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?

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.

Making the transition to university: Of lectures and empty timetables

The Fallacy of the Empty Timetable

Students progressing from high school to university are often shocked at how empty their timetables are when they first look at them.  A first year engineering timetable typically shows only 20 to 25 hours of lectures, workshops, tutorials, design classes and labs. And even more scary, non-engineering timetables are, by and large, even emptier. These timetabled hours are referred to as contact hours. They are the scheduled hours where a lecturer or tutor actually leads or interacts with you in a study session. Of course, you get to meet with lecturers and tutors significantly more than these timetabled hours suggest, but given the rather hefty fees that students are now paying at university, you may be left wondering: “Am I going to get my money’s worth of education?”

Attending Lectures the Wrong Way

Again, you may never have attended a lecture whilst in high school, and when you first show up at university you may be wondering what it really is, and why it is so much disliked, or feared, by so many students. Hopefully, your personal tutor, or programme director, may have attempted to explain to you during Freshers’ Week what a lecture is? However, whether or not they have done so, your first experience of a lecture is more likely to be one of shock.

The typical first lecture usually goes as follows: You show up to the lecture room, or more correctly, lecture hall, on the first day of teaching. You see a sea of students, may be fifty, one hundred, two hundred,  or even more,  seated in neat rows, all facing towards the front where someone is standing, fiddling with some PowerPoint slides. This is distinctly very different from your high school days when classes used to be no more than twenty or thirty students. The lecture usually starts with some introductory remarks about the material to be covered and why it is important to your studies. Pretty soon, you are flying through chunks of new material as the lecturer races against the clock. You soon realise that at the rate the lecture is going, in just one hour you will have gone through the equivalent of an entire week of high school teaching. The material flies at you fast, and as you are trying to grasp the last sentence, you look up and the lecturer has moved on to the next section. You switch on to the new section, and before you even settle down, the lecturer is off on to another topic. By this time your mind is spinning, and a cloud of self-doubt has enveloped you: “Is this the right course for me?”

Every now and then the lecturer pauses to ask a question, and to your surprise, you see a few hands raised, and someone provides the lecturer with the answer s/he is looking for. An answer? Where the hell did they learn that material, you wonder.  Someone even has the audacity to ask the lecturer a detailed question regarding the flurry of material on the lecturer’s slides. At this point you go into shock-mode – were the A level results a true reflection of your capabilities, you begin to wonder.  Helpfully, you look around you, and you see a sea of bewildered faces, and from the corner of your eyes, you begin to see the rows behind you emptying quietly, and fast. You realise you are not alone.  So this is the lecture, but is it value for money, particularly the hefty fees you are paying for this year, you wonder.

Taking charge of your own Study Timetable

Back in your room, after your first ever lecture, you begin to piece together your first day at university – empty timetable slots and breakneck lectures: this is university. Only then, do you realise, one: that the timetable is not so empty after all – it is a template that you must fill with your own study plans, and two: that the lecture is not meant for the lecturer to teach you, high-school style, whilst you recline in your seat – it is a tried-and-tested signposting method to enable you to direct your own studies of the topic. This is where university differs from high school. In high school, the teacher pretty much goes through all the material that you need to master if you are to pass your exams. All you need to do is to take in the material, and remember to reproduce it in the required form during the exams. At university it is a completely different ball-game – it is you, the student, who has to study the material, it is you, the student, who has to decide whether the lecture material suffices or you need to augment it, it is you the student who has to decide what sort of additional material you need to read in order to fully master the topic, and it is your responsibility to decide how much time and how much effort you ought to put into your studies. How then can you master lectures? Simple, like any established human activity, the lecture consists of three connected phases, namely the Before-, During- and After-Lecture phases.

The Before-Lecture phase

Before you even set foot in the lecture hall, you ought to prepare for it. As a general rule, lecture materials are posted on the virtual learning environment (VLE) well before the lectures. In addition, most lecturers even provide quizzes and guides to help you in your preparation. I would suggest that you put in 1 ½ hours of preparation for each hour of the lecture. First, scheme through the lecture material for the first half hour, then try to read and understand the concepts in the next hour, noting down areas that appear to be confusing, and identifying any background material that you need to be conversant with if you are to understand the question. Engineering lecture materials almost always have worked examples that illustrate key concepts:  go through these examples, and, again, note areas of concern. Work through any of the pre-lecture supplementary material supplied by the lecturer, and then at the end of the Before-Lecture phase, prepare a tentative list of questions that you wish the lecturer to clarify during the actual lecture.

The During-Lecture phase

During the lecture, pay attention to what the lecturer is saying. Usually the slides are just pointers to additional material, and the lecturer usually adds in more detail to explain and clarify issues. Importantly, the lecturer usually attempts to link the lecture material to the pre-lecture supplementary material. Usually you may be given opportunities to try out further examples in class, or to go over the examples in the pre-lecture material. Attempt these using the lecture material, and compare your answers with the suggested solution. If you have fully prepared during the Before-Lecture phase, working through the given examples should be relatively easy. As in all learning processes, there may be concepts that remain difficult to understand. Do not be afraid to raise your hands and ask questions, and make note of all the answers. During this time those students who are yet to grasp the wisdom of pre-lecture preparation may be looking at you incredulously. Just ignore them. It’s not about them, it’s about you and your learning.

The After-Lecture phase

After the lecture, allocate a further two to three hours to go over the lecture material. This is the After-Lecture phase, and, in general, you may not complete this phase in one block. Go carefully through the lecture, and through the notes that you made before and during the lecture, creating a fresh set of notes as you go along. Nowadays, universities routinely record lectures. Go through the lecture recording to review any areas that were unclear in the lecture. It can be very tempting to skip lectures and rely on the lecture recordings alone. However, if you have ever attempted to go through a two-hour lecture recording in its entirety, you will immediately see the futility of trying to do so. As a guideline, always remember that lecture recording should only be used as a supporting resource to the actual lecture.

