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.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Engineering Education: Are Degree Apprenticeships the Answer?

In James Atherton's post on our blog, he wondered whether the "call for a revival of graduate-level apprenticeships may finally be heeded".

It turns out it already has been, "Degree Apprenticeships" were rolled out mid-March, and we already had "Higher Apprenticeships", which allowed degree level study alongside vocational training.

There is however a problem with such approaches in a society as conscious of class nuance as the UK. As Alison Wolf pointed out, many consider vocational qualifications a great idea - for other people's children.The supposed equality of degrees in the UK is already a polite fiction.

In an article in "The Chemical Engineer" magazine discussing these changes,  they say "For hundreds of years, universities have offered up something philosophically different from vocational training courses - focussed on growing pure knowledge and understanding rather than simply making students ready for the world of work".

This sentence sums up a number of the key misunderstandings, generalizations, stupidities and manifestations of snobbery which will make any "Degree Apprenticeship" a second rate qualification in the UK.

What for example is "pure knowledge and understanding"?  Whatever that might be, it is nothing to do with engineering. Engineering may be "impure" in the sense of being applied and practical, but the application of the positive value judgement "pure" to knowledge and understanding is simply snobbery. Knowledge itself is neither pure nor impure, except that we judge it so.
The original purpose of universities was monkish study. Insisting that everything which takes place in universities has to conform with earlier ideas of their purpose is illogical. It is analogous to the lexical "root fallacy" where the true meaning of a word is its supposed original one. Words change their meanings, as do institutions. If it were ever true that universities were ever about what TCE magazine says they were, they aren't now.

In any case, chemical engineering only made it into universities in 1887. There can be no appeal to hundreds of years of tradition by chemical engineers. That first chemical engineering course (delivered by George E Davis, a practical working engineer and chemist now seen as the founding father of chemical engineering) was criticized by contemporary snobbish academic purists for being mere "commonplace know-how".

Such are the roots of chemical engineering, but it seems that it wishes it were higher-born. Medicine doesn't seem to worry about being a practical business, why should we? But of course in the UK, medicine is a profession, and an "engineer" rods your drains.

The cartoon at the top shows the hierarchy of purity in academia. There was not room in the frame for those teaching apprentices, who would be around a metre to the left of the sociologist at the scale used. Rather than insisting that the answer is a new qualification (understood by all to be for working class children) we need to remind engineering that it was never pure.

To get a job as an engineer, graduates need nowadays to have already experienced work as an engineer. Industrial placements, internships and so on are on the CV of every smart budding engineer.

So, what is the difference between a supposedly pure degree, with a year or so of industrial experience, and a job straight out of school with an applied degree on the side?

In terms of learning, nothing significant, (though there is every chance that the vocational students will be worked harder both at work and at university, and actually learn more). In a society alert to every shade of class distinction, everything.

The apprenticeship route will not be competing with Russell Group universities for the "best" A-level students, it is for the bright working class kids who don't get those grades. It will lock them into the slow lane in their professional lives, just as we have seen the old degree level technical apprenticeships do to those who took them.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

What Aren't The Problems of Teaching Engineering - And Why Are These The Issues We Are Addressing? #2: "The Lack of Women"


We engineers tend not to fix things which ain't broke, and if our fix doesn't work, we consider the possibility that we may have misunderstood the problem. We also tend to fix the biggest problem first. If only more engineers were involved in education. We might get a few problems solved, and waste less time on non-problems like the supposed shortage of women in engineering.

A great deal of effort goes into figuring out why women don't study STEM subjects and/or figuring out how to get them to do so. I am not however sure that the problem addressed by these efforts actually exists, especially in the field of engineering education. As the graphic shows if there is any imbalance in engineering, it is pretty trivial compared with a reverse problem in other professions.

The broad brush of the STEM classification obscures rather than assists analysis, as discussed previously. Two of the three subjects in which women are most proportionally overrepresented (courses related to veterinary and human medicine, and education) are often classed as STEM subjects.

During the time that these efforts have been made to persuade more girls to study STEM subjects at school, the gender divide has actually worsened in the most gender segregated courses like veterinary and computer science. We might speculate that getting more girls to do STEM A levels has just upped the number of applicants for STEM courses which fit with traditional gender roles.

