Preparing for Engineering School

At this time of the year I normally receive one or more emails from students who have just finished their high school studies and are waiting to go to university to study engineering. These emails normally go along these lines:

Dear Abel

I have been accepted by such and such university to study such and such branch of engineering. I have finished my Advanced Level exams and expect to get the necessary grades to enter onto the engineering programme. Can you give me some advice on what to expect at university, and the things I need to do to prepare for university?


Engineering student-to-be

In this blog I will try to address the queries raised in this email. For most of us, the transition from high school to university is not as simple as it seems. At the very minimum, this transition may involve changes to your personal life circumstances, changes in approaches to learning and studying, and it marks your first steps onto the road to becoming a professional engineer. There may be a host of other changes as well, but for me, these three are the ones that clearly stand out. I will now deal with each in turn.

Managing the Changes in your Personal Life Circumstances

Going to university is usually the first time that most young people leave home to go and stay on their own. For a start, as a general rule, you don’t have to worry too much about where you will be living. Most universities offer accommodation to all their first year students. You can opt to live in catered accommodation, which means you don’t have to worry about cooking and cleaning up. However, catered accommodation is usually quite expensive, so if you are on a limited budget, this may not be an option for you. This means that you may be moving into non-catered accommodation.

Whether you move into catered accommodation or not, the most significant thing is that all of a sudden you will be living with other people, other than your family. Depending on which type of accommodation you choose, you may need to share your room with someone else, and to share such important facilities like the bathroom. If you are fortunate, you can have your own accommodation with its separate bathroom and toilet facilities. However, in most cases, you have to share with other students the same living lounge, the same television set, and in the kitchen you will share the same cooker and fridge. Personal cleanliness and etiquette are very important in this situation. Clean up after using the kitchen, don’t hog the television set, and don’t play your music too loud.

At a personal level you will have to learn to do a lot of mundane things on your own, like doing the laundry and your own cooking. You can’t live on pizza and fast food all year round. So the most important thing that you can do now is to improve your cooking skills. Follow your dad or mum into the kitchen, and start cooking. It will be bad at first, but in a few days you will become a good enough cook. For some, cooking is the easy part, and the worst part is cleaning up afterwards. Learn to clean up the cooker after you are done with cooking, and clean your plates and pots as soon as you have finished eating. Don’t leave them in the sink. These are important life skills, and they will make it easier for other students to live amicably with you.

Another important aspect is learning to handle money on a day by day basis. You will need to set aside money to buy essentials, and for entertainment. If you have not started doing so, get into the habit of carefully budgeting your expenses against your income. For most students, you will receive government support at the beginning of the term. If you are not careful, you can blow all this money in the first week of term. Rather, before the money comes in, draw up a list of the essential things that you need to buy, and decide how much money you need to set aside for the rest of the term. When the money does come in, make sure you stick to that plan. Money is the lifeblood of life, and when it runs low, it will impact on your ability to concentrate on your studies.

Going to university can be a huge emotional challenge. Once your parents have dropped you off, and they have gone back home, it will suddenly hit you full in the face that you are alone. You will miss your dad, mum and your brothers and sisters. You will wake up in the middle of the night thinking of home, and wondering why you chose to go to a far-away university in the first place. But remember, your family are also feeling the same about you. And most importantly, they all know that you have taken the next important stage of your life, and they are proud of you, and though you may be separated by hundreds of miles, they are in it together with you. You are never alone. Make sure you keep in touch with your family through regular phone calls, and the occasional week-end rush back home. But above all, make friends with the other students around you.  You are all going through the same experiences, and it helps to have someone to talk to and to share life experiences. And don’t give up, because in a few weeks, it will become normal, and you will get used to living away from home.

The Nature of Engineering School

One thing that you will immediately notice when you start engineering school is that university is very different from high school. Whereas you may have spent the last two years of high school studying three to five subjects in detail, at university you will be studying four to six course modules simultaneously in any given term. Each of these modules will have its own coursework schedule, with non-negotiable submission deadlines. Although universities have done a lot to improve the scheduling of submission deadlines, it is not uncommon to have three or more deadlines falling in the same week. You will need to have very good time management. Buy a diary if you don’t have one, and get into the habit of referring to it on a daily basis. In fact I usually advise my students to always travel with their diary. It is not uncommon to wake up at midnight one day to realise that you have a pending deadline that you had completely forgotten about. If anything, going to university teaches you to value and manage your time.

Another thing that will strike you is the rather impersonal aspect of studying compared to high school. You may have been used to small classes at high school. This is usually not the case at university. Normally in the first year of university, there may be a hundred or more of you taking the same class. Some classes may even have two hundred or more students. You can get lost in a sea of other students. Be prepared to develop relationships with other students. Most students who manage to overcome the challenges of studying at university quickly form study groups of five or more students. They will typically walk together to the library, sit in the same study section, and study the same material at the same time. It is normal practice to see pizza deliveries being made to the library all through the night. If at all possible, don’t be a loner at university, learn to work with others.

