How is the course structured?
At the start of the Bachelor's course, students consider the Mathematics and Natural Science fundamentals of the discipline in lectures and seminars. This includes Mathematics, Materials Science, Design Studies, Electrical Engineering and Mechanics ? challenging subjects that most first semester students find hard going. "It is very dry at the start," recalls Andreas Kopf, who is in the fourth semester of Mechanical Engineering at Karlsruhe Institute for Technology (KIT). "But you need the fundamentals for the subsequent practical work." During so-called projection courses, students work on tasks together. Andreas Kopf is currently designing a moped on the computer with a fellow student, "From the suspension to the wheel bearings to the braking system". During lab sessions, students conduct Physics experiments and implement the theory they have learned on magnetism, radioactivity and optics. The subjects covered are varied. "I investigated individual machine components using ultrasound. In another experiment, I had to separate two alcohols, which had been combined," tells David Wackerbauer, who is in the fourth semester of Mechanical Engineering at RWTH Aachen University of Applied Sciences. Knowledge is generally assessed in exams at the end of the semester. Mechanical Engineering students work on their Bachelor's dissertation for three months prior to graduation. The foundation subjects are the same everywhere, though a specialisation can be chosen for the Bachelor's courses at some universities. At the RWTH Aachen University of Applied Sciences, options include Automation Engineering and Disposal Engineering, and at the Technical University Munich, Aeronautical and Aerospace Engineering. The vast majority of mechanical engineers, who graduate from a university, and more than half of those, who graduate from a university of applied sciences, complement their Bachelor's degree with a Master's degree. The Master's courses develop the foundation subjects in three to four semesters. The course is often merely called Mechanical Engineering, though the offerings vary depending on the university. At the universities in Hanover and Munich, the focus is on Medical Technology, for example, while at the universities in Stuttgart and Braunschweig, it is on the Automotive Engineering. Hamburg University of Applied Sciences specialises in Aviation Engineering, and the HTW University of Applied Sciences Berlin in Simulation. Universities of applied sciences and universities impart similar material, though the forms of mediation and the focus can vary. Students at the universities of applied sciences should rapidly be in a position to handle typical tasks from the real working world. At the universities, students are called upon more to "research and solve problems that have never been considered before", says Manfred Hampe, Professor for Mechanical Engineering at the Technical University Darmstadt. Countless universities of applied sciences and some universities offer Mechanical Engineering as part of a dual study programme. There is a severe lack of female students within this discipline. 90 per cent of those to sign up for the Mechanical Engineering course in the 2010/2011 winter semester were male. The low proportion of females is primarily due to a misconception, suspects Gerhard Hörber, Professor for Mechanical Engineering at the HTW Berlin. "Mechanical engineers are not mechanics in grey overalls, who attempt to squeeze the last remaining horsepower out of a machine." The work mainly takes place at a desk and in front of a computer screen. "The women, who are there, do assert themselves though," observes Hörber. "There simply aren't enough of them."
The computer is meanwhile the most important tool for mechanical engineers. Machines that once had to be tested using prototypes, such as a vehicle's behaviour, can today be simulated. Students use computer-based construction programs to develop and optimise processes and components. There are work stations for this at the universities; at home, a powerful laptop is required. The high-tech everyday life has also changed the use of literature. Instead of exclusively searching for reading materials in their university library, students also view online expert publications to acquire specialist knowledge. While engineers once worked through the development stages from design to the prototype to series production, a great deal happens in parallel today. While one team is still considering how the product should look, another is already optimising the production line. Hence the universities are increasingly focusing on courses in which concrete projects are considered. At the Technical University Darmstadt, for example, students work in teams to construct a gearbox or drilling machine.
Aptitude, obstacles and misconceptions
Aspiring mechanical engineers should not shy from linear equations, exponential functions and complex numbers. There is no need either, as the universities support their students with tutorials and exercises. There are often also special preparation courses before the start of studies. At the universities of applied sciences and many universities, students must complete a work placement before commencing the course, though there is sometimes the option of making up for this later on. David Wackerbauer, a student in Aachen, has already worked at two different companies ? in the assembly and quality control departments. He particularly likes the supplementary courses offered as part of the course: "Last semester, a NASA space shuttle crew paid us a visit. Their presentation was two hours long ? what an experience!" he reports. Despite the heavy workload, Mechanical Engineering counts among the most popular academic disciplines in Germany. It cannot be easy to start at a university with hundreds of others. "Even in the third semester, I found myself sitting next to people that I had never seen before," tells David Wackerbauer. He doesn't find it a bad thing though. "There are set groups with whom you can learn and have fun, but at the same time, you can continually meet new people." Many universities have introduced admission restrictions; over half allocate course places according to the marks achieved in the Abitur school leaving certificate giving right of entry to higher education, whereby the marks achieved in Mathematics and Physics sometimes carry more weigh. Some universities conduct additional selection interviews for the Bachelor's course. Admission to the Master's course is also restricted in part. There is no shortage of places though, emphasises Professor Manfred Hampe from Darmstadt.
Mechanical engineers develop cars or regenerative energy systems such as pumped-storage plants, and work as aerospace engineers on engines for aircraft and satellites. Graduates also work in sales or customer service, as well as at insurance companies, as those wishing to insure industrial plants must know how they are built to be able to estimate their value. However, the largest employment sector, employing a workforce of over 900,000 and yielding annual turnover of around 170 billion euros, is plant and machine engineering. Mechanical engineers earn good money: the average starting salary is around 40,000 EUR. Regardless of the economic situation, the demand for engineers will remain high in the future, predicts Lars Funk, Head of Work and Society at the Association of German Engineers (Verein Deutscher Ingenieure ? VDI). Mechanical engineers count among the most sought after employees. Funke warns against specialising too soon. "Engineers familiar with wind energy are currently in demand, for example, but no one can say how things will look in ten years time. What can be said is that engineers will be needed."
REPORT BY: ALINA SCHADWINKEL
studieninfo.ftmv.de: Homepage of the mechanical engineering and process engineering association (Fakultätentag Maschinenbau und Verfahrenstechnik) with a comprehensive overview of all universities at which technical subjects can be studied.
karriere-im-maschinenbau.org: The German Engineering Federation (Verband Deutscher Maschinen- und Anlagenbau ? VDMA) provides details of courses and dual study programmes in addition to specialisations. The site additionally features a database of school work placements.