It’s impossible to master all the material in one go, unless you are an exceptional genius. Typically you need to go over the material several times, and to work through a lot of examples to ensure that you fully master the topic. Set aside time to go over the material in the coming days and weeks, and meet up with other students to discuss the material. Often you may find that one of your colleagues is able to explain some of the concepts that you are struggling with in a much clearer way than the lecturer.  Learning is a collaborative process, and you learn better by inter-working with other students. Learning at university is not for the one-man or one-woman hero. It is a collective effort that takes place within a community of learners.

Integrating Lectures, Worksheets and Workshops

Most of the material covered in engineering lectures often needs to be applied to practical engineering problem-solving. Gone are the days of learning theory for the sake of theory. Usually each lecture is accompanied by a worksheet which starts off with introductory questions aimed at assessing and helping you to reinforce your understanding of the key lecture concepts. These are then usually followed by progressively more challenging and more authentic engineering-oriented problems.

Usually each lecture is accompanied by a workshop session a few days after the lecture. The aim of this workshop is to assist you in applying the lecture material to problem-solving. Usually the workshop is based around the lecture worksheet.  You typically work consecutively through the worksheet problems, with the lecturer and/or workshop tutors moving around to see how well you are doing. As with the lecture, it helps to prepare for the workshop by going through some of the problems. If you have done so, bring these solutions to the workshop sessions. Discuss problem areas with the workshop tutors as they move around the class room. Usually you are expected to work collaboratively with other students to solve the problems. Make an effort to contribute and share your learning with others. As so often said, the best way to learn a new topic is to teach others. By so doing, you will be able to reinforce your understanding.

At the end of the workshop, go back and update your notes, paying particular attention to the various approaches that you have learnt to solve the worksheet problems. As before, in your timetable, in the following weeks set aside some time to go over the material as well as to attempt any of the problems that you did not find time to do during the workshop session. Additionally, look up the coursework accompanying the material and start thinking about it.

Conclusion

So, in conclusion, if the university timetable still looks so empty, and the lectures still appear to be such a waste of time, then you must be doing something wrong, or you are too good for the course. Either way, you need to speak to your personal tutor or programme director urgently. After all, university does not come cheap.

When the exam results come out

The end of the academic year is drawing near, and most students are in the midst of exams. Soon the results will be out, and for continuing students it will now be time to go off to their summer-time work placements, or to some well-earned holiday somewhere. For the final year students, it will now be time to prepare for the graduation ceremonies to come, and to nail that first graduate level job if they have not done so already. My focus is on the continuing student: What do you do with your results when they come out?

As I have said time and again, engineering school is no longer just about attending classes, doing assignments and reading for and writing exams. In addition to academic performance, employers now demand that prospective employees be able to demonstrate that they are work-ready. This means that more than ever before, students now need to take charge of their own learning and professional development. One good thing is that the engineering curriculum has undergone huge changes to include employability and work-readiness skills for students. However, in today’s competitive graduate-level job market, this is hardly enough. Students now need to go that extra mile to ensure they stand out amongst their peers. This means that the student of today should now take full control of planning, monitoring and reviewing their own learning and professional development, starting from the first year in university, right up to the day they graduate and leave university.

Before embarking on their studies, the diligent student now needs to identify their own learning and professional development goals, as well as figuring out how these will be achieved and how they will be evaluated and evidenced.  Continual professional development (CDP) and personal portfolios immediately come to mind.  Engineering institutions are expert at this, and hence, more than ever before, it is now imperative to take up student membership of an engineering institution in your discipline.

The release of the end of year academic results is an ideal period for the individual student to reflect on their whole learning journey over the recent academic year. This review and reflection should also focus on all the self-directed professional development activities that you participated in. If, however, you have not been following a personal learning and professional development plan, the release of academic results is the best time to develop one for the coming year. Here are five suggestions on how you can undertake your own personal review as well as making plans for the coming year.

  1. Evaluate your attainments against your goals for the year

The first step is to assess the extent to which you met your learning and professional development goals in the passing academic year. Which goals did you meet? Which goals did you surpass, and which goals did you miss? For the goals that you met, identify the activities and strategies that contributed to this. And for the goals that you surpassed, ask yourself why you were so successful. Is it that you outperformed your expectations, or you set a low bar when you wrote them down at the beginning of the year?  For the goals that you missed, identify the reasons why you missed them. Were you too ambitious, or did you underperform?  Most of us are susceptible to blind spots in our own performance. To avoid this, it is best to carry out this exercise with a supportive colleague. They can give you their honest assessment of your performance, and you can do the same for them.

  1. Revisit your interest and commitment to your planned career

As we progress with our studies, we gain a deeper understanding of the career that we are preparing for, as well as better insights into our own interests, aspirations and capabilities.  In some cases, our studies will affirm our choice of career – namely that the career makes a perfect fit with our personality. In some instances, as we progress through our studies, it may dawn on us that our intended career is not the right one for us, or we become aware of other more interesting career possibilities that we were previously unaware of. Either way, we need to assess the match between our personal interests and possible career choices available to us.

This situation is fairly common.  For example, according to the 2014/15 Destination of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey, less than half of all UK engineering and built environment first degree graduates entered into careers in these fields. In the case of mechanical engineering, less than a third (27.6%) took up a career in their field of study. This was even lower for electrical and electronic engineers, of whom only about a fifth (22%) took up a career in their field of study. A possible reason for this is that in the UK students often have to choose a particular engineering discipline when they apply to university. It can be argued that at this stage few students are fully aware of what their chosen discipline fully entails, or they may have an incomplete perception of their own interests, inclinations and capabilities. The end of the year is therefore an ideal opportunity to review career goals and to lay down plans for the forthcoming year.