Another aspect that may shock you is the intense nature of university studies. As a general rule you will cover in a single lecture an amount of material equivalent to three weeks of study in high school. And because of the compressed nature of university terms, there is normally very little scope for the lecturer to go over the material again. There is usually no time for a gradual introduction of course material. Lecturers are under intense pressure to deliver the syllabus in the given amount of time, which may be no more than thirty or forty hours of teaching time for an entire course module. This means that you have to prepare for your lectures beforehand, and to do follow-up reading after the lecture. Usually all the material is available on the university virtual learning environment. Get into the habit of reading ahead, and reading and doing your assignments in between lectures. Unlike high school, you may be attending not more than four hours of lectures per day.  Don’t get fooled by the seemingly empty lecture timetable. It’s not free time. It is time for you to go into the library and do some serious work. As a general rule, for every hour of lectures, you need to put in four hours of personal study.

At high school you may be used to being taught by a few teachers at any one point in time. You will get to know your teachers very well, and they will also get to know each one of you individually. This is usually not the case at university. You will be taught by multiple lecturers, and sometimes, two or more lecturers will share the teaching on a single course module. And given the number of students in each class, few lecturers get to know ten or more students in any of their first year classes. The same goes for the students – only a few get to know the names of all their lecturers in the first term of university. This can be very difficult for most students, and in some universities, some students can quietly drop out, and despite all the student management systems in place, it can be weeks before someone within the university administration notices.

What does all this mean for you? All it means is that you have to take charge of your learning. This includes working with other students, making sure that you attend your lectures and that you submit your coursework on time. It also means that you have to take the initiative to approach lecturers and course administrators to address any concerns that you may be having.  If a lecturer hasn’t explained something clearly, follow it up. Send an email, go and knock on his or her door, stop them in the corridors, and ask your question. University is a place for asking lots of questions. This is expected of you, ask questions and don’t stop until you are satisfied. In fact, this is one of the key benefits of going to university. You learn to take personal responsibility and control of your own life, and this is a highly sought-after skill when you get into employment.

In general, universities usually provide you with a personal tutor. This is a lecturer from your department, and their role is to support you in your learning. Your tutor will give you advice about how to conduct your studies, and he or she will be interested to know how you are settling into university. If you miss a coursework submission, or if you are not performing as expected, your tutor is usually the first person to know. Make sure that you meet regularly with your tutor, and let him or her be aware of anything that may not be going well in your life. Inform your tutor if you are taken ill, or if you have broken up with your boyfriend or girlfriend and this is affecting your studies. Get to know your tutor very well. They are an important source of information concerning what is important to do at university. Take their advice seriously, and if you are having successes, or challenges, with your education, or any other activities you are involved with in the university and beyond, let them know. Throughout your university life, your tutor is likely to be one of the very few lecturers who will get to know you as a person. They will be there to provide you with work references, and when you start working, they will be important contacts for you if you wish to re-connect with the university.

Connecting with the Engineering Profession

You will be going to university to learn and study your particular field of engineering for three or four years. Most students show up at university with only a hazy idea about their chosen engineering discipline. After the first few weeks, some students may realise that they made the wrong choice. What they thought was engineering may be very different from the reality. Get to know your future engineering field. Search on the Internet all about your chosen discipline. Look at the various engineering syllabuses offered by the various universities, and read all the stories involving engineers in your discipline.

In most countries, there is usually a professional association for engineers. Find out which association engineers from your discipline belong to, and sign up. Engineering associations are always on the lookout for student engineers, and in most instances the cost of joining as a student is very small. And be involved with the association. Attend meetings, even if they may be talking about issues that make no sense to you. Pretty soon, some of those things will be your bread and butter issues. Talk to practising engineers, make friends, and volunteer your time. By doing so you will begin to know a lot about how your engineering discipline is practised, and you will develop useful contacts that may well lead you into your first job.

Everyone has a fair idea what a medical doctor does. In contrast, few people can explain with certainty what an engineer does. Sadly, this includes a large chunk of beginning engineering students.  Knowing what engineers do in every day working life will enable you to appreciate why your course is organised the way it is. It will also help to give you an idea of the additional skills that you need to acquire outside of your engineering classes. Find out which organisations are involved in your field, and ask to shadow one of their engineers for a day.  Most organisations are happy to give prospective engineers some shadowing experience, but they don’t normally advertise. Take the initiative, and ask them, and if they say no, go on to the next organisation. Be persistent.

A day spent shadowing a practising engineer gives useful insights into engineering practice. You get to see the engineer at work, reviewing designs, contracts, answering phone calls and emails, sending instructions to workers involved with projects, and communicating with senior managers within and outside the organisation. Follow the engineer to the tea and coffee machine, and listen as he or she exchanges chit chats with other colleagues. Imagine yourself in their role, and ask yourself: “Is this for me?”

