Reflecting on my academic career: Why I joined the Integrated Engineering Programme

Today I was rummaging the Internet looking for my previous works and publications, as I always do, just like most other academics are prone to do, at least the academics I am acquainted with, and they are many. And guess what, I came across a talk I presented at UCL in 2017, exactly four years after I joined the UCL Engineering flagship programme framework – the Integrated Engineering Programme, or IEP, in short.

In this talk I reflect on public perceptions of engineering, as well as the great history of British Engineering. I start off with a quote from Jeremy Clarkson, yes, Jeremy Clarkson of the motoring TV programmes Top Gear and The Grand Tour fame. Jeremy Clarkson has a weird way of interpreting the world of motoring, and as an engineer I find myself disagreeing with him throughout his programmes, but sometimes he utters something that makes me look up and say “You might have a point there, Jeremy!”

And as I always do in most of my talks on engineering education, I went back to Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the great 19th century engineer, and I was publicly wondering – is the current engineering curriculum capable of producing new engineers of Brunel’s stature?

Isambard Kingdom Brunel Standing Before the Launching Chains of the Great Eastern, photograph by Robert Howlett. Now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Why Brunel? He is my engineering hero, as anyone who has ever sat down with me to discuss engineering will know. And why not – everyday without fail, before the COVID-19 lockdown, I would set out, four/five days a week on my commute to UCL, and see and use some of the iconic engineering artefacts that he created or inspired. Every weekday, on my way to and fro work, I drive over the Clifton Suspension Bridge, designed by Brunel in 1831 when he was aged just 24, and completed in 1864, after he had died.

 Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol.Photograph by Stuart Edwards, (WT-en) StuartEdwards at English Wikivoyage

I then drive past the SS Great Britain, again designed and built by Brunel, and the first iron steamship to cross the Atlantic Ocean in 1845.

SS Great Britain in dry dock in Bristol, 2003.
Photograph taken by (Robert Brewer) and released under the GFDL and cc-by-sa.

I park my car, and walk into Bristol Temple Meads to catch the train to London, again travelling on a railway line first designed and built by Brunel. Thirty minutes into my train ride, I go through the Box Tunnel, the 3 kilometre long tunnel through Box Hill, near Bath, built under Brunel’s guidance, and which was the longest rail tunnel at the time of its opening in 1841.

Box Tunnel, Bath, UK (Taken 9 April 2017: Great Western Railway)

In my talk, I concluded that our current curriculum might not possibly produce someone of Brunel’s stature, except, perhaps, by accident. However, I noted that given the ongoing curriculum changes in engineering, as exemplified by the UCL Integrated Engineering Programme, there is some possibility that this will happen someday.

Here is a link to the 2017 talk, and please, let me have your comments. It will be nice to hear from you all what you really think about emergent engineering curricula such as the UCL Integrated Engineering Programme.

Link to “Putting the creativity back into Engineering Education”: https://mediacentral.ucl.ac.uk/Play/7683

Seeking your first post-PhD academic role: Why not consider the teaching-focused role?

Photo by Tra Nguyen on Unsplash

The research that I undertook for my Doctorate in Education clearly indicates that the majority of PhD students dream of pursuing a research and teaching academic career, failing which, they might consider non- academic roles in industry and commerce. Going into a teaching-focused academic role is not the done thing for most PhD students. This is not surprising. Compared to the research and teaching academic role, the teaching-focused role has largely been a low status role with poor working conditions. In fact, it has only been in the past few years that universities have begun putting in place credible career pathways for academics on the teaching-focused pathway. However, the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic is changing all that.

COVID-19 as a driver for change

Of course, it goes without saying that the COVID-19 pandemic has been, and remains, a dark ominous cloud over our personal and professional lives. Nevertheless, just like any dark cloud of any significance, there is usually a silver lining. Within academia, that silver lining is that the pandemic suddenly brought teaching to the forefront of academic activity.

Within the UK, all academic teaching abruptly moved online at the beginning of March and has remained thus to date. This move was a shock to the entire university system, despite decades-long predictions that online education was poised to become a big part of higher education.  Almost instantaneously, everyone within higher education – revered professors and early-career academics included – became novices in the new game of online and blended learning delivery. University leaders, fearful that teaching might implode at any time and imperil the entire fee-based university income, suddenly shifted their attention to teaching provision. The outcome was that long-deferred investments in online learning capability were urgently activated, and the entire university community became one large community of learning in online pedagogy and has since remained so.

The growing importance of teaching within universities

Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

It has since become apparent that as universities seek to provide a good online student experience, recruitment for teaching-focused academics has surged. And not only that, the expectations placed on the teaching-focused role has changed. Whilst at one time, it may have been enough to demonstrate some experience or even just some awareness of teaching pedagogy to land a teaching-focused role, this is no longer the case, post-pandemic. Recruitment panels are now seeking individuals who not only have day to day teaching experience.  They are now competing to secure the services of individuals who, in addition to having substantial teaching experience, also have demonstrable leadership and expertise across a range of subject-specific pedagogies. This can only mean one thing – the teaching-focused academic role has just become very important, and very attractive, and very competitive.

What this means for the PhD student

It is no longer enough for PhD students to focus only on research, or to do the least permissible amount of teaching in their departments. Teaching expertise is now highly valued, and PhD students should now invest in becoming credible professional educators, even if their future lies in research. Teaching is a significant income stream for any university, and now that stream is shaky. Higher education has become a seller’s market – the student is now in control, and the student experience is now king, whether online or face-to-face. And this is not going away, even if COVID-19 disappears. Anecdotal evidence suggests that since the beginning of the current academic year, six months after universities were forced online, the quality of education provision has never been better.  Worldwide, universities have upped their game, and this has ushered in a new era of superior education provision. Students will not let this go, and it is very unlikely that we will ever go back to the taken-for-granted, sloppy standards of the pre-COVID-19 era.

