Towards an understanding of the current state of Engineering Education

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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

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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.

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

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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?

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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.  

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

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

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

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

Blended synchronous learning: location-independent class attendance

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

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

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

Blended synchronous learning: location-independent access to subject experts

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

Outcomes of adopting a blended synchronous learning approach

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

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

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

Reimagine STEM Podcast: The Integrated Engineering Education Episode

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

The Australian National University Reimagine Project

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

What is the Integrated Engineering Programme (IEP)?

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

The link to the Reimagine Podcast

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

Key Papers on the IEP:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Introduction

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

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

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

What is 21st century engineering practice?

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

Essential Attributes and Skills for the 21st Century Engineer 

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

Overview of the UCL-Ventura Project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons to take forward

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

References

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

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

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

Interdisciplinary Engineering Education: Difficult, but not Impossible

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Interdisciplinarity is now all the buzz within engineering schools. First, it was the research funding bodies demanding interdisciplinary research. Now it is industry, governments and engineering professional institutions demanding interdisciplinary education. Interdisciplinary research is hugely challenging, not least because the current university system remains clustered around individual disciplines, and mono-disciplinarity remains the modus operandi in day-to-day academic practice.  Interdisciplinary engineering education raises the challenges faced by engineering schools even further.

There are two main reasons for this state of affairs. The first reason is this: academic training and support structures designed to prepare engineering academics for 21st century higher education practices remain in short supply. The second reason is the prevailing belief that academics do not really need any pedagogic training at all.

The purpose of this blog piece is two-fold. First, it is to answer the question from the individual engineering academic: “What is interdisciplinary education, and how can I get started?” Second, it is to answer the question from directors of education: “How do we develop a truly interdisciplinary engineering curriculum?”

Why engineering education has to become interdisciplinary?

Engineers routinely deal with interdisciplinarity in their practice. For instance, the design of an everyday product like a motor vehicle requires the integration of knowledge and skills from disparate disciplines such as mechanical, electronic and computer engineering, battery technology and energy systems, environmental and sustainability engineering, and ergonomics. As Meyers and Ernst (1995) observed over thirty years ago, engineers have had to become interdisciplinary because their job requires it. Hence, for engineering, interdisciplinarity is not, and has never been an option. It is only that engineering education has so far managed to get away without incorporating interdisciplinarity for so long. However, as so many engineering education researchers have observed, this head-in-the-sand approach is no longer tenable in the 21st century.

As many writers have pointed out, 21st-century engineers have to adopt interdisciplinary approaches to deal with the critical challenges that they have to resolve. It is no longer possible for any one discipline to address all the problems, issues, or questions associated with these challenges single-handedly. Mahmud (2018) attributes the complexity of such challenges partly to the convergence of distinct technologies originating from different sectors, such as the energy, transportation, health and telecommunication sectors. According to Mahmud, this convergence has given rise to increasingly interdependent, complex socio-technical systems that demand interdisciplinary expertise.  Engineering education has to step up and impart interdisciplinary skills to its graduates.

What is interdisciplinary education?

Currently, disciplines educate and equip students with the disciplinary knowledge and skills they need to address and solve problems in their specific discipline-oriented areas of expertise. For instance, following graduation, a telecom engineering graduate  would concentrate on resolving telecom problems; a mechanical engineer on solving mechanical engineering problem, and a chemical engineer on solving chemical engineering problems. If a problem simultaneously requires the resolution of mechanical, chemical and telecom problems, a standard approach would be to bring together individuals with these skills to form a multidisciplinary team.  In this case, the chemical engineer would focus on the chemical engineering aspects of the problem; the mechanical engineer would focus on the mechanical aspects, whilst the telecom engineer would focus on issues relating to telecommunications. This is the standard multidisciplinary approach.

