Putting the world back in working order

Engineering's decline in popularity could be reversed by showing potential students its power to tackle global challenges ranging from sustainability to energy security, says J.D. Turner

April 29, 2010

For the past few decades the popularity of university-level engineering has declined along with most of the other disciplines - science, technology and mathematics - collectively known as STEM subjects. Much energy has been expended trying to determine why. The theories include the perceived difficulty of mathematically based subjects, the dumbing-down of A levels, academic fashion and employability issues. The truth may be simpler and is perhaps captured by this recent remark by an 18-year-old: "Engineering seems really dull!" Her perception of dreariness may stem from the fact that if your information is based on what appears in the general press, there isn't much excitement in the world of engineering now.

When I was at school in the late 1970s, technology was exciting. The Apollo space programme was still under way, Concorde was being test-flown from Fairford (up the road from my school) and we were promised 200mph tilting trains. On a sixth-form trip to the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell we were shown a fusion reactor and promised "limitless free power by the year 2000". It was the tail end of Harold Wilson's "white heat" of technology, and those of us studying physics and chemistry really felt that we were about to join an elite. Then Mrs Thatcher came to power, and the long decline of British industry began. Suddenly there was little manufacturing, most of the grands projets were cancelled, and the UK lost much of its ability to build aircraft and cars overnight.

When I was at school we also had really good teachers, most of whom had come into teaching after careers elsewhere. In my very ordinary comprehensive school, the head of physics was an ex-RAF pilot, the head of chemistry had worked at Imperial Chemical Industries, and my maths teacher had been employed at Harwell. All of them could illuminate what we were taught with fascinating real-life applications. By contrast, the teachers I meet now have almost always entered the profession as new graduates and have no experience outside the classroom. The importance of interesting and inspirational teachers with real-life experience is another critical factor driving student choices.

There are far fewer inspiring technology initiatives these days and a lot of the press coverage of engineering is negative. Students in schools and colleges are far more likely to worry about global warming or the problems caused by industrialisation than to dream, as I did, of taking part in the race to build the world's first supersonic transport. This may at least partly explain the decline of interest in engineering and the STEM subjects.

The final reason for the decline is, I fear, the way in which the subject is too often taught by universities. Engineering has become a very traditional subject. The well-intentioned control exerted by the Engineering Council and its constituency of engineering institutions tends to stifle curriculum innovation. The professional-body accreditation process is still very prescriptive and to a large extent dictates the curriculum to be taught and even the amount of time devoted to each subject. Engineering students are notorious for (and rather proud of) the fact that they have a famously heavy timetable. Up to 20 hours per week of formal lectures and seminars supported by a further 15 hours or so of timetabled laboratory work is the norm. Little time is left for discussion and private study.

We need a fundamental revision of how engineering is taught at degree level. If engineering courses were perceived as fun, relevant and the gateway to a good career they would be more attractive, and the decline of students could be reversed.

How, then, do we make engineering more interesting? We need to make the curriculum more relevant to the issues that concern potential students. The things that engage a modern 18-year-old are not those that concerned my generation.

So what does occupy potential (or current) students? A number of themes can be identified, all of them important to society, but few of which are considered to any great extent by current engineering courses. A radical curriculum review to incorporate these emerging themes into engineering courses could do much to improve recruitment.

The five themes we neglect in most of our current courses are: society's need for sustainable supplies of energy, water, food and healthcare; society's need for security; the trend towards globalisation and internationalisation; the trend towards "mass customisation"; and the changing nature of society itself.

Sustainable engineering should include low- or zero-carbon technology, renewable energy, sustainable food supplies, and design for refurbishment rather than renewal. These are all important topics for engineers, and some already feature to some extent in current syllabuses. Their importance is likely to grow.

The security of supply of water, food, energy and healthcare are barely mentioned in most engineering courses. Engineers have a big part to play in designing devices and systems to ensure the security of individuals, and of society more generally. After all, without civil, mechanical and electrical engineers, water will not come out of the taps, the lights will go out and there will be no supermarkets selling food. Security of supply is a critical topic for society, and engineers are vital to ensure it happens.

It used to be said that society is only three meals away from revolution. It is equally true to say that society is only three dustbin collections away from anarchy - or, without fuel, only three weeks away from collapse. It is, of course, engineers who ensure that we are provided with fuel, power, water and food, and that waste material is removed efficiently.

Society consists of large and complex systems and the links that tie them together. However, engineers normally consider only components or small systems, possibly because these are easy to describe, well bounded and measurable. For the security of society, it is vital that subsystem and intersystem links are maintained in a secure way. For example, much of Europe's gas supply comes from Russia via Eastern Europe, and as we saw recently, it is vulnerable to interruption. A worrying amount of the world's energy supply comes from politically unstable parts of the globe. However, the links between energy engineering and politics do not form part of an engineering curriculum.