Strategies for adapting to change

How then must a PhD student respond to this changing landscape? In 2016 , I wrote a blog piece entitled “Preparing for an Academic Role – Not Just a Job, but a Calling” in which I cautioned that the academic role has become so competitive that PhD students have to do so much more if they are to land a full-time role when they graduate. This now also applies to the teaching-only academic role.

As I cautioned, it is now critical that PhD students should seek to gain recognition as accomplished teachers within their subject disciplines.  It is no longer enough to take up teaching support roles with a view to whiling away the time and getting paid. Take up these support roles as an apprenticeship in which you need to achieve teaching mastery. Take advantage of the professional development schemes within your university and invest your time and effort in improving your teaching skills. Seek to attain teaching recognition as a Fellow, or Associate Fellow, of the Higher Education Academy. Most universities in the UK run this recognition scheme, and outside of the UK, there are alternative schemes that achieve the same purpose.  

And take the scholarly literature on education seriously. Before the pandemic, discipline-based education research was frowned upon – it was for those who were viewed as being on the “lunatic fringe” of higher education. Not so now. For instance, during the past summer, engineering education conferences and seminars have been swamped by an avalanche of new faces as academics at all career stages have been seeking to improve their pedagogic skills. Join the bandwagon, or risk never getting a foothold on an academic career. Teaching is no longer a cinderella activity – it now matters.

Concluding remarks

The university landscape is currently undergoing change, and it is unlikely we will go back to where we were before the pandemic. Indeed, education technologies to support novel forms of online and blended learning were already in place before the pandemic. However, it needed a lightning spark to set us onto the pathway to transform educational practices within universities.  COVID-19 is that lightning spark, and a new future where teaching matters is beckoning.  

REEN Engineering Education Research (EER) Journal List

Looking for a journal in which to publish your Engineering Education Research (EER)? Look no further. The Research in Engineering Education Network (REEN) has set up a dedicated EER Journals page on their website listing some of the key journals in the field. What I like about this EER journal list is that, in addition to providing links to each journal, they also outline the scope of each journal, together with an indication of the types of papers that each journal accepts.

The journals currently listed on the REEN EER Journal page (as of today, 03 October 2020) are:

  1. Advances in Engineering Education (AEE)                                       
  2. Journal of Engineering Education (JEE)            
  3. American Journal of Engineering Education (AJEE)                       
  4. Journal of Engineering Education Transformations (JEET)
  5. Australasian Journal of Engineering Education (AJEE)                   
  6. Journal of International Engineering Education (JIEE)
  7. Engineering Studies                                                                             
  8. Journal of Pre-college Engineering Education Research (J-PEER)  
  9. European Journal of Engineering Education (EJEE)                         
  10. Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering (JWM)
  11. IEEE Transactions on Education                                                         
  12. Murmurations
  13. International Journal of Engineering Education (IJEE)                    
  14. Studies in Engineering Education (SEE)
  15. International Journal of Engineering Pedagogy (iJEP)  
  16. Journal of Civil Engineering Education (JCEE)

The Engineering Education Research landscape in Sub-Saharan Africa: Some insights

Photo of Mt Kilimanjaro by Casey Allen on Unsplash

Introduction

The insights that I am sharing in this blog piece are the unintended outcome of a purely pedagogic exercise – to diversify the reading list of the MSc Engineering and Education at University College London (UCL). This MSc is designed for engineers, teachers of engineering and engineering policy makers who wish to develop innovative strategies to improve engineering education.

Over the course of the academic year, we introduce our MSc students to a diverse range of academic papers covering key topics in Engineering Education Research (EER). For instance, throughout the year students on the MSc get to engage with current thoughts and ideas in EER areas such as:

  • Entrepreneurship in engineering education,
  • Sustainability Education for Engineering,
  • Curriculum reform/transformation in engineering education
  • Ethics, equality, diversity and inclusion in engineering education
  • Innovative/transformative teaching in engineering education
  • Problem/project/challenge based learning in engineering
  • Active/Collaborative learning
  • Engineering Design
  • Internships/industrial experience,
  • Open and online teaching and learning

Background to this exercise

Most of the items on our reading list are from the West, for the simple reason that these are more readily available. Unfortunately, this tends to reinforce a primarily Western/Anglo Saxon view of current topics in EER. Engineering Education is a highly social activity, and we would like our students to explore various aspects of Engineering Education from a diversity of perspectives. We are especially keen for our students to explore through these readings, the various nuanced adaptations of standard methodologies like problem based learning across different regions of the world.

Moreover, our MSc is truly international, with students coming in from a range of countries all over the world. We want our students to bring along their own experiences and to critically evaluate these experiences in informed discussions with their colleagues who are from entirely different nationalities. Difference breeds creativity and innovation, and in designing the MSc we have specifically sought to make it a melting cauldron of diversities of opinions and thoughts, all fuelled by scholarly research from every corner of the globe. We are therefore compiling journal and conference papers on any topic in EER from regions and countries that are underrepresented in our reading list. This includes most countries in Sub Saharan Africa.

How we carried out the exercise

We carried out a search of EER articles emanating from Sub Saharan Africa. This includes countries like Nigeria, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Ethiopia, Uganda, South Africa and Namibia. We used the following databases – African Journals OnLine (AJOL), International African Bibliography Online, African Education Research Database, JSTOR, Web of Science, and Google Scholar. Searches were limited to English language articles focussing on EER topics such as engineering education transformation, engineering curriculum reform, Conceive Design Implement Operate (CDIO), active and collaborative learning, problem-based learning, project-based learning, and internships. We limited our search to articles from 2010 and onwards as our focus was primarily on current articles.

