Friday, 24 April 2015

The Meaning of Silence

Most of us who write on here have written articles on the problems of engineering education in print publications.

These are usually published in engineer's professional journals or in the general press, as we have found it hard to get articles about the problems with engineering education published in journals controlled by educationalists.

Eventually we run into problems with even those publications which  will publish articles about the mismatch between engineering degrees and the engineering profession.

If we are bold and forthright in our criticism of current practice, we are told that we cannot say anything which might be thought disrespectful of individuals.

If we are more diplomatic, we are told that our new articles on the subject are just rehashing what we said before, as they have the same basic theme.

The response to the articles is consistently positive from practitioners. The most interesting thing is the response from academics. Silence. They generally speaking don't have a thing to say in public about these issues.

They only want to talk to people who agree with their basic axiom that engineering is the straightforward application of the far more difficult maths and science which they know about.

If you suggest that engineering is not the application of natural science and maths - silence.

If you suggest that the graduates they are producing are not fit to become engineers- silence.

If you suggest that a practitioner might know hard things that an academic does not - silence.

If you suggest that putting scientists and mathematicians in charge of engineering education was a bad idea - the utter silence of censorship. Not only they, but you will be silenced.

So much for the principle of academic freedom. Some things may not be said, and will not be said in peer-reviewed academic journals, or professional engineering journals.

So what does the silence mean? You can pin down academics in a corridor, and get a few answers:

1. "That's just technician level knowledge"
2. "I'm in touch with one of our alumni, and he says that engineering practice is exactly as we in academia say it is"
3. "Oh, that's the kind of thing X always says, pay no attention to him"
4. "All of our graduates get good jobs - Where's the problem?"
5. "University is about Education, not mere Training"  
6. "I AM an engineer, so the stuff I teach IS engineering"
7. "All of the faculty agree that this is what engineering is about"

There are many others, but what they all have in common is their thought-avoiding dismissiveness.

Technicians know things many professors do not. Much of this knowledge is needed to become a professional engineer, but most of what is missing is not known by technicians or academics. The technician level knowledge argument is an insult to professional engineers and technicians masquerading as an argument. Professional engineers know the theory that academics know, as well as the practicalities that technicians and professional engineers know. They will tell you that engineering is far more complex than the things they were taught in university.

The kind of alumnus who keep in touch with the kind of person who tries the "one of our alumni once told me" argument tends to be a bit of a suck-up. n=1 would not impress this kind of academic in any other sphere, but when it comes to confirmation bias, any datapoint which agrees with prejudice will do.

"That's the kind of thing X always says" is a straightforward ad hominem attack, backed again only by a lack of criticality founded in confirmation bias. Maybe that is what X always says, but please explain why he is wrong.

Data in this area is very flaky, but not so bad that we cannot say with some confidence that all of your graduates do NOT get good jobs. Many of them may not get jobs at all, and most of them will not get jobs as engineers. Would people teaching medicine be as unconcerned if less than half of their output were thought fit to practice?

Education vs training is the expression of snobbery of people who don't know what engineers do, but think that what they know is smarter than what engineers know, despite their not knowing what engineers know.

The researchers who say that they are engineers may have a point, but usually they don't. I read books by people like Vincenti, and I meet some academics who clearly know what engineering is about. I'm happy to call such people research engineers. It is very notable that such people's research is very directly useful to, and involves talking to practicing engineers.

"All of our faculty agree..." All of your faculty agree that if they are wrong about what engineering is they are going to have to do a great deal of work learning a subject they know next to nothing about from people they consider their social and intellectual inferiors. No-one will give them any reward for this work, and before they can do it, they will have to agree that they are the oompa loompas of engineering rather than the other way round.

What does the silence mean? It means that the present approach to engineering education is as morally bankrupt as it is intellectually lazy. It means that they hope we'll stop knocking if they ignore the door for long enough.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

A Whole New Engineer

David Goldberg claims that there are seven missing basics in engineering education, which are obvious to anyone who sees students attempting genuine engineering problems.

