Towards an understanding of the current state of Engineering Education

Introduction

Kitty O’Brien Joyner (Langley’s first female engineer) Credit: NASA/Langley Research Center

Over the past two decades, employers, governments, and practising engineers have become increasingly critical of the current state of engineering education.  The consensus is that current engineering education is ill-suited for the modern engineering workplace.  Graduate engineers progressing into the world of work perceive a disjunction between the engineering education they have gone through and the engineering work they are required to undertake. On the political and economic front, governments fear that the products of current engineering education do not have the skills to drive the economic transformation that their nations need to remain competitive.

In this blog piece, I present five articles that can help you get an insight into the current transformations that are taking place in engineering education. The first article, from UNESCO, gives an overall insight into the global state of engineering education. Although this article was published in 2010, it remains highly relevant to understanding global practices in engineering education. The second article, from the National Academy of Engineering, takes us to the thoughts and discussions that took place in the United States at the turn of the century as they tried to determine the sought of engineer who would thrive and prosper in the 21st century. The third piece of work that I present here is Guru Madhavan’s book Think like an engineer, which, through stories and anecdotes, posits that the modern-day engineer is all these things – a problem-solver, a visionary, an innovator, and a pragmatist. The fourth piece of work is Goldberg and Somerville’s 2014 book in which they share their experiences in transforming engineering education in a start-up engineering school and in an established research university. My fifth recommendation is the MIT report by Ruth Graham which seeks to identify current and emerging institutional leaders in engineering education.

My five key readings

This UNESCO Engineering Report is the outcome of a collaborative effort by individuals and engineering organisations led by UNESCO that sought to highlight the importance of engineering to the solution of most of the problems and challenges that the world is currently facing. This includes issues affordable health care, energy, transportation, climate change, drinking water, natural and man-made disaster mitigation, environmental protection, and natural resource management. Authored by over 120 individuals, the report discusses what engineering is, and provides case studies of how engineering can be harnessed to solve the many challenges and problems the world is facing. Importantly, the report provides an overview of engineering and engineering education across the world. The challenges highlighted in this report have since been crystallised into the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and the report is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand why engineering and engineering education are key to the resolution of these goals.

  • National Academy of Engineering. (2004). The Engineer of 2020: Visions of Engineering in the New Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/10999.

This book is the outcome of a project initiated by the United States National Academy for Engineering to envision the future of engineering and engineering education. The book identifies the key attributes and aspirations that we now associate with the 21C engineer. This is a useful reading for anyone who wishes to understand the motivations underpinning current engineering education reforms.

  • Madhavan, G. (2016). Think like an engineer: Inside the minds that are changing our lives. Oneworld Publications

This book was written by an individual with experience in both engineering practice and policy making, and it gives unique insights into the thought-processes of engineers. Drawing from his own experiences and using case studies drawn from a variety of engineering disciplines, the author suggests that engineers blend and structured thinking, common sense and creativity, and their own insights and personal intuitions into engineering problem solving. Importantly, the book highlights the impact of an engineer’s personal circumstances and background to the unique insights that they bring to engineering problem solving. This book is important for someone seeking to understand the engineering thought processes that are critical to engineering problem solving and creativity.

  • Goldberg, D. E., & Somerville, M. (2014). A whole new engineer. The coming revolution in Engineering Education. Douglas MI: Threejoy.

This book provides an insider perspective into the engineering education reforms implemented at Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering and the was the Illinois Foundry for Innovation in Engineering Education (iFoundry) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The book gives the shared philosophy and vision underpinning the reforms carried out at Olin, a small start-up engineering college, and at the University of Illinois, a well-established, large, research university founded in 1867.  The book is ideal for individuals wishing to learn “from the horse’s mouth” what it takes to carry out successful engineering education reform.

This is a groundbreaking report that MIT commissioned to get a global overview of what constitutes the cutting edge of engineering education, and to gain insights into the future progression of engineering education. The report is based on interviews with 50 global opinion leaders in engineering education from 18 countries and addresses the following questions:

  1. Which institutions worldwide are considered the current leaders in engineering education?
  2. Which institutions worldwide are considered the emerging leaders in engineering education?
  3. What key challenges are likely to constrain the global progress of engineering education?
  4. How is engineering education worldwide likely to develop in the future?

Getting started in Engineering Learning & Teaching: My top five articles

Photo by Jeswin Thomas on Unsplash

Introduction

It can be a daunting task for someone getting into engineering learning and teaching to identify the papers they need to read in order to get started. At a minimum, I presume that the colleague who is starting out needs a brief overview of the history of engineering education so as to get some grounding in the field. They might also need something on learning and teaching methods in engineering that is easy to read, is reasonably up to date and has proven itself over the years. Then they might want some concrete proof of what works and what doesn’t work in practice. They might also want to know why learning and teaching practices might need to be reformed, and getting this evidence, they might also be looking to hear from someone who has actually been involved in some engineering education reform and lived to tell the tale. In this blog piece I provide 5 articles that will go some way to providing answers to these question.