Then there are all of the things which are not apparently problems: the over-representation of women throughout HE is not a problem. (The only groups proportionally underrepresented in UK HE are "White" and "Afro-carribean" working class males). The under-representation of men on the courses which women dominate is apparently not a problem (though a few others have noticed this). So why is it felt that the shortage of women on engineering courses is a problem?

It doesn't appear to be a real problem either for engineering, or for the women who want to study engineering as far as I am aware. Having encountered many female engineers in both education and practice, we haven't noticed them bringing as a class anything special to the table. They are not noticeably better or worse than men at the day to day business of engineering. Engineering does not seem to be missing out by not being half female, and there is (as discussed previously) an oversupply of both those wanting to study engineering, and engineering graduates.

In educationalist circles all kinds of benefits which might in theory accrue from a greater number of women studying and practising engineering are discussed, but they are not apparent in practise. Of course education is as disproportionately female as engineering is male-dominated, so the consensus opinion of educationalists is not gender bias-free.

Why do less women than men study and practice engineering? "stereotypes within the education system, norms governing gender roles in the household that constrain a woman’s choice of occupation", or to put it another way, they don't want to, generally speaking.

So women are not studying these subjects because they do not want to. Isn't the right number of women studying engineering as many as are capable of doing so, and want to? Who are educationalists to tell women what to want?

There is no evidence to suggest that that women are more innovative or otherwise better engineers than men, though there is an argument that more diverse teams are more innovative. Diversity is however even more slippery as a concept than "STEM". The missing diversity in HE appears to be a social class. If we are going to start carrying out social engineering, that is arguably where we should start.

But if we do want more women in engineering for ideological reasons, we need to promote Engineering to them, not "STEM". Promoting STEM to girls, and getting them to do more STEM A-levels appears to have simply further imbalanced the gender ratios in the subjects they do want to study.

Or why not follow Olin's lead, and based on the understanding that engineering is not applied science and maths, take in students without STEM A-levels. This would widen the pool of female candidates by allowing them in with the A-levels they do want to study.

The problem with engineering education is however not a lack of women. It is a lack of engineers, and a consequent lack of understanding in educational circles of what engineering is.

If this mistaken understanding of what engineering is about has an unwanted side-effect of excluding women who would like to be engineers, that should be one more small nail in "STEM"'s coffin. Such a situation would be inequitable, and in many countries, illegal.

We are not however aware that any inability of suitably qualified and motivated women to get on engineering courses, or to practice as engineers has actually been proven. If it is true, why has no-one been prosecuted in those countries where sex discrimination is illegal?

The arguments about a supposed lack of women on engineering courses seems to be based squarely on an unexamined axiom that the ratio should be at least 50:50 (or arguably more, as women outnumber men in the population, and outnumber them still more in HE) Why?

Engineering Education: "Assessment Drift"

Celebrated educationalist James Atherton has given us a mention on his blog here. Thanks, James!

Monday, 23 March 2015

Are Universities Providing the Best Education for Chemical Engineers?

There is an interesting debate going on over on an IChemE Linked In group about whether Chemical Engineering education is fit for purpose, based on this Guardian blog post.


There are people around who are worried about the state of engineering education.  But engineering education is not just for students sitting in classrooms and lecture halls. Engineering education is something that is needed outside our schools, colleges and universities – to improve understanding of an activity of fundamental importance to society in all its aspects, yes – Engineering.  We need our young people, teachers, parents and families, media workers, civil servants and politicians to know what engineering is about.

Why?  So that we can get more of our best young people working as engineers, encouraged in that aspiration by society, so we can meet the challenges of the future – challenges of Energy, Food, Water, Transport, Communication, Buildings, Health, even Entertainment…

The Big Bang Fair of Science and Engineering is one example of the huge effort that is being made to educate young people, parents and teachers about engineering.   

The latest one, held at Birmingham NEC attracted over 70,000 people and has led to numerous videos being uploaded onto YouTube. And that is where we see problems.  One video shows a teacher saying that the Fair is the best place to find out about Science, a view supported by the comments of several schoolchildren.