Goldberg's assertion is that universities are producing compliant drones for monolithic integrated companies which no longer exist. His Whole New Engineer is actually the old, bold engineer.

There is such a thing in engineering, unlike aviation, where they say : “There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.” 

But I digress - David was inspired by work at Olin, a small specialist private college in the US. He attempted to bring something of the feel of Olin's radically innovative approach to The University of Urbana-Champaign at Illinois.

This was (as one of the book chapter names indicates), trying to teach a big old dog new tricks. Illinois was not a small, rich, privately funded radical start-up like Olin, but a big, well-established research led (but as usual really funded by teaching) university.

He discusses how he overcame the barriers to any radical innovation in such institutions (nutshell: don't ask turkeys to vote for Xmas), and offers many insights from business change management literature.

There isn't very much activity at present in the UK driven by David's work, though there is an attempt to replicate Olin at the New Model in Technology and Engineering Institution soon to start up in Hereford. The Academic partners are two Russell Group (i.e Research led) universities, and Olin itself. It will be interesting to see how it works out.

Monday, 6 April 2015

How Can Almost Everyone Else Be Wrong, and Knud Right?

Everything I have written here is based on my claim that the entire foundation for all learned discussion of engineering education is fundamentally wrong. How is it possible that I could be right, or to put it another way, how is it possible that so many learned others are wrong?

It is not as implausible as it seems that this one small pseudonymous voice on the internet might be righter than the great and the good of the RAE, Engineering Institutions, Government, countless University Engineering and Education Departments, and his fellow professional engineers.

Firstly, those engineering departments contain very few engineers, as I define them. They may contain people who can do engineering, (or more commonly do some isolated aspect of engineering), but "Engineer" isn't just something which you do, it is something which you are.

There are disincentives for university lecturers to even learn about engineering, let alone become engineers. (These are rather selfish disincentives, but selfishness is taken for granted in academia) Promotion in academia mainly depends upon the quality and quantity of your research output. Scientific journals are deemed to have higher quality than engineering journals.

Teaching quality also comes into it nowadays, but this "teaching quality" is no such thing. The way it is measured is basically a measure of student happiness. The average engineering student likes realistic exercises, but not as much as they like spoon-feeding and high marks for low effort. It is therefore easy to manipulate. Teaching quality is in any case weighted far less heavily than research quality, so optimal teaching quality follows a j-curve.

So putting just enough effort into teaching to hit your institution's minimum teaching quality, whilst publishing as many non-engineering research papers as possible is the fast track to promotion. University lecturers are highly pressurized by management with respect to both research and teaching quality. Only the most exceptional have enough time to genuinely care about teaching. Few indeed have enough time to genuinely care about Engineering. Academics don't understand engineering.

So why don't the professionals make the academics teach what the profession needs? They also have no motivation to improve education of engineers. Their employers are not willing to pay them to do anything more than pay the odd visit to give a lecture of anecdotes from professional practice. We all know how little of our university education proved useful in professional life, but we don't give this much thought. We are too busy being engineers - it's an engrossing business. We are clear that "engineering education" is no such thing, but we have winner's complacency. We made it, so other real engineers can too. Engineers don't understand education.

If an Engineer should notice the irrelevance of the engineering education curriculum, and wish to change it, they will find another problem. Our engineering institutions are dominated by successful  academics, who have been selected in the way I explained above. I and several of my correspondents have found out by personal experience there is a great resistance to change embedded within these institutions, which brings to mind the Saber Tooth Curriculum

So the status quo sort of suits everyone involved in speaking for engineering education, and its associated profession. It brings in lots of blue-sky research money for universities, and allows practitioners to think of the irrelevant course they were made to pass as tests, whose actual content is irrelevant. Passing an engineering degree means to them simply that you are smart, hardworking and  and resilient. As I said, they don't understand education.