Goodhew, P. (2014). Teaching Engineering. All you need to know about engineering education but were too afraid to ask. Royal Academy of Engineering. Available at: http://www.goodhew.co.uk/GoodhewTeachingEngineeringDec14plus.pdf

This book, written by an engineering educator who has been at the coalface of engineering education reform for the past two decades, has been freely available in one form or another since 2010. It provides concise coverage of the key topics in engineering learning and teaching, and for this reason it is ideal for the reader who wishes to catch up quickly with current trends in the field.

Passow, H. J., & Passow, C. H. (2017). What competencies should undergraduate engineering programs emphasize? A systematic review. Journal of Engineering Education106(3), 475-526. https://doi.org/10.1002/jee.20171

Research into engineering learning and teaching has only recently begun to move on from a stage where the bulk of published material is from practitioners reporting about their own experiences within the classroom. Most of this work produces outcomes that are difficult to replicate in different settings., In contrast, this paper uses the systematic review approach to investigate and identify what works and what does not work within engineering learning and teaching. By definition, a systematic literature review is a comprehensive, transparent search for evidence that is conducted over multiple sources from multiple databases to identify outcomes and results that have been replicated and reproduced by many researchers. This means that findings from this study are more likely to be replicable and therefore to be more valuable to both researchers and the practitioners.

Froyd, J. E., Wankat, P. C., & Smith, K. A. (2012). Five major shifts in 100 years of engineering education. Proceedings of the IEEE100(Special Centennial Issue), 1344-1360. https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/abstract/document/6185632

A common inclination amongst those of us privileged enough to be actively engaged in the current phase of engineering education reform is to assume that learning and teaching methods in engineering have remained static until now. History says otherwise. This paper takes the reader through the five epochs of engineering education reform that have taken place in the USA. Other countries have gone through similar experiences, although the details may differ here and there. Being aware of historical trends is important as it helps reformers to be on the lookout for any potential pitfalls in their practice.

Trevelyan, J. (2007). Technical coordination in engineering practice. Journal of Engineering Education96(3), 191-204. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.2168-9830.2007.tb00929.x

A longstanding accusation brought against engineering education is that there is a disjunction between what is taught in engineering school and what graduate engineers are required to do when they move into the engineering workplace. This paper reports the outcomes of a study carried out to identify the engineering skills, attitude and technical knowledge that really matter in the workplace. The paper therefore provides the engineering educator with something to work toward as they prepare their students for the engineering workplace.  

Mitchell, J.E., Nyamapfene, A., Roach, K. and Tilley, E. (2021) Faculty wide curriculum reform: the integrated engineering programme, European Journal of Engineering Education, 46:1, 48-66. https://doi.org/10.1080/03043797.2019.1593324

Few education reformers have the opportunity to design institutional engineering curriculum completely from scratch. Instead, most reformers must work from a live engineering curriculum with real students on it, and with educators who are committed to it. This has its own challenges. This paper gives the reader insights on how a well-established research institution went about reforming its engineering curriculum.

Engineering Learning & Teaching: Top 10 Titles for 2020

The year 2020 has finally come to an end, and we are off to a new start with the year 2021. This is also the fifth year the the Engineering Learning and Teaching blog has been running. I have had the opportunity to engage, through this blog, with students, engineering educators, researchers and practising engineers from literally every corner of the world, and it has been a very exciting and immensely rewarding experience for me.

Viewership has steadily increased from an average of 65 views per month in 2015 to the present 800 views per month in 2020. Thank you for all your support over the past five years, and I look forward to another exciting year as we continue our journey, dissecting and analysing issues in engineering education as they emerge. In today’s blog piece, I present the top ten articles on the Engineering Learning and Teaching Blog.

These ten topics illustrate the diversity of the blog’s readership, and I am looking forward to expanding beyond this range. If you have suggestions for topics that you would like me to explore, just let me know via the comments section, or via twitter (@AbelNyamapfene), or via linkedIn or send me an email (a dot nyamapfene at ucl dot ac dot uk)

1: Interdisciplinary Engineering Education: Difficult, but not Impossible

This blog was primarily written for the busy engineering academic and administrator. The blog addresses two questions relating to interdisciplinarity in engineering education: For the ordinary engineering academic, it serves to answer this question: “What is interdisciplinary education, and how can I get started?” And for the senior engineering academic tasked with leading engineering degree programmes, it seeks to provide answers to the question: “How do we develop a truly interdisciplinary engineering curriculum?”