  1. Study the successes and failures of others

There is a lot that one can learn from other students. This includes learning from those in other year-groups, and those in other disciplines and subject areas. There is evidence to suggest that engineering careers are now more interdisciplinary, more diverse, and cut across more subject areas than what the current disciplinary divisions of engineering in universities suggest. Studying the trajectories taken by students in year groups ahead of you helps to improve your understanding of current career opportunities. You also learn what works and doesn’t work in your situation. Establishing personal connections with students ahead of you will ensure that you are kept informed of current trends and opportunities in industry. The economy is never static, and employment fluctuates from year to year, and from one field to the next. Keeping track of students ahead of you will enable you to make more informed decisions as you progress through your course. You also get to know what works and what doesn’t work from their successes and failures.

  1. Have a coach to make sure you stick to your plans

It is difficult to stick to a plan over the course of a year. Other things might come up and distract you.  These may be personal or academic, or both. Or your course may demand more from you than what you expected when you developed your plan. Or it may simply be that you just get lazy over time and let things go.  We are human, after all. In particular, in the first and second year of your studies you may feel that you are still far away from when you have to look for a job. This will be completely wrong, as jobs tend to go to those who are most prepared.

To ensure that you stay on track you need to find someone to whom you are accountable for your own personal learning and professional development. Such a person should be prepared to follow up on you, and to take you to task if you start falling off your planned trajectory. That person could be a fellow student, in which case you can be their coach as well. Or it could be someone from outside the university. In either case, that individual should be committed to keeping track of your progress, and should be an individual whom you can take into your confidence.

  1. Enjoy your learning and professional development journey

This may look out of place, but the fact is that those individuals who go on to succeed in their careers really enjoy what they do. As a student you should enjoy your studies, and should enjoy taking part in extra-curricular activities related to your future career. In addition to gaining skills and expertise in your prospective career, this also helps you to develop confidence in yourself as an individual and in your abilities as a budding engineer. Self-confidence and being comfortable with your prospective career are important in securing and holding onto work placements and your first job after graduating.

WannaCry and MalwareTech: Critical lessons for university students

On Friday 12th May, 2017 a massive ransomware cyber-attack struck across the whole world, hitting nearly 100 countries around the world, including Russia, China, India, Ukraine, Spain, France and  the UK. The attack was totally indiscriminate in nature. It struck at individuals, small businesses and even large well-established organisation like the UK National Health Service (NHS), Spain’s largest telecommunications provider, Telefonica and the French carmaker Renault. Worldwide, governments scrambled to find solutions to this attack. Here in the UK, an emergency COBRA meeting was hastily convened. Basically, COBRA refers to the British Government’s emergency response committee set up to respond to a national or regional crisis.

By evening, however, a 22-year-old going by the online name MalwareTech had found a solution  that brought the rampaging ransomware to an abrupt halt. In so doing, MalwareTech moved from obscure anonymity to global fame. It was now the turn for journalists to discover who this previously unknown expert could be.  Sure enough, the hero’s name was soon all over the British media, and in no time packs of journalists from all over the world were besieging his doorstep in Ilfracombe, a remote seaside village in North Devon, England. For the entire weekend, and most of the following week, MalwareTech became a household name, the toast of social media, and a topic of conversation in local pubs – everywhere, that is, except in the hallowed corridors of higher education.

The media loves simple, high impact, easy to digest headlines, and they did just that in this case. The Telegraph ran with the headline “British 22-year-old jumped around in excitement after finding way to stop global cyber attack”; the MailOnline opted for “British cyber whiz hailed `accidental hero´ after stopping global virus”; and the Sun went for “NHS HACK HERO The NHS cyber attack hero Marcus Hutchins is a 22-year-old Brit computer genius who was once expelled from school for hacking.” What stuck in the public imagination were the term “accidental hero”, MalwareTech’s relative youth, and his affinity for pizza, and the fact that he is self-taught. I beg to differ. MalwareTech is no accidental hero, but an accomplished professional, and it is well-worth learning from him.

In this article I discuss some of the key aspects that I think have played a significant role in establishing MalwareTech as an expert in the field of cybersecurity.All these aspects are part of the bouquet of skills hardline computing and engineering aficionados in universities up and down the country derisively call “soft skills”. Clearly in MalwareTech’s world, these are not “soft skills”, but critical professional skills that underpin their expertise in cybersecurity.

  1. Take charge and invest in your own learning

Most students are dependent on teachers and lecturers to develop their own understanding of a subject area, and only pay lip-service to the advice that they should take responsibility for their own learning. Not so with MalwareTech. From the various newspaper coverages, it is apparent that MalwareTech has invested significantly in his own learning. He has built a state of the art computer security lab in in his own room.

MalwareTech’s professional blog site  suggests that he has been actively involved in  cybersecurity since when he was at least 18, or possibly earlier. His solution to the ransomware problem is not nearly as accidental as the newspapers put it. His blog, including the particular blog post in which he announced the solution to stop the ransomware, shows clearly that MalwareTech has built up a repertoire of expertise and contacts over the past few years.  It is this expertise and contacts database that made it possible for him to find the solution which the whole world was looking for.

  1. Be part of a community of practice

Even though MalwareTech lives in a remote location, he is not a hermit. He is well-connected with the cyber-security community across the world. A look at his blogposts shows that he engages in ongoing debates with colleagues around the world. Apart from maintaining an active presence on social media, MalwareTech also attends cybersecurity conferences, including DEFCON, the world’s largest annual convention for internet hackers.

  1. Engage in Peer Learning

In his blogs MalwareTech discusses what he is doing, and takes on board comments from respondents. In educational terms, we can say that MalwareTech and his colleagues are using social media to engage in peer learning with the clear objective of furthering their understanding of a rapidly evolving technical field.

A look at his blogsite indicates that some of MalwareTech’s articles are clearly intended to share views with colleagues who have comparable expertise as himself. Invariably, his postings lead to technical debates in the blog comments section, as well as on twitter.