The emerging picture of EER in Sub Sahara Africa

The picture emerging from this exercise is not flattering. Most of the EER papers that we discovered were predominantly from two countries only – South Africa and Nigeria. In fact, these two countries contributed over 80% of all the papers that we identified. Some countries were not represented at all, with only single digit numbers of publications from countries such as Ghana, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Kenya. Just to be sure, we visited the web profiles of academics at various engineering institutions across Sub Sahara Africa, and our results seemed to confirm our database search – very few engineering academics in Sub Saharan Africa write and publish EER articles. Invariably, engineering academics up and down the region, when they do publish, they tend to focus on hardcore engineering and science research.

We also sifted through the papers that we had identified. A significant proportion of these papers were from individual academics writing on their own reforms of the course modules that they teach. Papers on programme-wide and institution-wide EER issues, for example, curriculum reform, appeared only in a couple of South African papers.

Take-home lessons

EER is virtually non-existent in Sub Saharan Africa, except in Nigeria and South Africa. In addition, most EER papers are single-authored, ostensibly from engineering education enthusiasts. Indeed, EER in Sub Saharan Africa appears only to be a hobbyist activity, with no discernible institutional or national strategy driving it.

What does this mean for Engineering Education in Sub Saharan Africa? This gives rise to several possibilities – the most pessimistic being that there is a dearth of national and institutional strategies aimed at improving the quality of Engineering Education in Africa. This would be sad, given the thousands of engineering graduates in Sub Saharan Africa who emerge every year from engineering institutions without the skills required by industry, and who are therefore destined to a life of joblessness or underemployment [See Mohamedbhai (2015): Improving Engineering Education in Sub-Saharan Africa]. A less pessimistic possibility is that engineering institutions in Sub Saharan Africa do care about the quality of Engineering Education, and do carry out periodic curriculum reviews and reforms, but they do not always write about their activities. This would then raise several other questions: To what extent are Engineering Education reforms in Sub Saharan Africa research-based? Do reforming engineering institutions in Sub Saharan Africa share best practice, and if so, how do they do so, and with whom do they share the information?

Agreed, this exercise that we carried out is akin to an aircraft passenger looking out of the window at 38 000 feet and trying to identify landscape features far down below. But even then, this would suggest that there are currently no Mount Kilimanjaros in the EER landscape of Sub Saharan Africa. Hopefully, however, there are emerging hills and mole hills of EER activity taking place in Sub Saharan Africa, although they are still too small to make an imprint on the international EER radar.

When it comes to teaching innovation, there is little or no diffusion: Really?

A recently published paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), with the rather provocative title “Innovative teaching knowledge stays with users”, is currently making shockwaves across the scholarly teaching community in the USA and beyond (Lane, McAlpin et al. 2020).  Jointly authored by 12 researchers from four universities across the USA, the paper reports on a study to reveal the social networking characteristics of academics who use innovative teaching practices. Research participants were drawn from 9 departments representing three science disciplines at three research intensive universities in the United States. The three institutions in question are the University of South Florida, Boise State University, and the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.

In conducting the study, the researchers hoped that findings from the research would help to shed light on the diffusion process of innovative teaching practices within universities. Findings from the study suggest otherwise – when it comes to teaching innovation, there is little or no diffusion. This presents a conundrum to the scholarly teaching community, given, as it is, the immense amount of time, expertise and resources that have been put into the development and dissemination of innovative, student-centred pedagogies.

Innovative teaching knowledge stays with users: Overview and findings

The authors used a social networking survey to identify who amongst the research participants self-reported as having knowledge of, and routinely used, innovative teaching methods in their own practice. From this group, they conducted semi-structured interviews with 19 participants to find out which individuals they chose to speak about innovations in teaching, and why they preferred to speak to these individuals.  The researchers’ hypothesis was that academics knowledgeable and experienced in innovative teaching would talk mostly to those academics with little knowledge or experience of innovative teaching.

Contrary to expectations, findings from this study suggest that those with knowledge and experience of teaching innovation predominantly share their knowledge and expertise amongst themselves. In short, academics who are knowledgeable and experienced in innovative teaching are more likely to talk with colleagues who are also knowledgeable and experienced in innovative teaching. Reasons for this preference range from having similar teaching values, the need to share expertise and experience, being comfortable with one another, and down to the fact that it is convenient to speak to like-minded individuals. Less important were such aspects as shared teaching responsibilities, mentor/mentee relations, holding an important/relevant position, being on the same committee/conference/workshop, doing similar research or having similar appointment types.

In comparison, the study also found that academics with little or no knowledge and experience of innovative teaching were less likely to engage in conversations about teaching innovation, either amongst themselves, or with their more knowledgeable and experienced counterparts. Since conversations on teaching innovation are unlikely to take place between the more knowledgeable and the less knowledgeable, it follows that the diffusion of knowledge and expertise in innovative teaching is therefore unlikely.  

Diffusion of computational modelling across engineering modules: Findings and overview

The results correlate with the findings from a small study that I undertook to investigate the diffusion of computational modelling as a pedagogic tool across the Faculty of Engineering Sciences at University College London (UCL) (Nyamapfene 2019). This was after we had adopted computational modelling as the primary pedagogic tool in the first- and second-year engineering mathematics modules across the faculty (Nyamapfene 2016).

