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

It is no longer in dispute that engineering education has to change if it is to produce graduates who can face up to the challenges of the 21st century. Moreover, it’s no longer a case of “Are there any curriculum transformation strategies that I can look at?” Instead, it’s now a case of “Which transformational strategy should I adopt for my engineering school.”

Ten year ago, conferences and journals focussing on engineering education were scarce and infrequent. This is no longer the case. In fact, we are now spoilt for choice. Multiple engineering education conference proceedings and journals are now crammed full with ideas and examples of curriculum change by a multitude of authors from engineering schools all over the world. This now leaves the Director of Education wishing to transform their engineering curriculum with the following questions:

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

At the best of times these are very challenging questions. However, the publication of an MIT-sponsored report by Ruth Graham entitled “The global state-of-the-art in engineering education: Outcomes of Phase 1 benchmarking study” will make it much easier to address these questions. The report came out of MIT’s desire to have a clear insight of the current state of cutting edge engineering education globally and how this was likely to pan out in the future.

Individuals currently at the forefront of engineering education reform

In order to come up with the report, Ruth first needed to identify and interview some of the leading figures in engineering education. To do so she selected 50 individuals from 18 countries from across the world. The selected individuals were either pioneers in engineering education research, policymakers in the field and/or university leaders with direct experience of delivering the world’s most highly regarded engineering education programmes. This list has been placed in one of the report appendices, and it is a good starting point if you need to talk to someone with current experience in engineering education transformation.

Ten institutions at the forefront of engineering education reform

One of the key objectives of the report was to identify institutions that are leading in engineering education innovation. The report identifies ten institutions that are currently acknowledged as world leaders. These institutions include MIT, Stanford, Olin College of Engineering, University College London, and, with the exception of the National University of Singapore, all of them are based either in the USA or Europe. With the exception of Olin, these institutions are typically well-established public universities that are renowned for research excellence, and that cater for relatively large cohorts of undergraduate engineering students. Also, without exception, all the ten institutions  actively engage in disseminating their ideas and practices across the international higher education community.

The report also identifies key pedagogical features that are common to these leading institutions. Typically, these institutions offer student-centred, hands-on, experiential learning, with opportunities for engaging with the university’s research activities. Design-based learning is also a feature of their curricula, and all the institutions have well established partnerships with industry that inform the engineering curriculum as well as the engineering research agenda. In addition, these institutions also offer their students opportunities to engage in student-led, extra-curricular activities and experiences.

Ten institutions emerging as leaders in engineering education reform

The report also identifies ten institutions that are viewed as emerging leaders in engineering education, with the most cited being Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) and Olin College of Engineering. Other institutions that make it into the list include the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, and Tsinghua University in China. Compared to the earlier list, this one is more globally distributed, with only four institutions coming from the USA and Europe, which are the traditional strongholds.

The report also identified a “watch list” of some of those institutions that did not make it into the emerging world leaders list. This includes New Model in Technology & Engineering (NMiTE), UK, Lassonde School of Engineering at York University, Canada, B.V. Bhoomaraddi College of Engineering and Technology, India, and Insper, in Brazil.  Apart from B.V. Bhoomaraddi, all these other institutions have been established within the last five or so years.

The engineering curricula in the emerging world leaders share a number of common traits. First, all the ten institutions have opened up entry to students with non-conventional entry requirements, and they have all put in place selection processes that take into consideration the aptitudes of prospective students towards engineering. In addition, programmes at these emerging institutions place significant emphasis on integrating work-based learning into their curricula, as well as blending off-campus online learning with on-campus intensive experiential learning. Another common characteristic is that programmes offered at these institutions place dual emphasis on both engineering design and student self-reflection, and both these are integrated across the entire curriculum. Finaly, in addition to the formal curriculum, student-led, extra-curricular activities are a key feature of these institutions.

Additional remarks

The report also highlights contextual features that have driven curriculum reform in these institutions that have been identified in this report. This includes government initiatives, and local labour market requirements.  The report also highlights the likely future trajectory of engineering education, as well as identifying the likely key ingredients necessary for effective, sustainable engineering education reform within individual institutions. It is definitely a report worth reading, even if you are not contemplating making changes to your own curriculum in the near future.