For complex, interdependent systems, however, the team would need to integrate their disciplinary skills, knowledge, experience and insights, and synthesise this into a shared body of knowledge that enables them to gain a more indepth understanding of the problem at hand. This process requires the individual team members to learn from each other, to shed off discipline-based misconceptions, and to develop a new understanding and awareness of the problem at hand based on a synthesis of knowledge from the individual disciplines. As  Kuldell (2007)  suggests, this process requires the whole team to fully embrace this newly synthesised body of knowledge as the basis for understanding and tackling the problem, together with all the challenges and uncertainties inherent in this new body of knowledge. This is in contrast to maintaining multidisciplinary viewpoints that persist in viewing the subject as an amalgam of their individual disciplinary knowledge. This approach is termed interdisciplinarity, and is best defined as follows:

 Interdisciplinarity is a process of answering a question, solving a problem, or addressing a topic that is too broad or complex to be dealt with adequately by a single discipline or profession… [It] draws upon disciplinary perspectives and integrates their insights through construction of a more comprehensive perspective (Newell, 1998; p.393-4).

So what then is interdisciplinary education? It is an educational process whereby learners draw from two or more disciplines to advance their understanding of a subject or a problem beyond what is achievable from any single discipline (Mahmud, 2018). In so doing, the learners integrate and develop information, concepts, methodologies and procedures from  the individual disciplines to gain new knowledge, understanding and skills so as to be able to explain or solve problems (Holley, 2017). This form of learning is necessarily active, self-directed learning.

What factors should you consider when implementing an interdisciplinary curriculum?

The first thing to remember when planning an interdisciplinary engineering curriculum is this:  University teaching is organised around the disciplines, and disciplines have different ways of disseminating, organising and thinking about the knowledge that underpins them. Because of this, individual disciplines have different approaches to teaching, and this applies to individual disciplines within engineering as well. Entwistle (2009) sums up this dilemma as follows:

There is a logic that holds together the various strands of a discipline or topic area, and there is a logical connection between the intellectual demands of the subject and how best to teach it.

The outcome of this is that academic staff engaging in interdisciplinary teaching are susceptible to reverting to their normal discipline-based teaching. Hence, if close attention is not paid to the process of designing and implementing the interdisciplinary curriculum, students on the receiving end of the curriculum will perceive their learning as a disparate, disjointed set of modules drawn from different disciplines (Foley, 2016). At a minimum, therefore, to be successful, an interdisciplinary curriculum should endeavour to create a cohesive, integrated approach that both staff and students can invest in (Kuldell, 2007).

A second consideration is that most engineering programmes are offered at undergraduate level. At this level, students mostly view themselves through the lens of their individual disciplines. They have come to university to specialise in their particular discipline, and anything other than their discipline is likely to demotivate them. Hence, the primary pursuit of students at this level is the mastery of their discipline’s approach to problem solving. How then can one can one resolve this dilemma?

Holley (2017) suggests that to be successful, an interdisciplinary curriculum should provide learning environments that allow students and academic staff from different disciplinary backgrounds to engage in scholarly conversations around issues of shared interest and importance, while also exploring connections between their majors and other sources of knowledge and experience. Within the classroom, adopting an overarching topic, theme, or problem can help to establish bridges of shared understanding between the different disciplines. With regard to pedagogy, adopting a research-based, problem solving approach may be the best approach to fostering interdisciplinarity (Kuldell, 2007).

Attention to the development of an interdisciplinary curriculum should  also focus on out-of-class activities. Lattuca et al. (2017) suggest that students should be encouraged to participate in co-curricular activities and experiences that are inherently interdisciplinary. For instance, in their study of students perceptions of interdisciplinary learning,  Lattuca et al. (2017) observed that there was a positive correlation between students perceptions of interdisciplinary learning and their participation in non-engineering clubs and activities, study abroad, and humanitarian engineering projects. This suggests that providing opportunities for students to engage in interdisciplinary activities both within and outside the classroom helps to provide a supportive environment in which students can develop their interdisciplinary skills organically.

Concluding remarks

This overview does suggest that achieving interdisciplinary education is difficult. Whilst this is true, achieving success is not beyond the realms of possibility. What this means is that implementing interdisciplinary education requires commitment and endeavour from both senior management and academic staff. To date, there is no proven cookbook approach to implementing interdisciplinary education within engineering. However, the topic is currently receiving considerable attention from engineering education researchers. This means that increasingly, we are now able to identify evidence-based approaches that can help us in our endeavours to implement interdisciplinarity within engineering education.