  1. Share your expertise with novices and non-experts

Many students shy away from sharing their knowledge, or teaching, colleagues who also want to build up their expertise in their professional area. A look at MalwareTech’s blog shows up a number of blog posts clearly intended for novices and non-experts. This includes blogposts like Automatic Transfer Systems (ATS) for Beginners, How Cerber’s Hash Factory Works, and a three-part series on Bootkit Disk Forensics.

Just to underscore his immense contribution to his professional community, a  grateful novice had this to say:

Thanks for posting. I am following this bootkit series with interest to educate myself in methods to enumerate the device stack and find all function offsets.

  1. Be part of a team, and collaborate

Throughout the whole process of working out a viable solution, he worked closely with other colleagues, as the following quotes from his blog post indicate:

I was quickly able to get a sample of the malware with the help of Kafeine, a good friend and fellow researcher.

A few seconds after the domain had gone live I received a DM from a Talos analyst asking for the sample I had which was scanning SMB host, which i provided.

I contacted Kafeine about this and he  linked me to the following freshly posted tweet made by ProofPoint researcher Darien Huss, who stated the opposite.

So why did our sinkhole cause an international ransomware epidemic to stop? Talos wrote a great writeup explaining the code side here, which I’ll elaborate on using Darien’s screenshot.

MalwareTech never went to university, and in our modern-day world, with its obsession with academic credentials, it is tempting to cast him aside as a one-time wonder kid.   But we will be missing the point if we do so. As I highlight in this article, MalwareTech has ably demonstrated the importance of what we in the universities refer to as “soft skills” or “employability skills”.  As MalwareTech demonstrates, in the cold light of professional practice, these skills are, in reality, critical skills that every aspiring professional needs to master, regardless of whether they choose to go to university or not.

The Nature of the Exam in Engineering School

The end of year closed-book written examination, or exam for short, is still the main method of assessment in engineering schools. This is in spite of so many arguments against it by experts in higher education assessment methods.

Reasons for its continued dominance are many and varied, but key amongst them is that it is cultural. The exam has been with us for such a long time that almost everyone expects some sort of exam or exams at the end of the academic year. Academics who have been in the engineering education system for a long time have come to expect it – it is part and parcel of their traditional teaching role. Practising engineers who will be sitting on the various engineering job recruitment panels expect graduates to have sat some exams simply because they themselves sat and wrote exams in their student days. Finally, the student expects some sort of exam at the end of the year. This is because by the time students get to university they have sat and written scores of exams. So the main reason for the exam’s continued dominance is simply that it is part and parcel of the culture of doing education.

What then are the strengths of the exam? Those who swear by the exam believe that it is the fairest method of assessment. All the students enter the examination hall with only a pen and calculator. They are given the exam paper at the same time, under the same conditions, and they have to attempt the exam questions individually in a set period of time. What could be fairer than this?

A closer look, however, suggests that the exam is heavily biased towards our picture of the ideal student. But things are never ideal. As our understanding of individuals and assessment processes has improved, it is now clear that the exam does discriminate against certain categories of individuals. A case in point is the student with dyslexia. Such students handle text material differently from what we consider to be the norm, and for them the standard written exam presents a barrier which has nothing to do with mastery of the taught material. Of course, we have tried to accommodate such students by extending the exam time for them, having someone read out the questions for them, and in some cases having someone write out the answers under instruction from the student. Again, these attempts are not ideal; they simply serve to emphasise the “otherness” of the student in question, and might actually serve as a discrete way of telling them that they are not wanted in engineering. Indeed, engineering is notorious for its lack of diversity, and the exam only serves to reinforce this.

As an assessment tool, the exam can be fairly blunt. It is essentially a two- or three-hour test on students for material that has been taught in 20 or 30 hours of lectures combined with an equivalent number of hours for tutorials and workshops. Assuming that all the course material is covered in 20 hours of lectures, which is hardly the case, then for a two-hour exam, each hour of the exam is equivalent to half the entire course. This means that the exam can never assess the entire breadth of the course, and this is its major failing. A diligent student can prepare for the exam by covering all the lecture material, but this is highly inefficient, and every student knows that. This therefore suggests that in an exam-based course module, a student only needs to identify the examinable parts of the course material and focus only on them. This then is what learning is all about – mastering the art of the exam.

For well-established course modules, it is hugely beneficial for students to study the past exam papers. By study I don’t just mean working through all the exam questions.  Rather, the student should study the structure of the questions – how are the questions framed, what sort of answers is the examiner looking for, and most importantly which sections of the course material feature prominently in the past exam papers? More often than not, the diligent student will quickly realise that the exams follow a standard pattern.  There are some questions that recur consistently in the exam, and there are some topics that are never examined on, even though they are still accorded space in the teaching timetable.

Why do past exam papers, and the exam that you are preparing for if you are a student, cover the same sub-set of topics even though the course covers so much more than these? One reason is that experts on the material covered in a course module have very clear ideas of what is important and what is not important. Simply put, an exam in a particular area is simply inadequate if it does not cover certain areas, and this is a cardinal rule for setting exams. This means that in practice a student only needs to focus on just a handful of topics in order to excel in an exam. In course modules assessed entirely by the exam, or where the exam has a disproportionately high weighting compared to other forms of assessment, all that the student needs to do is to master only those elements of the course that appear regularly in the past exam papers.

If we then take the logic of the exam to its conclusion, we can infer that it is not necessary for students to attend all the lectures and workshops in a course module. All that a student needs to do is to concentrate on just the few lectures and workshops that contribute to the exam, and given that the exam is only two hours long, this subset of lectures and workshops can be very small. Taking this to another logical conclusion, it follows that in an exam-oriented engineering programme, a student can actually get a good degree without knowing so much as half the taught material. This may be one reason why some employers are convinced that most engineering degree qualifications are not worth the paper on which they are printed.

Be that as it may be, the exam determines what is important, and what is not important, in a course module. This has profound implications for curriculum design. As long as the exam remains dominant, it doesn’t matter how much innovation an engineering school makes to its course content and delivery. What matters is what appears in the exam. This alone effectively places a limit on the effectiveness of any curriculum innovations.