Poor Public Perceptions of Engineering: It doesn’t need to be this way

Ask anyone, even a young child who is beginning primary school, what an accountant does for a living, or what a medical doctor does, or what a banker does for a living, or what a scientist does, and chances are you will get a very clear description of their professions.

Go into any shopping mall, and ask a couple of people what an engineer does, and chances are you are likely to get blank stares. Most don’t know, and worse, most people don’t even think it is worth knowing at all.

Even the few who think they know, they will most likely tell you that an engineer is a muscular man who toils hard, doing back-breaking, unrewarding, and unfullfilling work like construction work, or moving around huge blocks of steel and iron in some dark places called factories. The simple point is that engineering remains largely unknown, and largely unacknowledged.

Ask anyone from the engineering community why this is the case, and you will receive several competing answers. The commonest one is that other people who do not deserve the title of engineer at all, people like repairs men, construction workers, and locomotive drivers, have usurped the name for their own use in a bid to look more glamorous in public.

Others suggest that the public know little about engineering because we haven’t told them what it is. Yet still, others believe that it is likely that most people might know about engineering, but sincerely believe that it is not for them – it’s too hard, or it’s too complicated for them. Others turn the blame on the media for selectively promoting other professions as “cool” and “desirable”, whilst denigrating engineering.

All these suggestions are partially true, but it’s not the whole truth. You don’t see the medical profession running up and down the streets begging for people to know them. No, not even the accountants or the almost universally hated bankers do this. Why? The answer is simple – we all know, or to put it more accurately, we are all confident that we know what they do, and most importantly, we are all quite sure we know what it takes to be one of them.

What about engineering? Apart from us, the engineers, and a few other concerned individuals, noone knows why we are called engineers, noone has ever seen us going about our work, and noone can say with certainty that we are part of the community. Us and our work are completely hidden away from the public. Yet the results of our work are all out there, yet they don’t bear our names.

Engineering is where it is because for the past 200 years, our society has been fighting hard to put it into the shadows. Is this a preposterous proposition? Not really. Just consider 17th and 18 century Britain. The crafts industry was big. Creativity and innovation were the hallmark of the day. You didn’t have to have deep knowledge of mathematics and physics to develop the capability of looking at the societal problems of the day and proposing solutions – be it proposing designs for bridges, developing more efficient methods for smelting iron and producing steel, designing faster and bigger ships, or developing machines to take over the back-breaking work in the fields and in the cotton mills.

All you needed was the desire to make things better, the willingness and grit to try out ideas until you achieved your goal, and the support of friends and family who would engage with you in surprisingly technical conversations at the kitchen table. Out of all this collective enterprise at creativity came the industrial revolution, and out of it came the unimaginable wealth and power that turned Britain into a world power.

Then along the way, as the industrial age took pace, the generation of ideas and innovation became relegated to the workplace where a few people, men mostly, assumed responsibility for this task. This was such that by the middle of the twentieth century, creative tasks like design and problem solving had been taken away from the general public. In their place, the public were sold the idea that engineering was not for everyone. It was for the geeky elite who thrived on stomach-churning mathematical theories and obscure, unfathomable physics texts.

Goods now came packaged and ready to use, and they bore the names of faceless companies; even essential services were now carried out by faceless companies. Telecommunications, television, radio, the Internet, Wi-Fi, all the wonders of modern day life now all reach the home bearing the name of some large company. The names of the individuals who brought these things to life are nowhere to be seen.

Even our beloved Jaguar, we don’t hear anything about the men and women who passioantely spend their lives making that great British icon better and better. Its just Jaguar, just Land Rover, no person’s name, nothing, as if all these iconic symbols of British innovation and creativity are being produced by some non-human demi-god.

Today everyone now realises that we were sold a lie. Engineering is not for the few. It’s for everyone. Think of the early days of aviation engineering. Everyone wanted to solve the problem of flight, from eminent professors, practising lawyers, peasant farmers and labourers. And the two people who conclusively solved the problem were the Wright brothers, – who, incidentally, were basically young, poorly educated brothers who repaired and made bicycles for a living. Their success was in part down to their perseverance, as well as being the natural outcome of the intense debates and conversations on flight which were taking place at the time.