Engineerign employers do their own tests on the product of universities before employing them, and they reject at least half. As the selection process is pretty poor, most of this half are capable only of doing engineering. They will never be engineers. Employers consequently claim there is a shortage of engineers, and in a way they are right. Universities are not making engineers - they are making people who can do engineering.

The vested interests and narrow views of most academics, practitioners, institutions and employers stop them from seeing the inconvenient truth that what we need to do is make engineers. We could produce half as many engineering graduates as we do now, and industry would benefit far more than if we produced ten times as many of those who are presently making up the numbers on engineering courses.

But not all is lost. There are some who understand what engineers are about. Look here. Unfortunately, the system militates against anything being done about this.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

What's Wrong with Engineering Education From an Engineer's Point of View?

A lot of the difference between a beginner and an expert in engineering is to do with having a feeling for what matters. Expert engineers know which things are not going to work. They know the key metrics and heuristics which allow them to cut through complexity to be able to reliably predict the outcomes of situations which no-one can fully understand.

Vincenti explains all of this very well in "What Engineers Know and How They Know It", with the specific example of the "Flying Quality" of aircraft. Many educationalists would no doubt deny the possibility of the establishment of any reliable metrics for learning, let alone ingenuity, but I disagree.

I think that any good engineer can reliably and reproducibly tell a good engineer from a poor one sufficiently well to control the process of engineering education. Let us call the property they are estimating in making this judgement ingenuity.

As a good engineer I can tell from their average level of ingenuity that either the candidates I have been sent to make into engineers have been poorly selected, or (if these are indeed the best candidates available), the pool of sufficiently ingenious candidates is small.

I am not sure that I can see any significant differences in ingenuity between candidates of different genders, sexualities, skin colours and so on. It would not matter if I could, as it would be illegal for me to discriminate between candidates on these grounds (unless of course I was discriminating "positively", which I would rather not do).

Much of the discussion of how to improve engineering education centres on increasing numbers, both in general and of "under-represented" groups. The view of who is under-represented is however highly politicized. The great under-representation of the children of the working classes in engineering education is not apparently not a problem. The lack of a 50:50 gender ratio is however thought to be a problem. This is an ideological position, not a rational one. It is a political judgement, whose truth or otherwise is based on the acceptance or rejection of certain set of values and associated axioms.

We might set aside the issue of whether these values and axioms are right, and ask if this approach is likely to work, and if there is any evidence that it is working. But first we would have to agree about what "working" means. This is a problem I have come across many times in professional engineering practice. What is needed to resolve it rationally is an agreed metric.

In my recent discussions with Kel and Peter from the RAE, it seems clear to me that the immediate aims of the RAE's activities in encouraging applications to engineering courses are to produce twice as many engineering graduates, but that their ultimate aim is to produce more good engineers.

There is an implicit assumption in these approaches that more applicants in general, and more female applicants in particular will automatically lead to more good engineers. But this does not follow, whichever way you read the data on applications to engineering courses.

My belief is that we already train too many engineers in general, and poor engineers in particular. Even Peter's own figures suggest that almost half of our graduates are not being employed as engineers, and I think this analysis underestimates the problem due to the poor quality of its source data. Most professional engineers (including myself) think that today's engineering graduates lack ingenuity, and consider many of them unemployable as engineers.

The RAE's argument is that because some engineering courses have to go to "clearing" to make their numbers, we are not oversupplied with candidates. This to my mind still leads us to the conclusion that we have too many places available if our aim is to produce good engineers. Going to clearing means that these courses are taking on second choice students. If we believe that A-levels are measuring something which correlates with ingenuity, this dropping of standards reduces our chances of making good engineers.

Engineers have a feeling for the correct level of analysis. I have previously explained why I think analysis at the STEM level is unhelpful. Now I would like to explain why I think analysis at the "Engineering " level is unhelpful. Let us take the example of Chemical Engineering and Civil Engineering courses.