Want to be a Tech Entrepreneur? – Start young, go where the action is, and stick at it

I love football, and one thing I have noticed is this – All the football super-stars have this in common – they started playing football from a very young age, joined the right teams, and they kept going in spite of all the challenges thrown at them.

I also love tennis, and I have also noticed the same pattern – All the tennis mega-stars have one thing in common – they started playing  from a very young age, entered into the right competitions, and they kept playing tennis, day in and day out, despite any challenges thrown in their way.

I love engineering, and anything to do with technology, and I often wonder – how can a determined, ambitious person rise to become a mega-star in the world of engineering and technology? Wikipedia provided the answer for me – Virtually all the big names in tech today all have one thing in common – they started tinkering around with technology from a very young age, went to the universities and places where the action was, and kept going until they made the technological and commercial breakthroughs they aspired to.

I think I now have a theory for success in engineering and technology, and it is this:

  1. Start young, keep at it, and keep going and don’t give up. (Parents and teachers, take note.)
  2. Get connected with those at the cutting edge of technology in your area of interest. (In practice this generally means going to a university and joining a department where all the action is taking place.)

To test out this theory, I listed five of the top tech companies in the world, and then looked at the early lives of their founders.  In the process, I also came across Aaron Levie – founder of cloud computing company, Box.  The idea for his company started out of a class project, and led directly to the formation of Box.  This leads me to wonder how many student projects are gathering dust somewhere in an academic’s office when they could have turned out to be giant technology companies. I also wonder how many brilliant engineers are toiling away in the bottom rungs of the engineering career ladder, when they could have been leading successful tech start-ups? Anyway, here is a summary of what I found out, courtesy of Wikipedia.

1.      Google Self-Driving Car Builder: Anthony Levandowski (Twitter address: @ottodrives)

Anthony Levandowski was born on March 15, 1980. He built the Google self-driving car while working as a co-founder and technical lead on the project.

In 1998 Levandowski entered The University of California, Berkeley in Berkeley, California, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Industrial Engineering and Operations Research. At university he developed and launched an intranet service, and with fellow students, he built an autonomous motorcycle, nicknamed Ghostrider, for the DARPA Grand Challenge.

2.       SpaceX and Tesla Co-Founder: Elon Musk (Twitter address: @elonmusk)

Elon Musk was born on June 28, 1971. He is the founder, CEO, and CTO of SpaceX; co-founder, CEO, and product architect of Tesla Inc.; co-founder and chairman of SolarCity; co-chairman of OpenAI; co-founder of Zip2; and founder of PayPal.

At age 10, he developed an interest in computing and began to teach himself computer programming. At age 12 he developed and sold the code for a BASIC-based video game he created called Blastar, to a magazine called PC and Office Technology, for approximately $500.

At age 19, he went to Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, for undergraduate study. In 1992, he transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, where, at the age of 24, he received a Bachelor of Science degree in physics from its College of Arts and Sciences, and a Bachelor of Science degree in economics from its Wharton School of Business. Musk extended his studies for one year to finish a second bachelor’s degree. While at the University of Pennsylvania, Musk and fellow Penn student Adeo Ressi rented a 10-bedroom fraternity house which they used as an unofficial nightclub.

In 1995, at age 24, Musk started on a PhD in applied physics and materials science at Stanford University, but left the program after two days to pursue his entrepreneurial aspirations in the areas of the Internet, renewable energy and outer space.

3.      Facebook Co-Founder: Mark Zuckerberg (Twitter address: @MarkZuckerbergF)

Mark Zuckerberg was born on 14 May, 1984. He is the chairman, chief executive officer, and co-founder of Facebook.

Zuckerberg began using computers and writing software in junior high school. His father taught him Atari BASIC Programming in the 1990s, and later hired software developer David Newman to tutor him privately.

In 2004, whilst studying at Harvard University, Zuckerberg and a group of friends launched Facebook. They introduced Facebook to other college campuses, and the rest is now history.

4.      Spotify Co-Founder: Daniel Ek (Twitter address: @eldsjal)

Daniel Ek is the co-founder and CEO of the music streaming service Spotify.

In 1999, by age 16, Daniel Ek was already a successful entrepreneur building websites. Along the way, he started asking himself: How do you get people to pay for music that can be downloaded free—and without charging them for each song, the way Apple’s iTunes service does now?  The search for a solution to this question led him directly to form Spotify, a jukebox in the cloud that provides legal, on-demand access to millions of songs.

5.      Box Founder: Aaron Levie (Twitter address: @levie)

Aaron Levie  is the co-founder and CEO of the enterprise cloud company Box.

The idea for Box originated as a college business project that Levie was working on in 2004. The project examined cloud storage options for businesses. After contacting several organisations to ask how they are storing their content and data, Levie decided to develop and launch an online file storage business that enabled individuals to access and store documents and files.

In December 2005, during his junior year at USC, Levie took a leave of absence to launch Box (originally called box.net) with his friend and Box CFO, Dylan Smith who was attending Duke University.

6.      Twitter Founder: Jack Dorsey  (Twitter address: @jack)

Jack Dorsey was born on 19 November, 1976. He is a co-founder and CEO of Twitter, and founder and CEO of Square, a mobile payments company.

By age 14, Dorsey had become interested in dispatch routing, a method for assigning employees or vehicles based on the routing system’s pre-planning. Some of the open source software he created in the area of dispatch logistics is still used by many taxi cab companies. Dorsey attended the Missouri University of Science and Technology before subsequently transferring to the New York University Tandon School of Engineering, where he came up with the idea of Twitter and decided to drop out of university.