Here in the UK we have designated 2018 the year of Engineering. Government departments, the business sector, engineering institutions and the universities are all involved. Our goal is to bring engineering to the community. My sincere hope is that we won’t just focus on awareness. I would urge everyone involved to learn from football, our so called beautiful game. Come Saturday, we are all glued on radio and television, listening and watching top flight football. In between we argue about who is the best player, coach or referee, and we passionately offer our advice on who should be taken off the field, and which manager should be fired. In between this, we practise our own game, and we play competitively against other local teams. Football is a passion for the whole community, and we engage with it at all levels. Noone is shut out, and this should be our aim all this year – simply this, to re-engage society with engineering, and to stoke once again that spirit of creativity and innovation that only engineering can bring out.

Top 10 Titles for 2017: The Engineering Learning & Teaching Blog

I started the Engineering Learning & Teaching blog in July 2015. My main reason for starting the blog was to provide a platform for people with interests in Engineering Education to engage with each other.

In July 2015, when I started the blog, it achieved a monthly viewership of exactly ten. As of December 2017, the average viewership is now hovering around 500 per month.  In July 2015, six viewers were from the UK, three from the US, and one from Zimbabwe. Since then the global viewership has risen to 93 countries spread out across all the world’s continents, with the notable exception of the Antarctica. This growth is a clear demonstration of the phenomenal interest in issues pertaining to Engineering Education world-wide.

In this post, I reveal the Top 10 posts for the year 2017. This is based on individual article views over the past year.

10: Student Assignments, Missed Deadlines and the Planning Fallacy

The idea for this article came about as a result of a discussion I had with work colleagues. We realised that there was a general tendency for most engineering students to submit their work perilously close to the deadline, and that academic colleagues almost always missed agreed deadlines, and that the engineering profession is littered with countless projects that overran the agreed deadline, and almost always cost way beyond the original budget. So this blog is aimed at all of us.

9: Progression for Teaching Only Academics in Research Intensive Universities: A Personal Perspective

In this blog I look at the emerging teaching-only academic role. Non-existent a few years ago, the teaching-only academic role is now a common feature of most research intensive universities. Examples of such roles include those academics going by the title “teaching fellow”, “university teacher” or “lecturer – education and scholarship”.  The article is of interest to everyone in academia – teaching-only academics, other academics who have to work collaboratively with this new category of academic, heads of departments, and academic developers. It is also of interest to practising professionals who are contemplating going into academia as this is the main role that they are increasingly recruited into should they apply to a research intensive university.

8: Arthur Mutambara: An Image of the 21st Century Engineer?

Very few engineers ever manage to cross the gulf from the study and practice of engineering to social activism and politics. Professor Arthur Mutambara is only one of a few individuals who has managed to do so.  He has been a student activist, a noted academic, a revered business consultant, and in Zimbabwe’s darkest hour in 2008, he rose to become the Deputy Prime Minister in the Government of National Unity that rescued the country from the brink.

In his autobiography, entitled “In Search of the Elusive Zimbabwean Dream”, Arthur raises several points pertinent to the engineering profession: What constitutes education in this century; what are the social and political responsibilities of the educated person; what are the best strategies for harnessing emerging technologies for the betterment of society? This blog is therefore of interest to all of us interested in the role of the engineer in the wider community beyond our narrow engineering practice.

7: The UCL Integrated Engineering Programme: A Very Brief Guide

The Faculty of Engineering Science recently restructured its undergraduate engineering curriculum.  The result is the Integrated Engineering Programme, a design-oriented, interdisciplinary and inclusive curriculum that has been well received by the students and gone on to receiving a CATE Award (Collaborative Award for Teaching Excellence) by the Higher Education Academy (HEA).  This blog is of interest to all those interested engineering education, and in higher education curriculum transformation in general.

6: Developing Independent Learners: Not a Task for the Faint-hearted

The majority of students entering university are not used to being independent learners. They expect lecturers to give them all they need to know. Hence, one of the main tasks for lecturers in the first year of engineering is to impart independent learning skills to students. This is not an easy task, and most lecturers are ill-equipped to do so. This article should be of interest to fellow colleagues involved in first year engineering education, as well as their students.

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

By nature, students entering engineering school are ultra-competitive. In contrast, success in engineering practice depends to a great deal on collaboration with other engineers and with non-engineering colleagues. This blog is of interest to students wishing to master collaborative, team-working skills, and it is also a useful guide for engineering academics and engineering mentors and instructors in industry.