Even though only half of Chem Eng graduates get jobs as engineers, there has been a massive expansion in numbers and tariffs on Chem Eng Courses, and several new courses are being accredited. This may well be something to do that Chem Eng is the highest paid branch of engineering in the UK, more well paid than medicine. Chem Eng courses are 27% female, and Biochem Eng courses even closer to gender parity.

Contrast this with the least well paid branch of UK engineering, Civil Engineering. Civ Eng can't fill its courses, and it can't get the girls. So Civil Engineering may have a problem - does Chem Eng have the same problem? I think not. In my opinion Chem Eng is probably exceeding, and certainly approaching the saturation point for willing and able female candidates.

So it seems to me that in a system where we charge students £36K for an entry level engineering qualification, they are voting with their feet for the courses most likely to give a good return on their investment. Anyone who didn't wouldn't be a good candidate to be an engineer.

So it does not follow that some courses having difficulty making their numbers means that there is a crisis of recruitment in engineering courses. This might be a crisis for those working in the Civ Eng department, but if students don't care, and employers already have twice as many candidate as they need, why should engineering care? If we end up with too few civil engineers, it will presumably become better paid, but the laws of supply and demand suggest there are too many of them at present.

As well as the differences between disciplines, there are accredited and unaccredited courses, and courses at higher and lower status institutions. If the unaccredited courses at third rate institutions intended to cheat ill-informed students of their money (because institution and course status is often more important in the UK job market than degree classification) have difficulties filling their courses, this need not trouble Imperial College.

Employers have a vested interest in oversupply of labour, and even good universities will to some extent lay on courses for anyone willing to pay. Law now produces six times as many graduates as there are jobs as solicitors and barristers, and wages (though not fees) have crashed. We trained far too many pharmacists in recent years and what was a secure and well paid job has become akin to that of a shop assistant for many of those lucky enough to have jobs at all.

So when we strip out the unhelpful generalizations, special pleading and propaganda from vested interests, we see the following:

There is no general shortage of graduate engineers (or both employment rates and wages for graduates would be higher)

There may be local shortages of certain kinds of engineers and engineering students (but paying professional engineers more money can fix them)

Training more engineers will on the other hand not fix this problem, as it will (by increasing supply in a market which is already oversupplied) decrease both wages and the chances of employment for graduates and hence the attractiveness of undertaking our challenging and expensive courses.

Encouraging women to study engineering will not fix this problem (as there is no evidence that the profession suffers in any way because women generally prefer medicine to engineering)

It seems from Chem Eng's example that if it is politically desirable to increase the number of women in engineering education, paying engineers more seems to work.

So it looks to me as if much of what is presently being done is entirely wrong-headed, based in an uncritical acceptance of political propaganda.

We can however always use more good engineers. Maybe if we produced more of them we might once more have an economy based on designing and making things, driven by these good engineers.

In my opinion, many of the half of engineering graduates who get jobs as engineers should think themselves  lucky. More than 75% of them will never be good engineers. I have seen them in education, and I have seen them in practice, and they are just making up the numbers in my opinion.

I cannot tell reliably why this is. Have we already dipped to the bottom of the pool of natural engineers? Are engineers born or made? How can we reliably measure ingenuity? Can we foster it, and if so how? Are our present metrics of quality well correlated with ingenuity?

The answers to these questions are the key to making more of the good engineers we all think are needed. If we wasted less time on political agendas we'd have more time to find answers to them.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Good Engineers,Good Graduates, and Good Graduate Engineers

Recent comments from Kel Fidler and Pater Goodhew have invoked the idea of good degrees and good graduates.

The concept of the good graduate is fairly straightforward in UK HE. "Good graduates" are commonly held to be those with an upper second or first class degree.

But do these "good graduates" have graduateness? do they have goodness? and do either of these things map on to being a good engineer, (or a good candidate for being made into a good engineer if you do not think that the job of the university is to produce engineers)?

There is a lot of talk amongst educationalists about "graduateness", usually founded in a notion of a set of skills (especially soft skills) which all graduates need to have, and often an assumption that people employ graduates to get this graduateness.