There is a growing need to identify these linkages, and the drivers for change, and this information should form part of the engineering curriculum. No study of energy supply can be undertaken without considering the management of risk (should we rely on Russian gas?) and ethics (should we export industrial waste to the Third World for reprocessing?). Universities should take a lead on these exciting questions and should link their leadership to expertise and technology. There is a real need for engineers to interact with social scientists, particularly in dealing with risk. The concepts of risk and risk-based decision-making should be introduced as key drivers in engineering education.

Globalisation affects almost every competitive commercial activity, and universities are not immune to its effects. The English language is probably the UK's greatest advantage, but this is gradually being eroded as more courses are taught in English throughout Europe. Any major disturbance to the reputation of UK higher education would lead to serious problems for most British engineering departments. It is not yet clear whether the Bologna Process is such a disturbance, but making our courses more Bologna-compliant would seem sensible.

Mass customisation, in which a mass-produced product is to some extent personalised at the point of delivery, has not taken off in the way that was expected when the idea took hold a decade ago. However, customer behaviour has nonetheless changed and this trend is affecting education. There is an increasing assumption that personalised learning should be easy to acquire and that programmes should adapt their methods of delivery to varying learning styles and preferred methods of study.

So there are lots of interesting and relevant topics in engineering and we could do a lot more to include such material in our courses. The next question is how to deliver the material in a more engaging way.

We currently teach the core engineering disciplines: fluid dynamics, thermodynamics, structures, materials, electronics and so on. These subjects are too often delivered in a way that is divorced from their application to subject areas that interest our students. We need to move away from our reliance on traditional teaching and make more use of project-based and work-based learning (eg, placements) to convey engineering principles.

An educational framework known as CDIO, or Conceive-Design-Implement- Operate (see box, left) has been shown to be a powerful tool for teaching engineering. It uses a project-based approach to learning rather than traditional pedagogy. This has been shown to be more attractive to students than the traditional academic and mathematical approach to engineering education.

There is far too much early specialisation in most UK engineering degrees. Employers want well-rounded, mature graduates with a good understanding of the principles of engineering as well as excellent team-working and management skills. Employers do not generally require highly developed expertise in a narrow field that will rapidly become obsolete. Much of what we teach at first-degree level has a "half-life" of no more than three years: in other words, half of what an engineering graduate has learned will be out of date three years after graduation. It would be much better if we offered general first-degree courses that imparted engineering principles, as well as an understanding of risk, project management skills, and an appreciation of the place of ethics in engineering. These subjects could be covered in an introductory three-year course, followed if required by specialist industry-led master's courses. In passing I note that this approach would be better aligned with the principles enshrined in the Bologna Agreement than our current arrangements.

We need to take a hard look at the engineering curriculum, how it is delivered and how to make it appear more relevant to our potential customers, who are probably aged 12 to 17. We need to understand what is important to them, what they care about and what motivates them. If we could convey the message "the world is in a mess and engineers are going to be the people who sort it out in a sustainable way", we'd do a lot for student recruitment.

READY FOR THE WORLD: A rounded education to meet all challenges

CDIO stands for Conceive-Design-Implement-Operate. The CDIO teaching methodology was developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the late 1990s and has since been enhanced by many other university departments.

The need for CDIO arose when employers began to complain that graduates, while technically adept, lacked many of the abilities required by real-world engineering.

The CDIO approach is designed to produce technically expert, socially aware and entrepreneurially astute professional engineers who will become the next engineering leaders.

Team projects undertaken in workshops and laboratories are central to CDIO learning. These projects support active and hands-on learning including experimentation, social interaction, team building and team activity.

CDIO has particular space requirements. "Conceive spaces" are largely technology-free zones that encourage interpersonal interaction and include team and personal spaces conducive to reflection and conceptual development. Facilities must also be provided that allow the use of digitally enhanced collaborative design and allow students to build hardware and software. Operation is taught by providing environments where students undertake experiments, individually or in groups, and participate in academic-led class experiments. Simulations of real operations and digital links to real environments can be used to supplement the experience.

Use of the CDIO approach in more engineering courses would be a good first step towards making them more attractive - thereby increasing recruitment.

TEACHING POINTS: How to build a sound curriculum

There are a number of key principles that apply to any higher education curriculum, including engineering. The following points are critical:

- A curriculum must develop skills and attributes for employability and lifelong learning.

- Academic literacy, information literacy, IT skills, research skills and critical and creative thinking must be imparted.

- Any course of degree-level study should be underpinned by scholarship and research that supports transitions to, within and beyond higher education.

- Opportunities for real-world or work-related learning must form part of the curriculum.

- Personalised learning must be supported and promoted by a framework that helps students exercise choice, plan their personal and academic development, and document their progress.

- The curriculum must make use of a blended learning environment, and appropriate resources must be provided to support and enrich learning.

- The curriculum must incorporate active, engaging and relevant learning, teaching and assessment strategies to develop self-aware, well-motivated, enterprising and independent learners.

- Assessment and feedback must be used to promote, as well as to measure, learning.

- All courses, in whatever discipline, must prepare students for international citizenship.

- Curricula must be inclusive and designed to take account of the diverse learning needs of students and to promote equality of opportunity.

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