4: Engineering Education: Potential Journals in Which to Publish

Engineering education research is a relatively young field of research, to the extent that it is often difficult for aspiring individuals to identify reputable journals in which to publish. In this article I present a shortlist of seven engineering education journals that the aspiring engineering education researcher can publish in. I arrive at this list using the following standard journal evaluation criteria: journal impact factor, the SCImago Journal Ranking, h-index and number of indexing databases.

3: When the exam results come out

We increasingly expect engineering students to take charge of their own learning. This is termed self-directed learning. Broadly, this means that the student takes 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. In this article I suggest ways that students can use exam outcomes to direct their own learning.

2: The Piano Method for Studying Mathematics

Mathematics underpins the study of virtually any theoretical studies related to engineering. In general, performance in mathematics often predicts a student’s subsequent performance in engineering studies. In this article, I borrow from the successful learning practices of aspiring musicians to advise students how they can approach the study of mathematics.

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

In this article I discuss some of the critical study skills that students of mathematical disciplines such as engineering need to master if they are to succeed in their study programmes. The blog is targeted at students preparing to go into university or any other tertiary institution, as well as those charged with first year undergraduate teaching, or those responsible for mentoring and supporting first year students in mathematical disciplines. High school teachers are also encouraged to peruse the blog piece to enable them to better prepare their charges for life beyond secondary/high school.

Developing Independent Learners: Not a Task for the Faint-hearted

The majority of students entering university are not used to being independent learners. They expect lecturers to give them all they need to know. When faced with coursework material that goes beyond the lecture material, their typical response is something like : “We haven’t been taught this  material. Show us how to do it!”  In almost every case, it’s  a demand, and not a polite request.

To be fair, it’s not their fault. Prior to coming to university they have been given everything they need to know for the exams.  And it’s not the fault of the teachers either – schools are under ever-increasing pressure to produce students with the highest possible grades for entry into the top universities. Governments expect and demand this, and both parents and students have been led to believe that it’s the student’s inalienable right.

How then should the lecturer of first year  students deal with this? The lecturer can choose to ignore the requests from the students, and simply let them get on with it. But this is not helpful. Students can easily interpret this as an act of neglect on the part of the lecturer, and they can get militant. This is especially so in these days when teaching and learning is increasingly viewed as a commercial transaction – “I pay the fees, you teach me (or,  more accurately, “you give me”) all  I need to know”.

An easier approach would be to just give in to the students and leave some other lecturer to impart independent learning skills in their own  course module. This sounds like cowardice, but it isn’t. I have received overtly threatening  e-mails from colleagues who ought to know better: “I had a meeting with my tuttees yesterday. They tell me that in your last coursework you assessed them on material that  you had not covered in lectures. This is clearly not acceptable.” For better effect, some colleagues routinely copy in the Director of Education and the Head of Department.

Even more ominously, a senior academic can accost  you in the corridor and declare “This is against university regulations. You seriously ought to reconsider your position.” In these days of academic league tables, this can amount to a direct threat to your continued existence at the university, particularly if you are on a fixed-term or temporary contract.

Of course, there is nowhere in the university regulations where this is written. To the contrary, university management expect  all academics to impart independent learning skills in their day-to-day teaching. However, faced with student demands, colleagues can conveniently forget that in the last programme  review meeting, alongside everyone else, they were vehemently  expressing concern at the lack of independent study and learning skills exhibited by students progressing from the first year.

So how then can you impart independent learning skills in the face of hostility from students and fellow academics alike? Here is my answer: Adopt the Socratic method when dealing with student queries. Wikipedia defines the Socratic Method as a way of “asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas and underlying presumptions.”

It’ is not that difficult to put the Socratic method into practice. All you need to do is to start from the known lecture material, and then lead the student on a journey of self-discovery using a series of guiding questions. In my own experience, students end up appreciating this. More often than not, students end up adopting the same questioning style when faced with unfamiliar questions. And that’s a powerful foundation for self-directed learning.