This study revealed that adoption of computational modelling pedagogies tended to be restricted to those academics who shared an interest in such pedagogies, and to those academics who had an active interest in student-centred learning and active learning methods. Such academics were more likely to be actively engaged in learning and teaching initiatives across the university, and they were more likely to express the view that their adoption of computational modelling was consistent with their views and philosophies of teaching. Some of these academics had actively contributed to the development and implementation of the Integrated Engineering Programme (IEP), the curriculum framework for undergraduate engineering programmes at UCL. For a brief overview of the IEP, see my November 6, 2017 blog piece entitled The UCL Integrated Engineering Programme: A Very Brief Guide (Nyamapfene 2017) and for a more detailed discussion, see our paper entitled “Faculty wide curriculum reform: the integrated engineering programme” in the European Journal for Engineering Education (Mitchell, Nyamapfene et al. 2019).

In summary, my study revealed that computational modelling pedagogies were most likely to be adopted by academics who already had an interest in innovative teaching methods, and by academics who subscribed to the IEP values and ethos. By the same token, the study suggests that academics who are less knowledgeable in computational modelling pedagogies, or who have little or no interest in these pedagogies, are least likely to adopt them in their own teaching practice. This is consistent with the findings by Lane, McAlpin et al. (2020) that conversations, and consequently, experimentation and adoption, tends to take place primarily amongst academics whose teaching values and approaches are consistent with the innovative approaches. In short, it is not enough to leave the spread of innovative teaching methods to natural diffusion processes.

Concluding remarks

The two studies above suggest that the diffusion of knowledge and expertise in innovative teaching methods tends to be restricted to those academics who have an intrinsic motivation and interest in the methods.  Those academics whose motivations and interests are elsewhere are unlikely to pay attention to these innovative pedagogies, let alone adopt them. How then can we resolve this situation?

Thirty years ago, Boyer (1990) made the observation that with respect to learning and teaching, the single most important consideration is the issue of faculty time. This is because academics tend to prioritise those activities that are highly prized in university reward systems. As he put it, “it’s futile to talk about improving the quality of teaching if, in the end, faculty are not given recognition for the time they spend with students.”  Even today, teaching remains underprioritised within higher education. For instance, a 2015 survey of teaching within UK engineering departments by the Royal Academy of Engineers (RAE) suggests that teaching quality tends to be relegated to a marginal role, with departments mostly preoccupied with research outputs and students numbers (Graham 2015).

As the RAE survey suggests, individual academic departments do not see a direct correlation between student numbers and the time and expertise invested in improving teaching quality. Student recruitment depends on several other factors such as the university brand and its location, and not just on the perceived quality of teaching. Given such a scenario, all that departments need to do to ensure an adequate level of student recruitment is to ensure that their teaching is reasonable, which, in practice, is a very low bar indeed. This is unlike research where there is a clearly discernible link between income and the invested time and expertise. As a result, departmental priorities, and, consequently, the reward structure in universities remains focused on research, and not on teaching quality.

However, as I noted in my June 14, 2017 blog piece, it is now retrogressive for universities to focus exclusively on research to the detriment of all the other things that universities need to be doing (Nyamapfene 2017). As I observed, the remit for the modern university has now expanded to include community engagement and enterprise (knowledge transfer and impact), over and above traditional research and education. This clearly calls for a diversified academic staff if the university is to successfully deliver its mandate across these multiple competing fronts. It is therefore pertinent that the reward system in universities should adequately, and equitably, reflect the multiplicity of academic career pathways that are now emerging.

References

Boyer, E. L. (1990). Scholarship reconsidered: Priorities of the professoriate, ERIC.

Graham, R. (2015). Does teaching advance your academic career?: perspectives of promotion procedures in UK higher education, Royal Academy of Engineering.

Lane, A. K., et al. (2020). “Innovative teaching knowledge stays with users.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: 202012372.

Mitchell, J. E., et al. (2019). “Faculty wide curriculum reform: the integrated engineering programme.” European Journal of Engineering Education: 1-19.

Nyamapfene, A. (2016). Integrating MATLAB Into First Year Engineering Mathematics: A Project Management Approach to Implementing Curriculum Change, IEEE.

Nyamapfene, A. (2017). “Progression for Teaching Only Academics in Research Intensive Universities: A Personal Perspective.” Engineering Learning and Teaching https://engineeringedu.press/2017/06/14/progression-for-teaching-only-academics-in-research-intensive-universities-a-personal-perspective/ Accessed 12 September, 2020 2020.

Nyamapfene, A. (2017). “The UCL Integrated Engineering Programme: A Very Brief Guide.” Engineering Learning and Teaching https://engineeringedu.press/2017/11/06/the-ucl-integrated-engineering-programme-a-very-brief-guide/ 2020.

Nyamapfene, A. (2019). Adoption of computational modelling in introductory engineering course modules: A case study. Proceedings of the 8th Research in Engineering Education Symposium, REES 2019-Making Connections, REES.

Bringing the world to the classroom: Revisiting the “Blended synchronous learning” blog post

A few weeks ago I began to notice an unexpected traffic increase to my blog, and the primary target of this increased traffic was a blog post that I wrote on the 3rd of February, 2017 – that is 3 years and 75 blog posts ago. The blog is entitled “Blended synchronous learning and teaching: Is this the future of university teaching?

One thing was certain, given the Covid-19 pandemic, a lot of academics are scrambling to find out the meanings of all these new terms that have suddenly become a staple of our academic lingua franca – “online learning”, “blended learning”, “synchronous learning” , “asynchronous learning” etc. My blog post had just the right sort of title to show up in Google searches, so I put this down to a fortuitous choice of title.

But then I started noticing that the blog post’s comments section had also become quite active. Not only that, my email box began to see an increased flow of scholarly, academic emails all solemnly enquiring about my experiences with blended synchronous learning. At long last, I realised, my two minutes of academic fame had finally arrived! Which academic would not be thrilled?

