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.