Here  is a recent example from my own experience. It is an excerpt from a recent email exchange I had with a student:

Student: Quite a few of my course colleagues and myself are confused regarding question 1ai) of the current coursework. The question tells us to obtain mathematical expressions that model the velocity, acceleration and distance of the space vehicle based on the data given in the table below. Are these supposed to be best-fit equations based on the whole time period or separate expressions for each individual time segment? I hope you can clarify this issue.

Abel: Let’s start from this point: How do you plan to come up with the best fit equations?

Student: I could plot the data and then use the basic fitting tool to find the equation. However, that would be quite inaccurate. But then if we are to find an expression for each segment, are we to assume a linear relationship between each point? This also seems quite imprecise as the acceleration of the vehicle does not seem to change at a constant rate.

Abel: Part 1 is correct: Which type of equation would describe the graph that best fits the data – a linear equation, a second degree (quadratic) equation, a third degree equation  or some other equation?

Student: The graph for velocity and distance seem to follow a quadratic path but acceleration – a cubic. Would such an expression determined using this method be correct?

Abel: For the velocity, which is more accurate –  linear, quadratic or cubic, and how are you evaluating this?

Student: On closer inspection cubic does seem more accurate, as the residuals are much smaller.

Abel: So which equation should you use for the velocity profile, then quadratic or cubic? And if you know the velocity equation, how can you obtain the acceleration equation and distance equation from this, and why?

Student: I should use the cubic equation because it’s much more precise. Then I can derive the mathematical expressions for acceleration and distance using differentiation/integration as this will provide a clearer answer than using a basic fit for those.

Abel: Looks like you have provided a very detailed answer to your query. Do you still have another question/query?

Student:  Thank you very much for your guidance and your quick responses. Goodnight.



The UCL Integrated Engineering Programme: A Very Brief Guide

What is the Integrated Engineering Programme (IEP)?

An Engineering Education curriculum structure that is specifically designed to facilitate interdisciplinary learning across various engineering disciplines by providing connecting activities between the different disciplines. In so doing it provides opportunities for students from different engineering disciplines to work collaboratively on real-life practical engineering problems.

What is the philosophy underpinning the Integrated Engineering Programme?

The Integrated Engineering Programme is based on the premise that in order to solve the emerging interdisciplinary engineering problems of the 21st century, the engineering graduate of today must have a strong theoretical and practical foundation in any of the current engineering disciplines, coupled with an ability to work in multi-disciplinary teams on interdisciplinary problems. Such skills should be simultaneously and methodically developed throughout the student journey from novice to graduate engineer.

How is the Integrated Engineering Programme structured?

Students enrol for their engineering studies in their chosen disciplines such as Biomedical, Biochemical, Chemical, Civil, Electronic and Electrical, Mechanical Engineering and Computer Science. From the first week of their university studies, and at regular intervals throughout the programme, students engage in team-based projects within their own disciplines and across the departments.

These projects include two cross-disciplinary team-based projects drawn from the key global challenges such as sustainable energy and global health. These two challenges are followed by regular one-week intensive, disciplinary design projects during the second half of the first year and second year known as scenarios.

At the end of the second year students undertake an intensive two-week interdisciplinary challenge, again drawn from key global challenges.  In the final year/years, programmes include a major design/research project. Overall, project-based activities constitute approximately 25% of the curriculum.

The UCL IEP Structure

(Copyright: UCL Faculty of Engineering Science)

What are the benefits of the Integrated Engineering Programme to the student?

The IEP offers students the opportunity to engage in real design and practical engineering experiences throughout their studies. In this way they acquire the necessary professional and interdisciplinary skills that they need to be effective engineers.  For instance, by the end of their second year, students will have taken part in at least 9 real-world engineering projects.


On 1st November 2017 the Higher Education Academy (HEA) recognised the UCL Faculty of Engineering Science by declaring them as one of the six winners of the 2017 HEA Collaborative Award for Teaching Excellence (CATE). See details of the HEA announcement here, and detail of the team submission here.

For more indepth Information:

For a more detailed overview of the Integrated Engineering Programme, read the project paper presented at the IEEE EDUCON 2015 Engineering Education Conference: Work in progress: Multi-disciplinary curriculum review of engineering education. UCL’s integrated engineering programme.