In another video showing Nick Gibb MP (Minister of State for School Reform) opening the Fair, he says “What (the Fair) shows is that science isn’t just about white lab coats in a laboratory, or engineering isn’t just about lying under an oily car or vehicle – it’s about exciting modern companies doing exciting modern things”. Stuck for examples of these modern things, Nick? (I suppose a Law degree background is of little help!)

Greg Clark MP (Minister for Universities and Science) was also at the Fair and has his own video.  He waxes lyrical about Science and Scientists (13 mentions), mentions Engineers and Engineering (4 times), Technology and Technologists (4 times) and Mathematics (Twice).  At the end of the video he seems to attribute Robots, Space Exploration and Food to the work of scientists and mathematicians!  (I think you’ll find engineers have a major involvement in all three, Greg, but then an Economics degree wouldn’t help tell you that!).

And there is the problem.  The lack of understanding of engineering, and in particular its relationship with science perpetuates a significant problem for us in the UK (a problem we share with the US).  Because, as many have tried to clarify, engineering is not a part of science; engineering is a creative activity which aims to solve problems to produce those ‘modern things’ – wind farms, tidal generators, solar farms, power stations, modern agriculture, manufacturing facilities for food and drink and all the goods we use in everyday life, clean potable water, cars, lorries, ships, planes, trains, houses, skyscrapers, airports, tunnels, mobile phones, radios, tv, …. The list seems endless, because it covers everything surrounding us on which we rely. 

-Walter Pity

Saturday, 21 March 2015

What Aren't The Problems of Teaching Engineering - And Why Are These The Issues We Are Addressing? #1: "The STEM Shortage"

Those in engineering education whose hearts are in the right place have a vague feeling that there is something wrong with the education they are providing.

It is however made very hard for them to identify the real problem, as the discussions are dominated by discussions of non-problems.

The first of these is the supposed STEM shortage. Our well-meaning investigator talks to supposed experts, and reads the educational press and they are given a strong impression that the real problem in engineering education is a shortage of STEM graduates.

It is however far from clear that there is a shortage of STEM graduates as Stephen Gorard and The Atlantic Magazine pointed out a few years ago. The data simply is not there to support what has become the basis for almost all discussions of the subject. Those who get jobs as engineers may attract high wages, but only half of engineering graduates get to work as engineers.

There are vested interests who might wish all discussions to be based on this axiom. Universities, Employers, and Engineering Institutions all largely support the myth of the STEM shortage, arguably for reasons of self-interest.

In the UK, universities are ranked on their ratio of applications to accepted candidates. In many engineering courses this ratio may be as high as 10:1. There is no shortage of willing candidates for engineering degrees.

This does not however mean that university admissions tutors wouldn't like this marker of status to be higher. A higher ratio allows them to be pickier about the "tariff" of examination grades they will accept from candidates. This tariff is also a marker of status, reported in ranking tables.

There is no apparent upper limit to aspirations in these areas by universities, but this is nothing to do with making more or better engineers, as the pre-university exams have nothing to do with engineering ability. It is about managing the status of their institution.

A level results may correlate with degree classification, but degree classification does not have a simple relationship with ability as an engineer. This is in my opinion due to the lack of engineering in engineering degrees.

So if there is no evidence to support the idea that there is a shortage of applicants for STEM courses, perhaps there is (as employers organizations regularly claim), a shortage of STEM graduates?

Not only is there no evidence for that, there is strong evidence to the contrary. An uncomfortably high proportion of STEM graduates cannot get jobs in STEM. Surely if there are shortages, even our poorest graduates would be snapped up, and wages would be rising? But that's not what is happening.

If there is no shortage of STEM workers, why would employers' organizations say that there is? As with so many things in this debate, much lies in confusion over terms. Sometimes this lies with the authors of press releases, and often with journalistic misunderstanding.

A "STEM shortage" might be a local shortage of staff with certain specific training, shortages of time-served tradesmen, shortages of doctors, or simply a shortage of workers willing to work for what employers are offering.

A shortage of trained staff might be fixed by an employer being willing to train. The present shortage of time-served staff was caused by persuading 50% of young people to go into HE. Shortages of doctors have nothing to do with supply of engineers, and the last category is entirely soluble by a wage rise.

This last is presumably the reason why employers institutions are supportive of  the myth of the STEM shortage - oversupply will drive down wages.

