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Engineers Without Borders conference report: how can we provide a global engineering education?

16 April 2013

Ele Cooper reports on the key highlights and debates from last week's EWB conference.

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

Image: an EWB volunteer works on a project in the Philippines

Friday’s Engineers without Borders (EWB) conference, which focused on 'Going Global', threw up a number of interesting issues surrounding the international aspects of engineering education.

Dean of UCL Engineering Professor Anthony Finkelstein opened proceedings by making an interesting, perhaps even controversial, point: “Engineering education isn’t rocket science (except when it is).”

He argued that students constantly tell us what they want from their courses – more problem-based learning, team-based activities, engagement with employers, and context to name but a few – but very often we don’t listen. Engineering schools teach and assess too much and the modular style of course delivery ill suits the way engineering works in the real world. Global engagement, said Anthony, is the answer to all of these issues.

The keynote speech was given by Joanne Beale, Technical Programme Officer at WaterAid and Visiting Teaching Fellow in Humanitarian Engineering at Coventry University. Joanne used her stage time to describe the qualities of a global engineer which, according to her, include the ability to cope with uncertainty and a determination to challenge stereotypes.

Joanne said that at university, she was only taught the technical aspects of the job. Any engineer using these skills without understanding the importance of context is not a good engineer, and it's only the good engineers that solve problems. She hadn't at any point been trained to think about the vital importance of asking questions about the people, lives and livelihoods that engineering projects affect. Joanne became particularly aware of the limited nature of her formal engineering training while thinking about the skills and qualities she'd need in her work on the Dar es Salaam 2010-2030 Master Plan, when she realised that only three out of the 12 on her list had been gained at university.

Joanne’s 'university versus industry' table illustrated neatly and effectively the vast gap between the two ‘versions’ of engineering. At university, problems tend to have a correct or incorrect solution; students work on their own and are given little context in which to consider their tasks; they are also provided with all the information they’ll need to find a solution. None of this reflects real life. She argued that we need to address the disconnect and teach complementary soft, as well as technical, skills.

I must admit that hearing all of this made me feel quite proud of the fact that UCL is making such a concerted effort to tackle the problem: with extensive scenario-based learning exercises going on in various engineering departments (see case study links at bottom of article for examples), and John Mitchell’s work on the Integrated Engineering Programme, it’s clear that this is an area the Faculty is taking seriously.

Field trips and failure

The importance of gaining real-life experience was highlighted in a workshop led by Michael Shaw, who recently returned from a year-long project at the Royal University of Phnom Penh organised by EWB Australia. Michael is now based in Australia, running study tours for academics, students and corporate clients who want to see real-life development projects for themselves.

Lasting for two or three weeks, the trips aren’t long enough for visitors to properly get involved in the projects or learn the technicalities of what’s going on, but they do enable them to understand first-hand how engineering operates in its global, real-life setting – an invaluable opportunity for anyone working in or studying engineering.

Michael’s trips take people to Cambodia, India and the Murray-Darling Basin in Australia. He pointed out that a lot of academics have excellent technical knowledge but no first-hand experience of working in the field, and this form of short-term ‘work experience’ is invariably useful to people in this situation. The EWB representative present at the session advised that the best way for UK-based academics to get involved with these sorts of opportunities is to sign up to EWB’s Academic Community email lists.

The final workshop I attended was centred around failure (not the jolliest note to end the day on but useful all the same). EWB Canada has set up an Admitting Failure website together with a consultancy called Fail Forward, allowing organisations to discuss and learn from one another’s failures and avoid repeating the same mistakes in the future. The workshop discussion centred around whether it would be useful to incorporate this as a theme in engineering degree courses (the answer to which was a resounding and unanimous ‘yes’). A few key examples were discussed, perhaps the most infamous of which was the PlayPumps fiasco, and it was generally agreed that using case studies to educate students about the importance of planning, pilot projects, effective project management and the all-important consideration of context could only be a good thing.

It was a fascinating day and I was heartened to see how seriously both industry and academics are taking the need to globalise engineering education. UCL is certainly a leading institution when it comes to this area and it will be interesting to see how things develop both here and of course globally over the coming months and years. 

Links and resources

Page last modified on 16 apr 13 12:55

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