Student Assignments, Missed Deadlines and the Planning Fallacy

The tendency to put off, delay or postpone doing a task is a very common feature of student life, especially when it comes to submitting assignments. This tendency to put off things is known as procrastination, and when it comes to submitting assignments, no matter the length of time available to do an assignment, only a few students submit well before the deadline. The majority tend to submit on or close to the deadline, and a significant few miss the deadline altogether. Those who submit well before the deadline tend to spread out their work over the available period. In contrast, those submitting close to the deadline, or after the deadline, tend to start their assignments with only a few days to go. In fact, it is not uncommon for students to work throughout the entire night prior to the deadline, and to miss classes in the days leading up to the deadline.

Procastination and its consquences

Apart from disrupting other academic activities around the deadline period, the tendency for students to procrastinate has a number of other consequences. First, for the students involved, it can be highly stressful, and has potential health implications. Second, it is likely that in the rush to meet the deadline, stressed-out students may produce low quality assignments, leading to low academic grades. Third, there is a high possibility that students can be overwhelmed by the amount of work they have to do in a very short time, and as a result they may end up not submitting at all.  In fact, from my experience, persistent non-submission of coursework is generally a strong indicator for student non-progression.

According to Pychyl and his colleagues [2000], procrastination is viewed mainly as a time management problem. This view suggests that people who habitually procrastinate have problems with, or are biased, in their time estimation. For example, most people have a tendency of giving lower time estimates for how long it takes to complete tasks. This tendency still persists even when the people concerned have been involved in similar tasks which ended up taking longer than the time they had initially anticipated. This doesn’t apply to students alone, but to professionals as well. For instance, it is a fact of life that IT projects habitually overrun and often exceed budget estimates. Kahneman and Tversky [1977] have coined the term “planning fallacy” to refer to this tendency to make optimistic estimates of task completion despite the fact that most similar tasks have been completed later than anticipated.

Research on the planning fallacy

Researchers working on planning fallacy have observed that people tend to overestimate how much they can accomplish in a given period of time, and they continue doing so even when they know that the estimates that they made for previous tasks have been wrong [Buehler, Griffin & Ross, 1994]. This applies to both novices and experts, and, in our case, to both students and engineers. This suggests that when we estimate the time we will take to accomplish a task, say an assignment, we often don’t take into consideration past experience, or the experiences of others on similar tasks. As Kahneman and Tversky [1977] suggest, we tend to focus exclusively on the specific aspects of the problem at hand, and neglect to take into account any outside information that may affect the task. For example, when deciding when to start an assignment, we may focus only on how difficult the assignment questions are, and whether the solutions can be found in the lecture notes or we need to go to the library. We don’t take into consideration such things as the possibility that we may fall ill, or that some event may occur that will prevent us from fulfilling our tasks. In short, we don’t put in place any contingency planning.

 However, Buehler and colleagues observed that the planning fallacy vanishes when individuals are asked to forecast other people’s task completions. For example, students can accurately predict whether or not their colleagues will be able to submit on time, and, more ominously for academics, students are often able to accurately predict that Professor So-and-so will not return their assignments by the set deadline.

Why are we accurate at predicting other people’s task completions and not our own? One suggestion is that whilst we can accurately perceive another individual as a procrastinator, when it comes to us, we generally view ourselves as victims of circumstances. Another suggestion is that we are so certain of ourselves and our capabilities that we believe we don’t need any additional information when making decisions about ourselves. On the contrary, we are often aware of the lack of complete knowledge that we have about our colleagues, so to address this we often seek out additional information before we make a decision on their time completion [Buehler, Griffin & Ross, 1994].

How can we resolve the planning fallacy problem?

Kahneman and Tversky [1977] suggest that the planning fallacy is intrinsic to individuals to the extent that we often become compellingly attracted to our erroneous estimates even when we are fully aware that they can be wrong. We can therefore only resolve the planning fallacy by letting our beliefs be guided by “a critical and reflective assessment of reality, rather than our immediate impressions, however compelling these may be” [Kahneman & Tversky, 1977]. However, carrying out critical and reflective assessment of your own behaviour and capabilities is easier said than done.

A better approach is to draw on the findings by Buehler and his colleagues and find someone else to analyse your behaviour and capabilities and to give you time estimates on the tasks you are working on. This fits in with our modern ideas that learning is not an individualistic process, but a team process [See my blog entitled Excelling in Engineering School: Collaborate – Being smart is not enough]. To be more effective in your academic studies, you need to work with colleagues, and to take advice from them. Working with colleagues and listening to their advice, no matter how much we may dislike it, will make us better students. And this includes accepting the advice that we are not super heroes when it comes to doing assignments, but, just as any other student, we need to set aside more time than we think we do.

References

Buehler, R., Griffin, D., & Ross, M. (1994). Exploring the” planning fallacy”: Why people underestimate their task completion times. Journal of personality and social psychology67(3), 366.

Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1977). Intuitive prediction: Biases and corrective procedures. Decisions and Designs Inc., Harvard University.

Pychyl, T. A., Morin, R. W., & Salmon, B. R. (2000). Procrastination and the planning fallacy: An examination of the study habits of university students. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality15(5), 135.

Getting that UK Scholarship – Some Guidelines for Engineering Applicants

The UK remains one of the most preferred international destinations for both undergraduate and postgraduate study, especially in engineering and the sciences.  Drivers for this include the widespread respect accorded to UK degree programmes as well as the academic research undertaken by UK universities. Competition for university places and for scholarships is therefore stiff, and as the Top Universities website acknowledges, UK education doesn’t come cheap.

Several scholarships are available for international students. If you are intending to study engineering, this includes scholarships from individual universities, engineering institutions and organisations, as well as the government. Currently the largest scholarship programmes are the government-funded Commonwealth Scholarship schemes and the Chevening scholarship programme. These are both open to all study programmes in addition to engineering.

Criteria for Securing a Scholarship

The main reason for seeking a scholarship is financial. However, this alone is not enough justification for you to be awarded a scholarship.  Scholarship applicants have to meet additional criteria listed by the scholarship awarding bodies.  As a basic requirement, scholarship applicants have to meet the stated minimum academic requirements if they are to be considered. For instance, one of the chief scholarship awarding bodies, the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET),   clearly states that its scholarships are “intended to reward excellence rather than alleviate financial hardship.”