For a detailed description of the early implementation of scenarios in  UCL Civil and Environmental Engineering programmes,  see the article published in the 2010 European Journal of Engineering Education  Vol 35, Issue 3: Student experience of a scenario-centred curriculum

For a detailed description and evaluation of the cornerstone Engineering Design first year module of the Integrated Engineering Programme, see the paper presented at the 5th IEEE Integrated STEM Education Conference 2015: Sense of achievement: Initial evaluation of an Integrated Engineering Design cornerstone module


Africa: The case for engineering curriculum transformation

Sub-Saharan Africa is currently experiencing one of the most rapid economic growth in the world. However, unlike economic growth elsewhere,  this economic growth is not matched by a corresponding reduction in poverty (Filler 2014). Youth unemployment, and underemployment, remains high, and in a region where the youth constitute over 50% of the population, this is being viewed by policy planners as a ticking time-bomb. The main reason for this is that economic growth in Sub-Saharan Africa is primarily driven by minerals and commodities, both of which are essentially extractive processes that only require a low level of technical skill. To begin to move Sub-Saharan Africa out of its current levels of poverty to prosperity, significant investment need to be made in the manufacturing sector. This calls for relevant and up to date engineering skills.

Failure of Engineering Education in Sub Sharan Africa

An investigation by the World Bank has found that Sub-Saharan Africa  is simultaneously experiencing  both a shortage of skilled and experienced engineers, and severe unemployment for graduate engineers (Mohamedbhai 2014). This scenario is leading to a shortage of  engineering skills that is so severe that it has become a major constraint to economic growth in the region.  The main reason for university graduates failing to secure meaningful jobs within engineering is that they lack the necessary skills and experience to be employable. These graduates often end up  severely underemployed in non-graduate roles in both the formal and informal economic sector, and they are unlikely to ever  secure proper engineering roles over their lifetimes. Given that university programmes are often three or four years long, this constitutes a severe waste in terms of human and economic resources.

Why Engineering programmes are failing students and national economies

There are several reasons why university engineering programmes in Sub-Saharan Africa are failing. This includes a severe lack of funding, a shortage of  experienced  academics that is compounded by high staff turnover, and a lack of innovation in approaches to learning and teaching (Mohamedbhai 2014).  Whilst there have been some attempts to introduce student-focussed, active learning methods such as problem based learning in recent years, an engineering student in Sub-Saharan Africa is most likely to go through a content-led, teacher-focussed programme delivered by a relatively inexperienced academic team who primarily deliver their teaching in pretty much the same way they were taught during their student days. This is usually the deductive teaching approach that is characterised by a first year  that focusses on basic mathematics and science, followed by engineering fundamentals in Years 2 and 3, and ending with a focus on  realistic engineering problems and engineering practice in the final year project. Such an approach is theory-heavy and lacking in adequate  student-exposure to engineering practice.

Comparison with 19th century engineering education

Current engineering education practice merits comparison with engineering education in the period 1750 to 1850 when  advances in engineering took the United Kingdom, and the rest of the world,  from an agrarian economy to the industrial age. Then, the primary mode of engineering education was through apprenticeships, with prospective engineers learning their trade  from experienced practitioners. Not only that, ambitious engineers made efforts to progress their own learning by enrolling at the emerging engineering schools across Europe, as was the case with Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a man who played an important role in advancing the knowledge and practice of railway engineering, bridge building, tunnel construction  and ship building.  In addition, practising engineers also got together to form the Institute of Civil Engineers in 1818 with the primary goal of enabling them to share and advance their knowledge of engineering.

Of Isambard Brunel, it has been said that he was technically astute to the point of being ingenious, extremely bold in championing his ideas, and imbued with consummate communication skills that enabled him to seek and secure funding for his projects (Peters 2011). In short, Isambard Brunel was the technopreneur par excellence.  Passive learning, as experienced by students learning engineering via a deductive process, can never achieve these technical and entrepreneurial skills.

An alternative to deductive engineering education

Teaching-focussed, deductive teaching methods focus primarily on imparting theoretical content to students and offer little opportunities for them to put that knowledge into application. This is incontrast to the recommendations made by UNESCO in 1996 that an effective education should be guided by the following principles:

  • Learning to know – becoming inspired, discovering and exploring, developing a passion for learning, acquiring knowledge and understanding of ourselves, our immediate world and beyond
  • Learning to do – gaining skills, confidence, competence and practical abilities
  • Learning to live together – learning tolerance, mutual understanding and interdependence, sharing the experience of learning with family and friends
  • Learning to be – developing ourselves, our mental and physical capacity, wellbeing and autonomy, and our ability to take control of our lives and influence the world around us.