Grooming yourself for Engineering Studies

There is at least three months between the end of high school and the start of engineering school. You can forget a lot in this period, and it is not helpful to turn up at university with a rusty brain. Mathematics forms the basis for most of the course modules that you will be studying at university. Find time to refresh your skills in such areas as trigonometry, differentiation and integration, and probability and statistics.  Most universities usually give advice on the mathematical and scientific skills that you need to have when you come into university. Take time to keep  these essential skills up-to-date. They are the bread and butter of engineering school. If you talk to most engineering lecturers, they will advise you that you need to spend at least half an hour each day, week in, week out, in the study of mathematics. Make the study of mathematics a habit, and this will smoothen your transition into university.

Nowadays computers are central to the study of engineering. You will use spreadsheets like Excel, programming languages and modelling software to simulate, analyse and model engineering problems. Find time to experiment with spreadsheets, especially their use in in graphical plotting and visualising mathematical equations. Again, the Internet is a great source for good practice material.

Most engineering disciplines have courses on computer programming. Even if you won’t be doing any computer programming in your university course, it helps to have an idea of programming.   After all, programming is one of the pillars of this current technological era. Find out which programming languages are taught in your university, and start learning some basic programming. It can teach you a lot about how to organise your thoughts and how to solve problems in a systematic manner. For most programming languages, you can easily download the essential software for free from the Internet, and there are loads of free online courses that you can work through. Start small, be inquisitive, and enjoy reading, modifying and experimenting with the many examples that are available for free on Internet.

Concluding Remarks

As a parting shot, don’t go into panic mode. Getting into engineering school is a very competitive process. The fact that you have received an offer means that you are one of the best engineering prospects out there. Thousands have gone through engineering school, and they have excelled in both their studies and in their job roles after graduating. You are no different from any of them. Believe in yourself. You can do it.

Open Days – A Must for the Academic as Well

September and October are usually the season for university open days, and this year is no exception. But over the years, the expectations of prospective students have changed. Back in the olden days, the key issues for prospective students were student accommodation, sporting facilities and amenities, and the suitability of the university’s location as a possible haven away from the prying eyes of overbearing parents.  Don’t get me wrong. These issues are still important for today’s prospective student.  However, unlike the cohorts of yester year, today’s open day visitors are now placing equal, if not more,  emphasis on universities’  learning and teaching environments, including such outcomes as graduate career chances and employability.

 Emerging Changes in Open Days

Open days often fall on Saturdays. In the olden days, open day duties often fell on those unfortunate enough to have responsibilities for undergraduate teaching, and for newly recruited academics. The situation now appears to have changed. Up and down the country, it seems, engineering departments are now deploying their “best” academics to host prospective students and their parents on open days. And for good reason too. Student fee income now determines the success and continued operation of a department, its re-organisation – euphemism for staff retrenchment and merger with other departments – or at worst, its closure.

For the diligent academic, open days offer a unique opportunity for assessing the expectations of prospective students and their parents.  As I found out this year, prospective engineering students have become extremely savvy in their academic requirements. Whilst I agree with the generality of the literature on student transitions that some of the expectations of prospective students tend to be unrealistic, the casual conversations that I had with parents and prospective students this year paint a somewhat different picture.  It is now clear to me that both prospective students and their parents are now quite well-researched about the programmes that they intend to follow.

Demand for Industry Links

Moreover, the prospective students that I met have very clear expectations on the nature of teaching they want. As expected amongst engineering students, their prime concerns are employability related issues. As expected, students wanted to know more about the possibility for industrial placements, as well as the availability of any career-support programmes in the university. However, most interestingly, students were extremely interested in the extent to which industry collaborates with us in teaching and assessment. For example, they also wanted to know to what extent industry contributed to project-based learning activities, including the extent to which students get to work on authentic industry sourced projects.

Demand for Research Involvement

Whilst students of yester year have expressed satisfaction with simply being in a department associated with some notable research expertise, this year I found out that prospective student expectations are now much higher. Quite a number of prospective students wished to know the kind of research they might be involved with in the first year, and whether they would get to work with some noted researchers on actual university research programmes. They even mentioned some noteworthy names within engineering, and even mentioned some of our current research projects.  Of course, in previous years we would simply have laughed this away. But this year it is definitely different. Prospective students fully expect to get their hands into real research, and we have no option but to find a way of facilitating this. It is no wonder that universities are coming up with strategies for research-based learning including, for example, the UCL Connected Curriculum.

Demand for Personalisation

It also appears personalisation has become a key issue for prospective students. For instance a number of prospective students wished to know whether there were opportunities to specialise in certain subject areas, or whether there were opportunities to complement their degree programmes with courses from other faculties, so as the create an appropriate match between their studies and prospective careers. Moreover, prospective students were also looking for opportunities to spend time in institutions in other countries.

What it means for the Academic

Of course, most universities have launched various undergraduate reform programmes.  This includes the introduction of various forms of project-based learning, and in some cases, wholesale re-organisation of undergraduate programmes to introduce more collaborative, research-based and industry-linked programmes like the Integrated Engineering Programme at UCL. However, the big question is: To what extent does the average engineering academic buy into these initiatives, and to what extent is the average academic aware of the demands being made by prospective engineering students? Clearly, open days should be a must for all engineering academics, just as they are a must for prospective engineering students.