For most scholarship programmes, academic excellence is only one of a number of criteria that applicants must meet.  As a general rule, awarding bodies seek to award scholarships only to those candidates who will help them to meet the goals and missions of their funders.  For example, both the Commonwealth and Chevening programmes are designed to further the foreign policy objectives of the UK government. These objectives include poverty reduction and socio-economic development in the countries of origin of funded scholars, as well as the development and maintenance of international relationships between the UK and the scholars’ countries of origin. In fulfilment of these goals, applicants for Chevening scholarships have to demonstrate that they have the potential to be future leaders, influencers, and decision-makers in their own countries and beyond. Similarly, applicants for the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission have to demonstrate that they meet the stated academic criteria and that they have the potential to positively impact the development of their own countries after graduation.

Scholarship criteria that go beyond mere academic excellence are very well suited to prospective engineering students. This is because the goal of most engineers is to use their knowledge to make a difference in their own communities. This may include designing and building engineering systems and products such as roads, bridges, telecommunication systems, electrical power supply systems, or developing cheaper and safer approaches for producing medicines.

Why You Need to Prepare

There is more to submitting an application for a scholarship than the mere physical act of filling in an application form and sending it to the awarding body. In reality, when you fill in an application form, you are saying to the awarding body: “I am fully aware of your mission goals, and I fully subscribe to your objectives. If you invest in me by paying for my education, I will contribute to the fulfilment of your mission objectives, and I am the best person to do so.”  Hence, your goal as an applicant is to fully demonstrate to the awarding body that you fully meet their criteria, and the only way you can do so is by giving well-thought-out responses to the questions in the application form, and in subsequent interviews.

As a general guideline, I would suggest that you should spend at least two to three years preparing for your application. Ideally, if you are submitting your application for the 2017-18 academic year, you should have started thinking of applying for the scholarship in 2014, or 2015 at the latest. This means that if you are in the final year of an undergraduate programme, and you are intending to apply for a postgraduate scholarship immediately after graduating, your preparations should have started at the same time that you started your undergraduate programme. On the other hand, if you made the decision to go for postgraduate studies after completing you engineering studies, then you would need to have spent an additional two to three years building up the necessary non-academic evidence to support your application. Why, you may ask.  Because the best predictor for your future performance in any role is your current and past performance in similar or related roles.

As an applicant you may be tempted to exaggerate or manufacture your past experiences. However, this is not helpful at all.  Such applications are easily picked out during the selection process. This means that unwarranted exaggerations and concocted lies only add up to a waste of time for both the applicant and the selection panel.

Preparing Yourself for the Scholarship Application Process

Russell Campbell has written an application guideline for law graduates seeking a Chevening scholarship. His article forms the basis for much of my discussion in this section. However, one thing that you will notice is that the three suggestions that I give in this section  are remarkably similar to the additional activities that you should be participating in as an engineering student or as an early-stage graduate engineer.

Gain work experience

Just as work experience is important for you in securing your first graduate engineering job, it is just as important if you are planning to go on for a master’s degree. Work experience provides you with a context around which you can formulate any future studies. It allows you to form a precise idea of your motivation for doing further studies, and enables you to clearly articulate this to the scholarship awarding body. Most importantly, work experience enables you to identify any gaps in knowledge and experience that you need to address if you are to increase your potential to create future benefits to your organisation, engineering field and your country, and the rest of humanity.

Work experience also gives you the opportunity to work on various projects. This is very valuable, as projects tend to be multidisciplinary, and enable you to see the wider picture relating to your engineering practice. Rather than thinking in a task-oriented manner as articulated in many early-stage job-descriptions, you learn to appreciate the wider societal impact of your role. In addition, you also learn and develop the leadership skills that you need in your future career.

Work experience also gives you the opportunity to work with more experienced engineers and to watch and learn from them.  All these individuals have different approaches to engineering practice and leadership. By watching and working with them, you will gain a practical appreciation of effective and ineffective leadership styles, and this will enable you to reflect and improve on your own leadership skills.

Develop Relationships with Potential Referees

References are an important part of the application process. Experienced colleagues working in the field that you intend to pursue in your studies are important potential referees. Working with such people gives them the opportunity to assess your strengths and weaknesses and to write a detailed reference that clearly articulates how your personal attributes make you suitable for the scholarship that you are applying for. Such references are distinctly different from those written by colleagues who only have a superficial view of you.

You should also seek out opportunities to volunteer. This may involve taking an active role in your engineering institution, or getting involved in community welfare projects. Volunteering gives you opportunities to develop relationships with mentors outside of your organisation. Although this may be unpaid, it will contribute to your long term professional development.

Actively Build a Strong Academic Reference

Most students shy away from participating in academic extra-curricular activities, and once they graduate, they never make an effort to contribute to the academic training of student engineers. However, engineering education has increasingly adopted active learning approaches such as project based learning. The demand for practising engineers and older students to advise and guide learners has therefore increased.

It is important to have a strong academic reference, and an easy way to to do so is to  contribute your time and skills to student learning. You will get to work alongside academics, and to establish personal relationships with them. This means that potential academic referees have the opportunity to assess how your academic skills in the class room are translated into real world problem solving. More than that, by offering your services to your local engineering school, you build relationships with individuals who will have a genuine interest in your career and will more than likely be happy to provide you with strong academic references. This will set you apart from other applicants who never bothered to help out in engineering schools.

The UK Engineering Degree:  an Experience-led Brand

There are over 120 UK universities offering master’s and bachelor’s degrees in various engineering disciplines. As one would expect, each of these engineering degrees is influenced to some extent by the people who teach on it as well as the ethos and culture of the institution offering it. However, if one takes the time to scan the various institutional web pages, it quickly becomes clear that there are common strands running across all UK engineering degrees. In fact, these commonalities are so extensive and far-reaching, and so uniquely British that I believe it is time we started talking about the UK Engineering Degree as a generic brand encompassing all UK engineering degrees.