Blended synchronous learning: location-independent class attendance

I wrote this blog seven months before we ran the inaugural class of the UCL MSc in Engineering and Education. Like most of the masters programmes offered by the UCL institute of Education (IoE), this programme is aimed at both practising professionals and recent graduates. It seeks to provide an engaging atmosphere in which engineers, policy makers, educators and recent graduates meet to discuss and explore issues surrounding engineering education and training, both in formal educational environments, and in the workplace. Because it specifically targets people in employment, tuition starts at 5 pm, just like most other IoE programmes.

However, we realised that we needed to open up the programme to lots of other people as well. For instance, we wanted individuals outside of London, for instance, busy engineering academics in places like Newcastle and Swansea, or rugged engineers working on oil rigs in the North Sea, for example, to participate in classes without having to leave their workplaces. We also wanted busy Londoners to engage effectively with the programme without always having to rush through the end-of-day traffic congestion to come to classes. For example, a busy Head of Science at a high school in East London would have ample time to dismiss a class of eager 16 year-olds before sitting down on their laptop to attend an MSc class.

We were also aware that our target audience is extremely mobile. For instance, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and most likely after it is gone, engineers working in global organisations and policy makers working in the voluntary sector were, and will certainly be, just as likely to be in Hong Kong, Abuja, Canberra and London on business. So, we needed to make the MSc flexible enough to ensure that anyone could attend live classes no matter where they happened to be at any moment – as long as they had access to the Internet.

Blended synchronous learning: location-independent access to subject experts

We also wanted our students to engage with key innovators in engineering education, no matter where these innovators and thinkers happen to be located. We had the vision that rather than having our students just engaging with the research on an aspect of engineering education, we could actually bring into the class some of the writers and thinkers at the forefront of that field of engineering education. And we would do so remotely through blended synchronous teaching and learning. Hence, we actually created classroom situations where both physically-present students and remote students actually interacted in real time with subject experts dotted all around the world.

Outcomes of adopting a blended synchronous learning approach

The blended synchronous approach has enabled our MSc in Engineering and Education to be accessible to all learners, regardless of whether they are in London or not, and regardless of whether they are working full-time or not. Learners do not need to take time off work, and they do not need to relocate to London, unless they wish to do so. Similarly, subject experts don’t need to spend expensive time flying to and fro London just to participate in our classes.

Blended synchronous learning has made it feasible for both our learners and subject experts to interact with each other from wherever they are in the world. Just think of the virtual conferences and seminars that we have now gotten used to as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. From the comfort of our homes, we can flit from seminar to seminar all right across the world. Our students have been doing just that for the past two years.

UCL likes to call itself London’s Global University. By adopting blended synchronous learning for the MSc Engineering and Education, we believe we have brought to life the aspirations of our university – to be a global university providing opportunities for academic staff and students to engage globally with the world irrespective of where they are.

Reimagine STEM Podcast: The Integrated Engineering Education Episode

In this blog post, I share with you the Reimagine Stem podcast episode in which I reflect on my experiences as a founding member of the Integrated Engineering Programme (IEP) at University College London.

The Australian National University Reimagine Project

The Reimagine project seeks to trigger new, innovative and creative thinking on possible futures for engineering and computing education relevant to the 21st century. The Reimagine STEM podcast is part of this initiative, and it provides a platform for researchers, thinkers and practitioners of engineering education to share their thoughts.

What is the Integrated Engineering Programme (IEP)?

The IEP is an engineering education framework that underpins the undergraduate engineering degree programmes at University College London (UCL).  The IEP framework is based on the premise that modern engineers are increasingly required to find solutions to complex, interdisciplinary problems that span, and often go beyond, the current boundaries of today’s engineering disciplines. This means that today’s engineering graduates must be fully conversant with the theoretical principles of their discipline as well as having the necessary problem solving and communications skills to enable them to work in multi-disciplinary teams on interdisciplinary problems. Moreover, today’s graduate engineers should understand the context of the problems they address, as well as appreciating the ethical, societal and financial connotations of their design decisions.

The link to the Reimagine Podcast

To access the podcast, click here: Integrating engineering education – Abel Nyamapfene

Key Papers on the IEP:

I have previously discussed the IEP in an earlier blog:The UCL Integrated Engineering Programme: A Very Brief Guide. Below I also provide some key papers that we have written over the past few years, and that are designed to give an indepth understanding of the IEP.

Bains, S; (2019) Teaching Technical Communication to Engineering Students at Scale. In: 2019 IEEE International Professional Communication Conference (ProComm). (pp. pp. 83-89). IEEE: Aachen, Germany, Germany. [Download]

Mitchell, JE; Nyamapfene, A; Roach, K; Tilley, E; (2019) Faculty wide curriculum reform: the integrated engineering programme. European Journal of Engineering Education 10.1080/03043797.2019.1593324

Mitchell, J; Nyamapfene, A; Roach, K; Tilley, E; (2019) Philosophies and pedagogies that shape an integrated engineering programme. Higher Education Pedagogies, 4 (1) pp. 180-196. 10.1080/23752696.2018.1507624

Mitchell, JE; Rogers, L; (2019) Staff perceptions of implementing project-based learning in engineering education. European Journal of Engineering Education 10.1080/03043797.2019.1641471

Peters, J; Direito, I; Roach, K; Tilley, E; (2019) Designing inclusive approaches in intensive team-based engineering learning environments. International Journal of Gender, Science and Technology , 11 (1) pp. 93-107.[Download]

A Friday like no other: A reflection on the changing academic world

Today is Friday, 19 June, 2020, and it’s coming to 4 pm as I sit down to start on this blog. What have I been up to today: I spent the first hour of my working day reviewing and signing off the exam marks of the second year Mathematical Modelling and Analysis module that I coordinate. This is a team taught course module, and 16 academics have been marking the scripts for the past two weeks. The exam was done online, all the marking took place online, and all the pertinent discussions pertaining to the marking process were conducted online. Up until the COVID-19 outbreak and the subsequent disruption of all “normal” academic work processes, not one person on the teaching team could have anticipated such a scenario.

