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Is engineering in HE "really not good enough"?

27 March 2012

Ele Cooper attends the Global Engineering Education Conference and finds a crowd frustrated with the status quo and hungry for change.

A volunteer works on an Engineers Without Borders/SIBAT project in the Philippines

Image: an EWB placement volunteer working with community members in the Philippines.

An impatient yet optimistic tone was struck at yesterday’s Global Engineering Education Conference, which was organised by Engineers Without Borders (EWB) UK and Engineers Against Poverty and attended by practising engineers, academics and students.

Professor Anthony Finkelstein, Executive Dean of UCL Engineering (which hosted the event), opened proceedings on a poignant note, describing how his father – a former political prisoner of Kazakhstan and subsequent refugee – was driven to become an engineer as a direct result of his experiences of poverty.

“UCL Engineering’s strapline is ‘Change the world’,” said Finkelstein. “It’s not about change through research, it’s about change through practice in industry.”

This pressing need to change the world through real-life practice was the key theme of the day, with a range of eminent engineers and fired-up students all speaking of the importance of scenario-based, change-effecting coursework in a modernised curriculum.

No one made this point more eloquently than second-year student Alexa Bruce, head of EWB UCL, who said, “The one-dimensional interpretation of engineering which focuses solely on technical aspects needs to be challenged in education at every level.”

At UCL, this is being achieved through ‘scenarios’, regular week-long projects in which students work in groups to solve real-life problems, taking into account a wide range of considerations. This type of work allows the development of key skills including teamwork, leadership and critical analysis.

In his presentation, Dr Michael Ramage told the conference about two similarly ambitious initiatives organised by the Departments of Engineering and Architecture at the University of Cambridge. In the Ecohouse Research Cluster, which students from all years can get involved in, a flat-pack home is erected in two days and then studied to see how it would fare for sanitation and insulation in developing countries.

4D13, a fourth-year Cambridge project, requires students to work in groups to come up with ways to solve a genuine problem in Zambia whereby pupils are frequently unable to go to school due to flooding (a floating school was just one of the ideas to emerge from this year’s cohort).

Experience has shown that these types of practical projects are hugely successful in engaging students. However, the general consensus at the conference was that there is not enough of this type of work going on in higher education. Petter Matthews, Executive Director of Engineers Against Poverty, said that this is partly due to fears that focusing on international concerns such as sustainability could “dilute” engineering as a subject.

Matthews talked about a project he is working on called ‘A Global Dimension for Engineering Education’, which has been created to try and address this problem. The project group is working with five universities (Liverpool, Plymouth, Queen’s, Derby and Northumbria) to produce case studies on how engineering departments can operate in a global dimension, as well as compiling an online database of resources and case studies and eventually publishing a toolkit, workshop guide and a book. Matthews was keen to emphasise that we don’t need to create new curricula, merely teach existing curricula in different ways.

While many universities say that they are willing to work towards this, Matthews reported that a gap exists between rhetoric and reality. However, the future looks bright for the inclusion of a global dimension in HE courses: according to small-scale research conducted by the project group, “students want it, employers want it and a growing cadre of academic staff also want it”.

But we’re a long way from achieving this – in fact Professor Paul Ivey, Dean of Engineering at Coventry University, bluntly entitled his presentation ‘Engineering Education UK: it is really not good enough’, unequivocally summarising his opinion of the current state of play.

According to Ivey, the prevailing method of assessment – written examinations in which students have exactly the right amount of information to answer the question – is a huge problem. As Ivey pointed out, it’s a wholly unrealistic scenario: in working life, engineers constantly have to make judgment calls without knowing all the ins and outs of the situation; in other words, they rarely have the ‘right amount’ of information. Therefore we need to move away from traditional assessment methods and look for alternatives that allow students to showcase the skills and expertise that really matter.

Employers want graduates to have the ability to think laterally and work effectively in teams. Ivey argued that 18 year olds arrive at university already equipped with these ‘soft skills’, but by the time they leave, they have lost them. “We aren’t teaching students the fundamental mechanisms by which problems are solved,” he said.

In an attempt to investigate this further, Ivey set first-year students problem-solving tasks which they did not have the technical knowledge to be able to answer. However, with a bit of lateral thinking and teamwork, some students were able to explain why the Farnborough air crash happened. Ivey’s experiment resulted in a 10% increase in the course’s pass rate, a 26% increase in student satisfaction, and the drop out rate falling from 3% to 0.9%.

Modifying courses to include exercises like this, argued Ivey, will produce “graduates with character – that is, the awkward squad who are not prepared to put up with the status quo”. And the consensus at the Global Engineering Education Conference was that this is precisely what we need, now more than ever.

Ivey closed his speech by describing the situation in the Bangladeshi city of Chittagong, where thousands of people are killed in floods every few years. “Engineers have known how to keep the water out for the past 300 years yet still nothing has been done to put this knowledge into practice,” he said. “Where’s the anger? I’m getting too old to wait.”

Indeed, the entire room seemed desperate for students to become consumed by this anger – and it would seem that the key to igniting it lies in exactly the kind of reality-laced, globally informed engineering education that the day’s speakers were so keen for practitioners throughout HE to bring about.

Page last modified on 27 mar 12 15:02


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