Active learning methods, such as the design-based Integrated Engineering Programme developed at University College London (Bains et al. 2014), are specifically designed to achieve all of the four UNESCO principles. In such approaches, students are introduced and taught engineering skills (learning to know), and, beginning from the first year of engineering studies, they learn to put this knowledge into practice (learning to do). Most of their learning is team-based, and is aimed at using engineering knowledge to solve problems and challenges within industry and within the communities that they live in (learning to live together). As the students progress from the first year to the final graduation year, they progressively transform into practising engineers with a sufficient theoretical and skills base that enable them to be immediately useful in engineering upon graduation (learning to be).

A connected approach to engineering education

Universities all over the world have often been labelled as ivory towers. This moniker signifies their isolation and aloofness from the real world.  However, the type of learning advocated by active learning methods can not take place in isolation. Students have to connect their learning to the real world, and they have to connect the knowledge that they are acquiring to the emerging knowledge in their fields by staying in touch with the current research in their disciplines.  In addition, students have to develop an awareness of developments in other related disciplinary areas by maintaining links with students,  practitioners and other knowledge sources in different, but relevant, disciplines.  A curriculum that facilitates all these links is referred to as a connected curriculum, and it enables students to acquire relevant theoretical knowledge whilst increasing their own relevance to their own professions (Fung  2017).  At a minimum, for an engineering school to develop an effective connected curriculum, they must engage collaboratively with industry, and with the local community, which, for Sub Saharan Africa, means engaging with the ubiquitous informal sector as well.

Working collaboratively with industry

Szirmai, et al (2013) argue that it is time that Sub Saharan Africa view the education system “not merely as a supplier of appropriately schooled labour, but as an integral part of the national innovation system.”  Such an approach would require educational institutions, public research organizations and productive firms to interact with each other at all levels. As expected , within the engineering context, this would involve more students gaining opportunities for internship with local companies. In addition to this, however, industry should play an active role in  the development and delivery of the engineering curriculum. Given the shortage of academics with relevant practical experience, industry should contribute to skills development by enabling their own engineers to  partner with university academics  in developing and delivering teaching. For instance, practising engineers could develop practice-based, realistic, engineering problem sets that are based on current industrial practice, and also contribute to project supervision as well.  Where problem based learning is used, the increased opportunities for interaction between students and the experienced, practising engineers enable students to improve their skills in engineering practice.

Acting as knowledge and skills hubs for the informal sector

The private sector in most African economies is dominated by small and micro firms, most of which are in the informal sector (Szirmai, et al 2013).  These micro firms often lack the capital and the skills to develop into full-fledged firms that offer reliable and sustainable employment opportunities. Universities could step into this gap by providing these firms with the necessary skills and knowledge. This could involve academics and students working with these firms to address the problems that the firms are experiencing. For instance, students can look at production processes  within a firm, and propose technological solutions that make production processes more efficient and cost-effective.  In this way students learn to apply their knowledge to real-life situations, thus preparing them for their own careers. Importantly, as well, students learn to be entrepreneurial, and by the time they finish their studies they will be better prepared to set up their own ventures, or be in a position to take up roles within aspirational firms in the informal sector, thereby making it possible for these firms to grow and eventually become part of the country’s formal sector.


Bains, S.,  Mitchell, J.E., Nyamapfene, A. and Tilley, E. (2014). Work in progress: Multi-displinary curriculum review of engineering education. UCL’s integrated engineering programme. Global Engineering Education Conference (EDUCON), 2015 IEEE, 844 – 846

Filmer, Deon; Fox, Louise. 2014. Youth Employment in Sub-Saharan Africa. Africa Development Forum;. Washington, DC: World Bank and Agence Française de Développement.

Fung, D. (2017). A connected curriculum for Higher Education. UCL Press. Available at

Mohamedbhai, G. (2014). Improving the Quality of Engineering Education in Sub-Saharan Africa: World Bank Report

Peters, R.G. (2011). Brunel: ‘The Practical Prophet’. Available at

Szirmai, A., Gebreeyesus, M., Guadagno, F. and Verspagen,B. (2013) ‘Promoting productive employment in sub-Saharan Africa. A review of the literature’, UNUMERIT
Working Paper 2013-062.

