Time to push the secret art of built-engineering

March 29, 2002

Hundreds of skilled engineers are needed to help us fashion a better world, says Richard Haryott.

We live in a wonderful world and a wonderful age. All around us there are opportunities for people to develop new ideas and new solutions to old problems, and to use these ideas and solutions to improve the wealth and wellbeing of all the inhabitants of our planet. The vision and the will to grasp the opportunities has never been more important.

We have a precious environment to protect and enhance. We have billions of people in the world who do not have the knowledge and skills that are needed to contribute to the process. All these opportunities bring with them a new challenge that, on the face of it, seems curious. The challenge is that we are staring at a potentially catastrophic shortage of the skilled engineers who are probably the only people who will be able to fashion the better world we seek to create. The curious thing is that this should be so.

A report for The Ove Arup Foundation, by David Gann of the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex, notes, among other things, that bright young people today have quite different aspirations from those of 20 years ago. Then, in what Gann describes as the machine age, they sought careers and perhaps some structure to their working world. Today, in the digital age they seek opportunities and perhaps fluidity. They would like opportunities to be creative. They enjoy technology and are computer literate. Many also like the idea of having an opportunity to do something good for the environment in which we live.

Given that this is what many bright young people would aspire to, why is there an unprecedented fall in applications to read engineering at university? In the United Kingdom, applications in most disciplines, and certainly those in the built environment, have fallen by some 50 per cent in five years. And they are still falling. The problem is not confined to the UK but affects, to a greater or lesser extent, much of the western world. There are, no doubt, many reasons. But one of the biggest reasons is that the fact that engineering is a highly creative art, although obviously requiring a deep understanding of the exciting sciences that underpin it, is something of a secret.

For the most part, young people at 15 or 16 do not know what they want to be. They do not even know what there is to be. When they seek guidance at school, and want to study something at university that will open up options, instead of closing them, engineering will not be presented to them as one of those subjects. To most careers teachers, the art of engineering is also a secret. And that is not surprising given that the material they are given to work with portrays much of it as a subject to be chosen for those who already want to study it. No good if you don't know what you want to be.

To compound this problem of the art being something of a secret is the fact that too much of engineering education has been devoted to the science element, and not enough to the art and to stimulating creative thought. Combining the two ingredients from the start of an undergraduate course would make it much more obvious that engineering is one of the best things to study if you do not know what you want to be.

At a presentation to businessmen, academics and engineering institutions, held at Imperial College, London, Chris Wise, who holds a chair of creative design funded by the Ove Arup Foundation, showed how an already world-class civil engineering course could be dramatically improved by having an obvious and effective creative design theme throughout it.

As a result, many more able students will be attracted to read engineering in the first place. The creative thread will be obvious, as will the fact that engineering is an ideal subject to read if you want opportunities, and don't know what you want to be. Those who do read engineering quickly come to understand this last point. At some of our best universities about 50 per cent of graduates leave engineering to pursue other careers, other opportunities. The learning experience was ideal: creativity, analysis, synthesis, ability to understand other disciplines, work in teams, communicate and lead. If we do not grasp this opportunity, the consequences hardly bear thinking about. The UK has provided many of the best built-environment engineers working all over the world. The supply will dry up. Engineering courses are expensive to run, and many will be closed. Some people may say, "so what, we can always import the skills we need". But I do not think we can. And there is no need. The creative route is the exciting one. We will all be the richer.

Richard Haryott is chairman of The Ove Arup Foundation and a vice-president of the Institution of Civil Engineers. This article represents his personal view.

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