At 10:00 I had a choice to make – attend a University of Edinburgh course on STACK, an online assessment tool for mathematics, or attend a university-wide meeting on race at my institution, University College London (UCL). I chose the latter, but the fact that I was faced with this particular choice is significant. The two universities are 395 miles apart, and I am seated in my home, 414 miles from Edinburgh, and 159 miles from UCL. The point is this – our collective shift to an online environment has removed the barriers to communication imposed by distance. In fact, since the closure of in-person tuition in mid March, I have attended several conferences and seminars on Engineering Education in the USA, in Australia, and in Europe – all from my study in my own home. In these conferences, I have participated in breakout rooms with colleagues from Ahmedabad, Ho Chi Minh City, Johannesburg, Lagos, New York, Tulsa, and Adelaide – all from my study-room. This certainly points to a new future.

And my weekly timetable is beginning to be as full as ever – I have meetings with students, with departmental and faculty members, and with other colleagues from across the university. Over and above this, I am attending various other meetings hosted by all the other external bodies that I participate in – engineering institutions, engineering education organisations, and various learning and teaching organisations. My life, my networks and my academic communities have all migrated online.

The meeting on institutional race relations lasted 2 hours, and over 900 colleagues attended. This includes the Provost, academics, and professional service staff. As the Provost acknowledged – this is unprecedented – 900 people attending a university meeting. Clearly, this is an issue that resonates across all ethnicities, and across all generations at UCL. What used to be a marginal ethnic issue in a bygone era has now become a mainstream ethical issue, and as events clearly indicate, not only at UCL, but all over the world. There has been a global awakening, and whilst the spark that set it off was the untimely death of George Floyd, it is an idea whose time has come. Historic prejudices, it appears, no longer have anywhere to hide in this emergent world of the 21st century.

Not only that, this particular meeting upended conventional norms. To begin with, the Provost was not the main person, neither did he drive the agenda, and neither was he the idea behind the meeting. The meeting was convened by one of our black female academics, a rank-and-file academic. The key resource persons were drawn from across the UCL community, and included academics, professional services staff, and a PhD student. Unlike our traditional, 20th century meetings, this meeting was highly interactive, and sought to arrive at binding, implementable resolutions. Comments from meeting participants were summarised in real time and fed back into the discussion. At every turn, polls were used to confirm and ratify decisions, and at the end of the meeting, senior management were presented with the meeting resolutions. This is the closest I have ever come to experiencing the Athenian ideal of democracy, and this has only been made possible through leveraging the full power of online communication. Is this a taste of the future?

Aldert Kamp writes in the foreword to his book “Engineering Education in a Rapidly Changing World“:

When drafting the first issue of this document it sometimes felt like I was manoeuvring a small canoe through a highly viscous fluid of conservatism and complacency, with everybody bogged down by today’s thinking, preparing next Tuesday’s nine o’clock lecture, aiming for the best learning experience by optimising teaching and assessment.

That was my life until Friday, 13 March 2020, the day that UCL announced all face-to-face teaching had been cancelled and that all classes would be moving online henceforth. Then, I was as busy as ever, buried in the day to day minutiae that make up most of our academic lives. That has since disappeared, and we are now learning to live in an entirely new universe. Surely, in time we will be as busy as ever, but will we ever go back to before? I doubt it. COVID-19 is proving to be the change that futuristic educators have been preaching about – volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous, a VUCA world, as Aldert Kamp puts it in his book. Yet, despite their preaching and prophecy, we were so completely unprepared, and we have so much to learn.

A lesson from the Corona virus lockdown: Some advice for Engineering Students (and Educators)

Introduction

That COVID-19 has adversely impacted higher education is without doubt.  In virtually all institutions of higher education worldwide, normal lessons ended abruptly mid-way through the academic year, giving way to online delivery. Labs and other practical activities designed to equip students with hands-on skills in their disciplines stopped overnight, and the normal university bustle and activity critical for academic engagement between students and students, and between students and academics also evaporated overnight. Though online activity has replaced much of  our university life, there is a general perception that this is not quite enough – we yearn for that period of time again when we can go back to the old university life we are so much accustomed to. Yet, this disruption has opened us up to new possibilities that we could never have thought of.

Disruptions as opportunities for learning

One such possibility is this: online learning is not all bad – there are definitely some aspects of online learning that can improve learning and teaching.  The other is this: whilst face to face lectures remain the de facto signature pedagogy for universities, possibly we don’t need so much of them – there are definitely other ways to achieve the same goal, especially with blended learning approaches like flipped learning. And then there is this one: whilst we have tinkered around with the undergraduate engineering syllabus by adding more active learning components like problem/project-based and design-based learning, the engineering syllabus remains heavily oriented towards content delivery. Do we really need to be teaching all this content? Should we not move some of this content-teaching aside and focus more on higher order thinking skills such as analysis, synthesis and evaluation of knowledge?

This is precisely what I am discovering during this lockdown period. Virtually all the content that we deliver in the first and second years of university level engineering education is freely available on Internet.  Name it – it’s there – be it circuit theory and electronics, engineering dynamics and materials, physical chemistry and transport phenomena, calculus and programming or structures and fluid dynamics. This was not the case two or more decades ago, yet, save for the cosmetic changes, the undergraduate engineering syllabus remains virtually unchanged. Of course, it doesn’t mean we should stop teaching this content in universities. With so much high-quality academic material out there on the Internet, it is now the responsibility of the student to make an effort in acquiring these foundational skills. Indeed, with regard to engineering education, it is no longer a case of taking the horse to the water. The horse is already in the water, it’s now a case of the horse choosing where in the water it should take its drink.

