of classes out there for power electronics,” she laments.

UDM’s Hanifin says programs like the one his university developed with Ford can help ensure the local industry’s future.

“This is the kind of thing our region needs,” he says. “This is still the center of the auto industry. We’re going to continue to partner on this, and we encourage others to do the same.”

dzoia@wardsauto.com