What we are NOT short of is people willing to undertake accredited engineering degrees, or STEM (including engineering) graduates. There is clear oversupply of both of these things (in some cases massive oversupply as with UK pharmacists at present)

We may be short of chartered engineers, though the answer to this is not to allow non-engineers (people without at a minimum accredited degrees in engineering, and ideally with five years of experience as an engineering practitioner) to carry the title, as our engineering institutions have done.

In any case, STEM (Science/Technology/Engineering/Maths/Medicine) is too broad a brush. It is the cause of engineering institutions being involved in campaigns which are of no benefit to engineers in particular or society in general.

Our institutions send people into schools to promote STEM, rather than engineering, but even promoting engineering in schools is often wrong-headed. The only beneficiaries of yet more unsuccessful applicants to wildly oversubscribed engineering courses are the universities.

As we are already producing worldwide around twice as many engineering graduates as there are jobs for, one would think that there is little point in expanding engineering education provision, but the debate is so ill-founded in HE that that is exactly what we are doing.

The STEM conflation is also the cause of the major problem of engineering education. It supports the many people in university engineering departments who think that they are providing a STEM education rather than an engineering one. They consequently make students learn irrelevant science and maths, and employ scientists and mathematicians to teach them.

There will always be a shortage of excellent engineers - even in engineering practice there aren't that many. My students mostly have three As at A-level, but I would consider only about 10% to really have the knack for engineering which is needed to make a great engineer. There is no real sign of a STEM shortage, but there does appear to be a knack shortage. I will discuss what I think the reasons for this are in another post.

Engineering Educators: You're Doing it Wrong!

Science: if you dont make mistakes you're doing it wrong...

Some of us on here are practicing engineers, so we know what engineers do. We know what engineering is about. We know the tools and techniques which engineers use.

We also all went through a university education on courses which shared a name with our profession.

Some of us also teach on such courses, and some are involved in accreditation of these courses on behalf of engineering institutions.

We are concerned that there are very many people who have not practiced engineering involved in either teaching or accreditation.

Most of the people involved in teaching and accreditation are either researchers or managers. They do not personally do research, or carry out engineering duties such as design or technical support of engineering operations. They manage these activities, but they do not do them. Some of them do not even have first degrees in engineering.

So those greatly influential in the content and delivery of engineering degrees do not understand what engineers do, or how they do it. Many of them have never practiced the discipline, and often think of real engineers as their social and intellectual inferiors.

Many think that the "purer" subjects in which they have first degrees are more intellectually demanding than real engineering. Perhaps they think that teaching abstract theory irrespective of its relevance to engineering practice is "an education", but teaching practically relevant material is the vastly inferior "training", fit only for technicians.

So teaching students to use "MATLAB", a maths program which is used to write programs in a research setting (though entirely unused by practitioners for QA reasons) is education, but teaching students to use "Autocad", the industry standard drawing package is mere training.

Teaching students to carry out the mathematical transforms which were important to the electrical engineers of long ago is education (even if the students are not studying electrical engineering), teaching them qualitative knowledge about how instruments and actuators can be put together to form an effective control system is "training".

Teaching students a dumbed - down version of a philosopher's idea of ethics is education, teaching them real professional ethics is training.

There is a useful area of philosophy which no-one seems to teach as part of engineering degrees - epistemology. This is the study of the basis of knowledge, and knowledge to a philosopher is "true justified belief".

If we were really going to teach students how to think, we should be teaching them about the ways in which engineering has a different epistemology from science or mathematics. Engineering is not founded in science or mathematics, nor does it share their foundations. How could something which predates science and mathematics be founded in them?

Our beliefs as engineers are justified by experience: a combination of personal experience, and collective experience, in both cases usually codified by heuristics. These heuristics may take the form of codes of practice, design standards, rules of thumb, or cautionary tales. Best practice in engineering has been defined by BV Koen as following the most current commonly held heuristics amongst active practitioners.

Those who think that you can do engineering from mathematical or scientific first principles have never practiced the profession. Teaching maths and natural science is not teaching engineering. Unwillingness to understand when you are doing it wrong isn't even good science.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

UK Initiative in Fixing Engineering Education?