Self-directed learning skills as the key to success

The civil engineering student may be motivated to pursue an engineering degree by a desire to design better roads, or a desire to understand bridge design; the electrical and electronics engineering student may be motivated to undertake university level studies by a desire to design and manage power system networks, or a desire to build and operate communications networks. Indeed, the Internet is awash with introductory material on all these fascinating subjects. In addition to the standard text-based lecture notes, there are also a wide variety of online videos and a plethora of interactive, simulation-based courses on all aspects of engineering. Whilst the lack of equitable digital access does indeed suggest that some students experience varying levels of digital exclusion, the current penetration and extent of ICT technologies would suggest that in developed countries almost everyone has reasonable access to the Internet.

Increasingly, students should drive their own learning, and this starts with demonstrating some preparedness to seek out information and to direct their own learning. In turn, a student who engages with their own learning has a deeper understanding of what they seek to achieve in their learning than one who waits for someone else to direct their own learning. This, in turn, will force universities to spend less time on foundational material, and to concentrate on equipping students with the higher order knowledge skills that employers are now demanding. Indeed, students who take it upon themselves to equip themselves with the requisite foundational knowledge are better able to focus on addressing the issues facing engineering today, thereby ensuring that they are better prepared for successful careers in engineering.

The student we should be welcoming into engineering

Traditionally we have demanded a certain level of academic competence in mathematics and the physical sciences for anyone contemplating doing an engineering degree. Which is a better predictor of success in engineering – a demonstration of passion and engagement in engineering, or straight A grades in A Level mathematics and physics? Surely it should be the former, but I accept, traditions take a long time to die away. This is perhaps one of the reasons why the leaky pipe phenomenon has persisted in engineering. By prioritising A grades in A Level mathematics and physics over passion and interest in engineering, we are inadvertently admitting individuals who have mastered the art of being career students, and shutting out those students whose heart is in engineering.

A call to arms

In conclusion, attainment in engineering education is no longer the responsibility of academics and institutions alone. Rather, the student now has a bigger role  to play in their own development as prospective engineers. It’s no longer about paying fees alone and attending lectures and completing the odd assignment;  it’s now more about students  demonstration a willingness and capability to drive their own learning.

The UCL-Ventura breathing aid: An insight into the emerging engineering practices of the 21st century

Introduction

The UCL-Ventura project is a project borne out of the coronavirus pandemic. Its objective was to provide a cheap, effective solution to the dire shortage of ventilator equipment in British hospitals. From conception to delivery, the project took a little over a week, drew on medical research networks spanning countries such as Italy and China, and brought together medical  and engineering expertise from multiple organisations, key amongst them being University College Hospitals,  Mercedes AMG HPP, the UCL Mechanical Engineering Department, and the UCL Institute of Health Engineering. 

What are the factors behind the success of this interdisciplinary, inter-organisational, multi-stakeholder venture? Clare Elwell, professor of Medical Engineering at UCL, has provided an inside story outlining what really transpired throughout the project. Hers is the story of human determination and endeavour; it is a story of human creativity  and innovation in the face of a cataclysmic crisis, and above all, it is a story of ordinary, passionate individuals making the most of their diversity to defeat a problem besetting all humanity. 

My objective is slightly different, though.  All over the world, reformist engineering educators have been preaching the gospel of 21st century engineering  to exasperated students and sceptical academic colleagues. The UCL-Ventura project is an embodiment of this gospel. In this blog piece, my objective is very simple. It is to highlight some of the 21st century skill sets that were deployed in this project. It is my hope that current engineering students will use this blog piece to make connections between their  studies and this project. It is one thing to talk of interdisciplinarity, collaboration and resilience, and another to actually point out and demonstrate their application in a real-life project. Increasingly we are exposing our students to short-duration, intensive, multidisciplinary projects as part of their studies. This blog piece, read in conjunction with Clare Elwell’s story will serve as a helpful case study to guide them as they prepare for these projects. For the engineering educator, my hope is that the UCL-Ventura project will serve as an excellent case study on 21st century engineering practices, and as a template for the development of realistic short duration, multidisciplinary student projects. 

What is 21st century engineering practice?

As many writers have pointed out, 21st-century engineering practice is fundamentally different from engineering practices of the past.This is because the world has become increasingly more complicated and complex. A large part of this is our increasing dependence on technology.  It is no longer possible for any one discipline to address all the problems, issues, or questions that we now face in the 21st century. Instead, problems now require interdisciplinary approaches that draw not only from engineering disciplines, but from the humanities and the physical, biological and social sciences. Not only that, the effective resolution of emerging 21st century problems now often requires a global approach that brings together knowledge and expertise from individuals and organisations drawn from different backgrounds, cultures and countries.  The current Covid-19 pandemic is a case in point. It is not just a medical problem for any one country; it is an all-embracing problem affecting all aspects of humanity, and spanning all the countries of this world. 

Essential Attributes and Skills for the 21st Century Engineer 

Most of the research on the essential graduate attributes and skills for those aspiring to become engineers in the 21st century emphasise that in addition to being technically sound, 21st century engineers should have a broad knowledge-base that goes beyond their field of specialisation, and they should also be equipped with a range of personal and interpersonal skills to enable them to carry out their roles (Abdulwahed et al, 2013). In general, such attributes and skills may include: teamwork, communication, inter/multidisciplinary knowledge, analytical thinking, ingenuity, creativity, technological innovation, business and management skills, leadership, ethics, professionalism, as well as understanding work strategies (National Academy of Engineering, 2004). 