There are several reasons why we should identify and characterise the UK Engineering Degree brand, and these include:

  • Prospective students applying to get into a UK Engineering degree programme will have a clear picture of what is involved in studying for an engineering degree in the UK;
  • Employers will have a very clear understanding of the capabilities, qualities and characteristics of engineering graduates from UK universities;
  • The UK Engineering Degree brand will serve as a common reference standard which stakeholders such as employers, government departments, academics and students will use to objectively compare degree programmes, to evaluate and monitor learning and teaching processes in each programme, and to encourage and guide innovation in engineering education.

Defining the generic UK Engineering Degree

The key distinguishing feature of the UK Engineering Degree is the strong integration between theory and practice. In the typical UK engineering school, theory is not taught for the sake of theory. Rather, theory is taught to be put into practice.  In general, students get introduced to theory, followed by practical demonstrations, and then they are expected to apply the theory to problem solving.  Mini-projects are an integral part of most UK course modules, and these mini-projects are often designed with input from industry. Furthermore, the UK Engineering Degree also has stand-alone design & skills modules where students learn to apply the theory they have learnt across several modules to the analysis and solution of industry-type problems. These design & skills modules simulate industry conditions in that students are presented with a problem, and they then work in teams to come up with appropriate solutions within a specified time-limit. Because of this, the UK Engineering Degree is best classified as an experience-led degree programme.

The term “experience-led engineering degree” first appeared in the report for the Engineering Graduates for Industry Study that was commissioned by the UK government in 2008 (Lamb et. al. 2010). The main purpose of this study was to identify effective practices within current and developing engineering degrees that went some way towards meeting the needs of industry as identified in the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Educating Engineers for the 21st Century report. The study defines an experience-led engineering degree as an engineering degree which develops industry related skills and which may also include industry interaction.  Industry related skills comprise all those skills and attributes which make an engineering graduate work-ready.

The Ideal Skill-set for a UK Engineering Graduate

On the basis of the information presented on the various UK institutional websites, the ideal work-ready engineering graduate  has indepth theoretical knowledge of their chosen discipline and is a competent problem solver, with highly developed analysis and numerate skills, and one who is also well-rounded, with an understanding of the impact of engineering on society, and with experience of working in teams.  According to the Royal Academy of Engineers, the ideal engineering graduate should have

  • Appropriate technical knowledge, understanding and problem solving skills;
  • A full appreciation of life cycle processes and Systems Engineering;
  • People and professional skills, team-working, co-operative strategies and leadership;
  • A commitment to lifelong learning.

Essential Features of the Generic UK Engineering Degree

What do students expect to see and experience when they enter a UK engineering school? One attribute that clearly stands out is that the generic UK Engineering Degree is built on a strong tripartite relationship between staff, students and industry that directly impacts both teaching and curriculum development(Lamb et. al. 2010). Figure 1 illustrates this three-way relationship:

engineering-led degree.png

Figure 1: Relationships between academic staff, students and industry for experience-led engineering degree programmes – Adapted from the Engineering Graduates for Industry Study report (Lamb et. al. 2010).

Teaching

From the diagram in Figure 1, industry contributes significantly to the teaching that takes place in UK engineering schools. For example, in design & skills modules, practitioners from industry work alongside academics to deliver the module as well as to assess student work. Practitioners from industry also present guest lectures, in which they they share their experiences and knowledge. Some practitioners are also employed by universities as visiting lecturers and professors. In this role, they take charge of the teaching and assessment of industry-specific modules, including supervising and mentoring students during work placements.

With regard to academic staff, an increasing number are being directly recruited from industry. Whilst the traditional academic and research staff focus on teaching theory and material related to their research, staff recruited from industry are responsible for design & skills based modules, and for supervising projects with an industrial element to them. Hence, in the typical UK engineering school, students get to be taught by academic researchers and industry experts, and this provides an enabling environment for students to systematically integrate theory and practice.

Curriculum Design

The design of the generic UK Engineering Degree is also carried out in partnership with industry. As a general rule, all UK engineering degrees are either accredited, or are aspiring to get accredited, by the Engineering Council. Teams comprising people drawn from industry and universities are responsible for setting the accreditation standards and for monitoring and evaluating individual degree programmes. Within universities, industry liaison boards comprising academics and industry representative oversee the engineering degree programmes that are taught in individual institutions. Again, at the programme and module level, academics and industry practitioners work together, formally and informally, in designing core aspects of the curriculum.

Role of the Students

Students are actively involved in the design and delivery of their programmes. They provide formal and informal feedback on the quality of teaching. For instance, in the UK, student liaison committees comprising both academics and students meet regularly to review the teaching. Furthermore, in some institutions, students also sit on academic recruitment panels, which means that recruitment decisions are now jointly carried out by both academic staff and students. Within the class, students also contribute to the creation of course module material, and are also actively involved in assessment as peer assessors.

Concluding Remarks

In conclusion, the generic UK Engineering Degree is now an established feature of the UK higher education landscape, and it is time that it is properly acknowledged as such. To quote from Professor Nigel Seaton, a chartered chemical engineer who is now Principal and Vice-Chancellor at Abertay University, UK engineering degrees “are good degrees to have, and equip students for a wide range of jobs. While many students embark on an engineering career, others thrive in a range of jobs, for example in management or finance” (Sellgren, 2011).

References

Lamb, F., Arlett, C., Dales, R.,  Ditchfield, B., Parkin, B. & Wakeham, W. (2010). Engineering graduates for industry. The Royal Academy of Engineering.

The Royal Academy of Engineering. (2007). Educating engineers for the 21st Century.

Sellgren, K. (2011). Engineering graduates ‘taking unskilled jobs’. BBC News. Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-14823042. (Downloaded 11 Dec 2016).