It is also commonplace in engineering education for academics to assume that a "good" degree result correlates with being a good engineer (or potential engineer).

These links are however far from clear. Engineering degrees are hard, but they are a certain kind of hard. Their graduates are necessarily clever and hardworking, but as James Atherton pointed out recently, "assessment drift" means that university course assessments may have only a 15% overlap with the profession they share their name with. Are our graduates the right kind of clever? Are they ingenious? The profession says no when they reject perhaps one-third of our "good graduates", and half of our graduates.

So what is goodness? I would argue that not only is there not one kind of good graduateness, there is more than one kind of good engineer, and not all of them are the well-rounded product universities are so often shooting for.

For a first dimension of goodness, let us consider the Kirton Inventory. In my field, there are those who design rockets, and those who operate them. Design teams need one or two of Kirton's radical "Innovators", even though they will possibly cause conflict in the team. Operating crews are far better staffed overwhelmingly with the more pleasant, if slightly plodding "Adaptors".

So no point on the Kirton spectrum is incompatible with employment as an engineer, though adaptors are better suited to operations and management, and innovators to design and troubleshooting.

I was surprised upon entering academia from practice to find that universities are mostly filled with adaptors. I had imagined that they would be staffed with sparky, spiky innovators, but outside the professoriate, they are very rare in my experience. HE is an operational environment.

"Goodness" in any human system tends to consist primarily of being like the people doing the assessment, and secondarily with compliance with rules. "Good graduates" tend consequently in my experience to be more frequently conformist adaptors than radical innovators.

These "good graduates" are a good match for the needs of operating companies. The likes of BP tend to prefer first class degrees, and they are wise to do so. They don't want awkward people who question the rules, or get bored easily in a dangerous environment where procedure has to be followed attentively at all times.

Back when engineering had huge vertically and horizontally integrated companies, any number of these "dogmatic, compliant, stuck in a rut, timid, conforming, and inflexible" adaptors might get jobs, but the world has changed.
Our "good graduates" are not likely to be radical innovators. In my opinion, we have weeded innovators out of engineering education. My alter ego teaches design, and he notices that only around 10% of the 3-As-at-A-level students he teaches it to have the knack of engineering.

The other 90% can't draw, can't think, can't write, can't integrate or apply knowledge. They have no feel for numbers, no "spatial intelligence", and no teamworking ability.

These are unfortunately for them the skills of the engineer. The skills our engineering graduates have been selected for are the ability to pass exams without understanding their subject, and then forget all that they have learned.

That anyone will employ 50% of these engineering graduates as engineers demonstrates the depth of the shortage of good ones. The answer is not however to just make yet more mediocre ones which industry will not employ. We need to figure out a metric which correlates with "good engineerness", or ingenuity, if we are not to waste our time and a lot of our students' money.

If we can teach it, we need to teach it, but all engineers know that you can't control something you can't measure. We need better assessments, which measure ingenuity, rather than conformity. I believe that every real engineer can spot a fellow real engineer in a short conversation about engineering.

If we can promote it outside education, we should do so. Maybe there was more of it about back when we used to take things to bits for fun, mend our own bikes and cars, build and program our own computers, and make beer-powered rockets.

I don't know the answer, but I am convinced that these are the right questions. Graduateness and Goodness are nothing to do with Ingenuity.

Monday, 30 March 2015

The Missing Basics of Engineering: A Feel for Numbers: The "STEM Shortage"

Professional engineers tend to concur that one of the problems with new engineering graduates is a lack of a feel for numbers. Engineers are good at dealing with uncertainty, but universities are pretty bad at teaching this.

We are professional engineers, and (as we have said before) we think that the numbers which support the "STEM shortage " argument are pretty dodgy.

We were honoured yesterday to receive a comment from Peter Goodhew, author of "Teaching Engineering" and apparently a forthcoming RAE report on the shortage of engineers the RAE has been consistently claiming exists.