REFERENCES

ENTWISTLE, N. 2009. Teaching for understanding at university: Deep approaches and distinctive ways of thinking, Palgrave Macmillan.

FOLEY, G. 2016. Reflections on interdisciplinarity and teaching chemical engineering on an interdisciplinary degree programme in biotechnology. Education for Chemical Engineers, 14, 35-42.

HOLLEY, K. 2017. Interdisciplinary curriculum and learning in higher education. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education.

KULDELL, N. 2007. Authentic teaching and learning through synthetic biology. Journal of Biological Engineering, 1, 8.

LATTUCA, L. R., KNIGHT, D. B., RO, H. K. & NOVOSELICH, B. J. 2017. Supporting the development of Engineers’ interdisciplinary competence. Journal of Engineering Education, 106, 71-97.

MAHMUD, M. N. 2018. Interdisciplinary Learning in Engineering Practice: An Exploratory Multi-case Study of Engineering for the Life Sciences Projects. University of Cambridge.

MEYERS, C. W. & ERNST, E. W. 1995. Restructuring Engineering Education: A Focus on Change: Report of an NSF Workshop on Engineering Education, Division of Undergraduate Education, Directorate for Education and Human ….

NEWELL, W. H. 1998. Interdisciplinarity: Essays from the Literature, College Entrance Examination Board.

Want to get started on PBL? Some instructional resources

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Although problem based learning (PBL) has been around for almost 50 years, following its introduction and development in medical education at McMaster in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it has remained relatively unknown until fairly recently. Putting this into perspective, in the period 2000 – 2010, very few engineering academics had ever heard of PBL – fast forward to today, and PBL has become almost synonymous with the term “engineering education”.

However, despite the ubiquity of PBL within the engineering academic community, it remains a challenge to come across academics who are comfortable in effectively implementing PBL in their own practice. A key reason for this may be the failure of academic development centres to keep pace with the rapid adoption of 21st century-focussed curricula within engineering education, and within higher education in general.  Another contributory factor may be the prevailing, and thoroughly misplaced, belief that academics do not really need any pedagogic training at all.

For the engineering academic needing to get up to speed with PBL-oriented pedagogic practices, it may be a challenge just to have an idea of where to turn to. In this piece, I highlight some of the online resources that an individual can access.

  1. Problem based Learning: Northern Illinois University, Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center – This is a short guide that explains what PBL is, how it differs from traditional teaching, and how you can get started implementing PBL in your own teaching.
  2. Introductory Course On PBL In Higher Education – Free Online Course: Aalborg Centre for Problem Based Learning In Engineering Science And Sustainability Under The Auspices Of UNESCO (UCPBL) – A free online course that gives an overview of the PBL process as well as links to pertinent resources.
  3. The Aalborg Experiment: Project Innovation in University Education. This is an evaluation of PBL implementation at Aalborg University carried out in 1994. Although somewhat dated, it gives important insights into the practical issues that need to be addressed if PBL implementation is to be successful.
  4.  Problem and Project Based Learning: Goodhew, Peter. “Teaching engineering.” The School of Engineering’s Active Learning Lab at The University of Liverpool(2010). In section  5.4-5.6 of this textbook, which is available for download, Peter Goodhew gives pertinent instructional advice on how one can get started on problem and project based learning. He also provides relevant engineering examples that one can try out.
  5. Problem-Based Learning:Stanford University, Speaking of Teaching Newsletter Archive. This is a short guide on PBL that provides guidance on designing problem sets, structuring PBL classes, and offers advice on assessment design.
  6. The Tutor in Problem Based Learning: A Novice’s Guide: This is a fairly comprehensive guide from McMaster University outlining how you can design and implement PBL. It also provides common problems that arise in PBL implementation and offers suggestions on resolving them.
  7. Revolutions and Re-iterations: An Intellectual History of Problem-based Learning: Virginie Servant PhD Thesis – Who were the “Founding Fathers” of PBL? What were the issues and arguments they had to grapple with? How did PBL come to be the way it is today? If you are grappling with any of these questions, this thesis is your best starting point.