UNESCO.(1996). Learning: The treasure within. UNESCO Publishing, Paris.

Implementing PBL in a Sunday School

This summer I did something I have never done before – training Sunday School teachers in problem based learning (PBL). It was frightening, exhilarating, and ultimately very enlightening.

The church in question, based in South London, was keen to engage their children in creative learning and problem solving. They wanted their children to provide creative insights on how to do church in a modern-day metropolis like London and still stay true to the church’s mission. They also wanted their children to think creatively about using everyday technologies such as smart phones and social media to develop novel solutions to issues faced by the local community.

The church draws its congregation from various walks of life. Within the congregation there are engineers, medical doctors, nurses, social workers, people working in security, retail workers, primary and secondary school teachers, refugees, as well as those who are now retired. The church leadership was keen to find a way for this diverse skill set to be channelled appropriately to the children. They had heard of PBL, and I happened to be  available to identify and train  a core team of Sunday School teachers.

Training consisted of a Saturday afternoon in which I went over the key elements of problem based learning and team-based learning. After the talk, I organised the participants into 4 groups of six people each, and gave them exercises to work on. At any one time two of the participants  served as facilitators, with the remaining four being the students. The teams rotated roles every  20 minutes, so that  by the end of one hour everyone had had a turn at being a facilitator and at being a student. 

Most of the participants had never engaged in PBL before. They could teach, but they were unfamiliar with the coaching approach that is inherent to PBL. However, by the end of the day they felt comfortable enough to put their newly acquired skills into practice.

At the end of the training session the participants identified several topics that they would assign to the Sunday School children over the following five weeks. There were roughly sixty children, 20  of whom came to the Sunday morning service, with the rest coming in the afternoon service. Their ages ranged from five to twelve, and girls outnumbered boys two to one. The Sunday School teachers were to deliver all aspects of PBL and I stayed on hand as a consultant.

The first day of Sunday  School is a day to remember. Simply put, it was a day mired in confusion. The children expected the normal teacher-led learning, and when let loose ala PBL, they were unsure of what to do, when to talk, when to take leadership and when and how to engage with their fellow group members. They were used to being told: “Sunday School! No talking.” Now they were being asked to talk and to walk around the group table freely. They simply froze, and faced with this situation, most of the teachers lost their confidence, and their newly acquired Socratic teaching approach fizzled out.

Traditionally, the teachers were used to taking control, to being the sage in front of the children. Now they were on the side lines, so to speak, prodding the children, listening to their ideas, and unleashing them to take charge of their learning. And to make matters worse, the children appeared to know more about current technology than the teachers. This was very unsettling for both teachers and children. 

Sometimes when the children appeared to get stuck, it was very tempting for some teachers to step in and literally take over the project.  Moments of silence suddenly proved to be very frightening for both the taught, and the teachers. My challenge therefore was to restrain the teachers so that they remained in their coaching/advisory roles, as opposed to being teacher-sages.

All in all, it turned out to be a useful six-week period for everyone. The children came up with very insightful ideas on the use of technology in church life. Just as we tend to do in university, it turned out that we grossly underestimate children’s creative and technical abilities. Following this six-week immersion in PBL, I’m now sympathetic to the idea that current approaches to teaching have done more to destroy individual creativity and innovation than any other process that humanity has discovered.

Importantly, this six-week period has stimulated a desire to learn and master current technologies. For instance, as a direct result of this, a group of girls and women have come together to form their own coding club. They range in age from 10 years to 45 years. Some hold degrees, some don’t.  Some are still in school, whilst for some, school is now only a distant memory. 

Regardless of their personal circumstances, they share one objective, namely to be masters if The technologies that now underpin modern life and commerce. They are undaunted by The task at hand. The less able will learn from the more able, and the more able will be spurred on by their desire to impart their knowledge to others. Together they will conquer the once-impossible, and together they will change their world.

So, all in all, this has been a very fruitful summer for me. And the church leadership are confidently projecting that within the next few years this could lead to several techie start-ups being incubated in the church. They call it prophecy, and as for me, all I can say is “Why not?”