Peter told us that "There is no evidence..."most cannot get jobs as engineers" In a way, that is fair comment. Much may depend on the definition of a few key terms.

When we say "jobs as engineers", we mean exactly that. Jobs with a job title whose last word is "engineer". We know that this definition causes upset in academic circles, but that is the definition of "engineer" which we are using. 

In Peter's comment he said that " the vast majority get professional jobs, mainly in engineering.  Of the 77% of graduates who revealed their first destination job: 15% went on to further study, 78% started a professional job (two thirds of them in engineering), while only 7% took a non-professional job". He also says that he is basing his analysis on "the most recent cohort of engineering graduates for which we have data". 

We don't want to seem to be picking on Peter, we are grateful for his engagement, but these statements contain or imply the standard assumptions of all analyses which conclude there is a STEM shortage. We are not saying:

That engineering graduates don't get "professional jobs"

That engineering graduates don't get jobs under the HESA category  "Engineering & Technology"

That engineering graduates don't get jobs under other HESA categories corresponding to "STEM"

We are not even saying that engineering graduates don't get jobs "in engineering"- (they might have jobs as teaboys, or worse still, managers).

We are saying that most cannot get jobs as engineers (by our definition), but there actually isn't that much ground between Peter and us, even though he is using a broader definition.

He is saying that 2/3 of 78% of graduates get jobs "in engineering" - I make that 51.5%.

We are saying that most graduates cannot get jobs as engineers. This means that we are right if less than 50% of graduates get jobs as engineers.

So we only differ by about 1.5%. As we are both engineers with a feel for numbers, we would suspect that neither of us believe that our answers are precisely correct. As Emma Smith and Steven Gorard pointed out, the stats in this area are unreliable. We are going to need to add some error bars to our estimates.

Let us say in the interest of harmony that half of engineering graduates get jobs as engineers, or even Peter's term "in engineering". So, why do we think there is a shortage of engineering graduates if half of the ones we are producing now cannot get jobs "in engineering", let alone "as engineers"?

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Making Engineers: Lessons from the iFoundry#1: Words Matter

One of the key benefits identified by those responsible for the iFoundry (an attempt to bring Olin's groundbreaking approach to engineering education to the University of Illinois) was students' enhanced identification as engineers.

They were not the first to think that this was an important aspect of engineering education. Curtin University of Technology in Australia addresses its students as ‘student engineers’."There is a subtle but important distinction between an engineering student and a student engineer."

Like iFoundry faculty Curtin think that the words they use are important. In " A Whole New Engineer", the account of the founding of the iFoundry, they cite the Heath Brothers book "Made to Stick" about how the use of "sticky language" can make the difference between success and failure in change management.

Words do matter. Today's "engineering students" (being given a STEM education by scientists and mathematicians who tell them that they are being prepared to be the oompa loompas of science) identify as part of STEM.

Many of the brightest become "STEM ambassadors", persuading more kids (especially girls) to study STEM subjects, even though we already have a massive oversupply of both candidates and graduates in engineering education.

So, our best and brightest students have had their enthusiasm and goodwill to others exploited to serve an ideological agenda and the promotion of the interests of non-engineers. It's a sad state of affairs.

iFoundry encourages these keen and idealistic students to take part in activities such as Engineers without Borders, using their skills and knowledge to serve real needs, and identifying with their fellow engineers around the world. This is encouraging students to identify as engineers, and bringing them into our community of practice.

We would argue that we need to take the E out of STEM, because all most people hear is the first word. They think it's all science. In "A Whole New Engineer" they trace this fallacy back to the lack of understanding of the distinction between the four parts of STEM of the American military in the Second World War. So STEM basically means the same as "Boffin", but we are not boffins, we are engineers. Even scientists don't want to be boffins.

Scientists and mathematicians didn't make the atomic bomb for those WWII generals, put men on the moon, or create today's ubiquitous electronic devices and air travel for all. Engineers did all that and more. We made today's world. Scientists are our ugly friend - we will need to shake them off if they are going to steal our clothes.