No sooner than I have said all of the initiatives are coming from America than I see this.

It's clear that their heart is in the right place, and they are linked to Olin in the US, as well as a couple of UK universities.

Is this the breakthrough we need? What do you think?

Monday, 16 March 2015

Initiatives in Fixing Engineering Education

For some reason. more or less all of the well-known initiatives in realigning engineering education with engineering practice come from the US. They have recognized the same problem as we have:

"Engineering education programs throughout much of the 20th century offered students plentiful hands-on practice: Accomplished and experienced engineers taught courses that focused on solving tangible problems. But as the century progressed and scientific and technical knowledge expanded rapidly, engineering education evolved into the teaching of engineering science.

Teaching engineering practice was increasingly de-emphasized. As a result, industry in recent years has found that graduating students, while technically adept, lack many abilities required in real-world engineering situations.

Major companies created lists of abilities they wanted their engineers to possess (e.g. Boeing's Desired Attributes of an Engineer). To encourage schools to meet real world needs and rethink their educational strategies, the Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology, ABET, listed its expectations for graduating engineers.

Industry and ABET had identified the destination; it was up to educators to plan the route. Faced with the gap between scientific and practical engineering demands, the educators took up the challenge to reform engineering education. The result of the endeavor is the worldwide CDIO Initiative"

Two other programs linked mainly through one man also address these same problems; Illinois iFoundry/Olin's Big Beacon. These two also bring in humanities subjects in line with the US Liberal Arts model of education in what look to be credible and appropriate ways.

There are some in other countries who are trying on some of these ideas and approaches for size, but the Americans seem to be taking the initiative here..

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Sorting Out Engineering

"I am not alone in believing strongly that Engineering is not Science, or (as is often suggested) a subset of Science, although the converse might be argued by some. Whilst Science is about understanding the world – producing and evaluating models of observed behaviour which are then used to predict other behaviours (the ‘Scientific Method’), Engineering is about creating things, and thus subject to a quite different discipline, embracing design, creativity, and innovation. Engineers will make use of Science where appropriate and advantageous (for example using the findings of semiconductor physicists in the manufacture of integrated circuits), but not always (there was, for example, no science of thermodynamics before the first steam engines were built)! No one would dream of suggesting that Engineering is a branch of Mathematics, even though the mathematics used in the signal processing to be found in mobile phone communication systems, or the matrix transformations used in computer game images, is of the highest complexity. No, Science and Mathematics are enabling, facilitating disciplines used by Engineers – to create things."

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Engineering Education Problems

There is something wrong with engineering education. At root the problems stem from a mismatch between the aims of university courses and the needs of the profession.

After the second world war most engineering degrees were changed worldwide from a design based professional/technical education to a scientific/mathematical education which relied on industry to make engineers.

This basis for engineering education is now so established that many cannot imagine ever going back, but the future is not in a model inspired by the development of the atomic bomb, the space race, and supersonic passenger jets.

These are the future of the past. Today's problems need the practical problem solvers which the old model used to produce.

What's Wrong with Engineering Education?

What's wrong with engineering education? Where to start? How about the following?

1. It isn't usually delivered by engineers, or even people who know what engineers do

2. It doesn't consequently usually involve learning much about the things engineers do

3. It does however involve learning a lot of things about what scientific researchers do

4. It does involve rote learning, regurgitating and then forgetting uncontextualized "facts"

5. It does not involve use of the creativity which distinguishes a good engineer from poor one

6. It does not often involve working in collaborative groups, as engineers do

7. It is too hard in all the wrong ways

8. It does not require synthesis of the various modularized subjects which are taught

9. Types of mathematics which professional engineers never use are emphasized

10. Scientific research skills, tools and software unused by engineers are emphasized 

11. Essays and lab reports are taught, though engineers never write either

12. Drawings are often not used at all (even though these are what engineers mostly work with)

The reasons for this are manifold, but most notably, there was a mistake in setting the model of engineering education after the second world war, and a consequent handing over of engineering education to academics.

Unfortunately for the engineering profession, almost all academics see the teaching aspects of their job as that of producing more academics, irrespective of the name of the department they work in. Engineering academics usually have far more in common with the academics in the classics department than they do with professional engineers.