2: Engineering Education: Potential Journals in Which to Publish

Engineering academics usually have training in the physical sciences, and engineering education research is usually an entirely new research discipline for them. This blog helps to smoothen their journey into engineering education research by providing them with a list of bona fide journals that they can publish in. 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. I have provided a mirror list here: REEN Engineering Education Research (EER) Journal List.

3: The Piano Method for Studying Mathematics

This post was written primarily for students of engineering who are starting on their engineering studies, but are living in fear of the engineering mathematics modules they have to cover. This blog seeks to inform the student that mathematics, at its barest minimum, is a practice that one can master only through discipline and practice. Using the example of someone learning to play the piano, the blog emphasises that mastery of mathematics requires a lot of passion , determination, and willingness to practise constantly.

4: Blended synchronous learning and teaching: Is this the future of university teaching?

I wrote this blog in 2017, well before the current COVID-19 pandemic, to publicise our then novel approach to learning and teaching on the UCL MSc Engineering and Education that enables students to attend virtually or in person. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, this hybrid approach has become mainstream, and this blog provides useful insights that other teachers can adopt in their own teaching.

5: Excelling in University-level Mathematics, and not Just Surviving

One of the main reasons why I think early-stage engineering students often struggle is that they have not yet developed a disciplined process of carrying out their academic work. In this blog I discuss some of the critical study skills that students of mathematical disciplines such as engineering ought to acquire. A lot has been written on study skills, and I have gone through some of the key writings to distil the essential elements that a first year student embarking on a mathematically-oriented degree programme ought to know and make use of. I wrote this blog in 2015. However, following the COVID-19 pandemic, we have built in all the study steps that I outlined in this blog into our online engineering mathematics teaching, and this has provided our students with a helpful, structured study approach for which they are very grateful.

6: Student Assignments, Missed Deadlines and the Planning Fallacy

As academics and students, we are all familiar with the rush to submit assignments just before the deadline expires. It doesn’t matter how much time the lecturer allows for the assignment, statistically most students will submit their assignments on or at the close of the deadline, and more often than not, these submissions will be rushed and clearly unpolished. In this blog I raise this issue, and suggest that this may be down to the planning fallacy, whereby students routinely overestimate their capabilities, and underestimate the amount of work that they need to do.

7: Excelling in Engineering School: Collaborate – Being smart is not enough

One of the key study skills that engineering students have to muster is collaboration with their peers. Usually our students are high performers who are used to individual study in high school. Often, such students tend to struggle in the first year at university, and a key reason is that they have chosen to ignore the advice : “Two heads are better than one” when it comes to studying. In this blog, I use findings from a range of studies to convince students that team-working and peer collaboration are critical to their success as students, and to their success as practising professionals when they graduate.

8: The global state-of-the-art in engineering education: A review

As engineering academics, we often have education leadership roles thrust upon us, not because we have shown any particular aptitude for engineering education, but as an obligatory requirement as senior academics within our academic departments. As a conscientious academic thrust into this unfamiliar role, you may well be wondering:

  1. Whose voice should I listen to if I am considering curriculum change in my own school?
  2. Which successful institutions, worldwide, should I turn to for guidance?
  3. Of these successful institutions, which ones closely match my own, in terms of size, operational environment and institutional education mission?
  4. Of the plethora of engineering education models out there, which ones are likely to stand the test of time, and which one are just passing fads?

One source that you can turn to is the publication by Ruth Graham: “The global state-of-the-art in engineering education: Outcomes of Phase 1 benchmarking study” In this blog I review this important publication, and hopefully this will encourage you to explore the publication in more detail.

9: UK-based Engineering Education Research (And Related) Phd Theses since 2000

As the discipline of Engineering Education Research (EER) becomes more and more mainstream, an increasing number of people are seeking to pursue PhD research in this area. However, as a new discipline, the number of publicly available EER PhD dissertations is still small, and difficult for the novice EER researcher to locate. In this blog, I present a list of 66 EER PhD Dissertations undertaken in UK universities, and completed and released into the public domain in the period 2000 -2016.

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

The COVID-19 pandemic has been catastrophic for most of us. However, as so often happens in times of disaster, it has also shone a light on the best of humanity. The collaborative design and development of urgently required breathing kits is a case in point. From an engineering education point of view, these collaborative efforts provided critical insights into how individuals and organisation collaborate in real life to get things done. The UCL-Ventura breathing aid is just one example of many such projects. In this blog, I review the work undertaken to develop the UCL-Ventura breathing aid, with the specific objective of drawing parallels between this project and the skills and competences that students learn in challenge based classes, and in final year group projects.

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]