Overview of the UCL-Ventura Project

This project required individuals from various organisations to come together  and contribute their expertise at various phases of the project. To start with, when the urgent need for ventilators became known,  Mervyn Singer, a professor of intensive care medicine at UCL Hospitals drew from his knowledge and expertise to identify an appropriate device type. In addition, he also had an awareness of someone with the engineering skills necessary to deliver the device – Tim Baker from the UCL Mechanical Engineering Department. 

Tim Baker has collaborated extensively with Andy Cowell and Ben Hodgkinson from Mercedes AMG HPP on the student Formula 1 project. As a Formula 1 company, Mercedes AMG HPP have expertise in fast track design and prototype manufacturing, and Tim was aware that this expertise was critical to the success of the project. From within Mercedes AMG HPP, Andy and Ben identified Jamie Robinson, Alex Blakesley and Ismail Ahmad as the people to lead on the fast track design and prototyping task. All three are UCL graduates.

 A team of engineers from UCL Mechanical Engineering and from the UCL Institute of Health Engineering was assembled to work alongside the  Mercedes AMG HPP team. Given the urgency of the situation, this collaborative team of UCL and Mercedes engineers were able to reverse engineer an existing product and have it ready for production within 24 hours. This required resilience and determination from everyone concerned. The fact that  Jamie Robinson, Alex Blakesley and Ismail Ahmad are UCL graduates may also have been a significant factor as the team needed to gel together and get up to speed almost from the very start.`

Before being put on clinical trials, the design had to be approved by the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). Regulatory approval is normally a very lengthy process, but the team were able to get this done within a few days. Credit for this was down to the familiarity of members of the team with the regulatory process, which led to the team’s decision to focus on reverse engineering a previously approved off-patent device, as opposed to making one from scratch. Another reason for this rapid regulatory approval may be down to the ability of the  UCL Institute of Healthcare Engineering to tap into its partnerships with organisations and colleagues within the UK health system.

Unpacking the Skills and Attributes Deployed in the UCL-Ventura Project

The design and development process of the UCL-Ventura breathing aid consisted of several sub processes, some running in tandem and some running in parallel. Examples include design, ordering of components and subsystems,  manufacturing, fabrication and assembly, testing, documentation, and clinical trials. Effective project management and coordination was therefore critical, and the UCL Institute of Healthcare Engineering drew from its experience to provide this. 

Clearly, the success of this project rested almost entirely on effective collaboration and team-working. The individuals and organisations that were brought together have worked closely, on and off,  for many years on several other projects. The assembly of the team was therefore not a random act, but was based on a clear understanding of what each partner would bring to the project. In the classroom, we are sometimes guilty of positing collaboration and team-working as one-off events. Clearly, this is not so. It takes time, money and effort to build effective collaborative partnerships within and beyond engineering, and this project succinctly demonstrates why this is a useful endeavour.

This project also demonstrates that the success of a collaborative project such as this one is dependent on access to various knowledge domains. For instance, the success of this project required knowledge of intensive care medicine, and of ventilators in particular. It also required fast track design and rapid prototyping expertise, product documentation and manufacturing knowledge. This is what we typically refer to as technical know-how.

The project could not have been successful without access to aspects of  expertise that we typically denigrate as soft skills. This includes creativity and innovation, two skills without which the idea of a ventilator could not have been brought into reality. It also includes an awareness of what is possible and what is not possible, from both a technical and regulatory viewpoint, which was important in the team deciding to go for an off-patent device as their starting point. Knowing who could do what and at what point was also important. This is network-domain knowledge that is acquired through years of developing, building and expanding professional relationships within and beyond organisations. 

Another aspect which was critical to the project was communication. This communication is both intra and inter-disciplinary , and is both within-organisation and inter-organisational.  Communication skills shared by the team enabled the transfer of knowledge from one disciplinary area to another,  and helped to facilitate a shared understanding of what needed to be done and when. The effectiveness of communication within this project team depended, in part, on the ability and willingness of team members to learn for each other, and their preparedness and ability to teach others (impart) what they knew. This falls under the umbrella of informal learning, and highlights why the ability to engage in self-directed learning is an important attribute in real-life projects.

Lessons to take forward

Can the skills exhibited in this project be taught, as Shuman et al (2005)  asked at the beginning of the 21st century? The answer is certainly yes, but how can they be taught? Certainly, these are skills for practice, and as skills for practice they are best taught through practice. This is the reason why team-based projects are now a standard staple within engineering schools. The real question, however, is how effective are current approaches to team-based projects within engineering schools? Clearly, the design and implementation of such projects is not as easy as taking a walk down the path. However, practice within engineering schools seems to indicate otherwise. Almost as a routine, academics are assigned to design and lead team-based project learning without the requisite training and support. And with regard to the assessment of such activities, how certain are we that the assessment is fit for purpose? Too many times, I have witnessed  assessors adopt a confetti approach to the awarding of project marks. What is the meaning of these marks – certainly no one knows for certain. So if anything, the UCL-Ventura project, alongside many other projects that have been rolled out during this coronavirus crisis, should force us to rethink and re-evaluate the way we do team-based projects. There is a long way to go, and these projects are a useful template to adopt and learn from. 

References

National Academy of Engineering. 2004. “4 Attributes of Engineers in 2020.” The Engineer of 2020: Visions of Engineering in the New Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10999.

Shuman,L, Besterfield-Sacre, M. and  McGourty ,J. (2005). The ABET Professional Skills – Can They be Taught? Can They Be Assessed? The Journal of Engineering Education, Vol. 94, No. 1 

Abdulwahed, M., Balid, W., Hasna, M. O., & Pokharel, S. (2013). Skills of engineers in knowledge based economies: A comprehensive literature review, and model development. In Proceedings of 2013 IEEE International Conference on Teaching, Assessment and Learning for Engineering (TALE) (pp. 759-765). IEEE.