Engineering Education Research – Whither the UK?

As I have confessed in some of my previous blogs, I am unashamedly committed to Engineering Education. I like the best for my students, and I believe that it is an obligation for every engineering department to offer its students the best education possible.  However, I am also a realist, and I recognise the detrimental impact of the Research Excellence Framework on learning and teaching. The money is currently on research, scientific research that leads to technological innovations, and it makes academic sense to focus on research as opposed to teaching. Nevertheless, I remain hooked to Engineering Education Research, and am inspired by its potential to transform Engineering Education.

The case for improving Engineering Education within the UK and beyond is well documented[1]. First, sufficient numbers of students need to be channelled into engineering so as to provide the human resource for the technology-based 21st century economy[1].  More students need to gain access into   Engineering Education, and progression rates need to be raised by reducing the number of students who drop out. In addition, both industry and higher education need to reduce the leakage of qualified graduates into non-engineering careers.

Having a large number of entrants into engineering careers is not sufficient by itself. The quality of the education offered should be such that students are motivated to learn about engineering and to aspire to pursue engineering careers. This minimises talent leakages, and also works as a powerful recruitment tool for new students as more potential students get to hear about engineering through word of mouth. Not only that, the Engineering Education of the 21st century needs to produce work-ready graduates. This means that engineering departments need to adopt learning and teaching approaches that equip students with the necessary technical and soft skills needed by employers.

Producing an Engineering Education system that meets the qualitative and quantitative requirements outlined above is not easy. To begin with, apart from superficial changes, Engineering Education has been remarkably conservative. As in the 1960’s, Engineering Education is still dominated by didactic, teacher-centred approaches to teaching. The lecture method is still dominant, and the expected role of the teacher is still to instruct the students and to give them the necessary facts. In turn, the role of the students is to passively accept the teacher as the expert, and to commit the knowledge into memory without questioning. Apart from introducing new innovative, student-centred, experiential teaching methods, a cultural change amongst both the academics and students is needed. Clearly, knowing the “why”, “what”, and “how” of educational change is not a trivial task. This requires time, effort, and investment in Engineering Education Research (EER).

As Henderson et al [2] suggest, implementing innovation in Engineering Education  requires well researched change strategies that involve long-term interventions, lasting a semester, a year, and longer, and that take into account the prevailing  values and belief systems within the target institution.  This therefore calls for well-resourced EER strategies.

Given the clearly enunciated socio-economic benefits of improved Engineering Education, one would expect that academics are falling over each other trying to embark on EER. There are 162 universities in the UK,  and of these, 108 currently offer engineering and technology undergraduate programmes [1]. You would be expecting a pipeline of funding to be flowing into EER, and, at a minimum, one would expect at least half of these universities to have well established EER research groups.  Sadly, this is not the case.  A 2013 survey of EER researchers [3] suggests that in the UK, EER is mainly carried out on an individual basis  by teaching and learning staff.  There is hardly any dedicated research staff or students. The survey also shows that 65% of those undertaking EER estimate they spend 20% or less of their time on this activity, which means that EER is still an academic hobby, and not a serious research undertaking as in the USA and Australia.

Simply typing in the phrase “Engineering Education Research Group” into Google quickly confirms the hobby status of EER in the UK. Out of the 110,000,000 search results, only five UK based EER research groups show up. It seems all EER research is taking place “across the pond” as it were. And this casts doubt on our commitment to Engineering Education as a nation. We are talking the talk, and not walking the walk. Should we not be following the age-old advice: “Put your money where your mouth is”?

References

[1]          EngineeringUK, “Engineering UK 2015: The state of engineering,” EngineeringUK, 2015.

[2]          C. Henderson, A. Beach, and N. Finkelstein, “Facilitating change in undergraduate STEM instructional practices: An analytic review of the literature,” Journal of Research in Science Teaching, vol. 48, pp. 952-984, 2011.

[3]          J. Shawcross and T. Ridgman, “Publishing Engineering Education Research, HEA Academy Working Paper,” Higher Education Academy, 2013.

 

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