Engineering Education in the Future

How can engineering education best prepare and maintain our engineers for engineering practice in a rapidly changing world?

 

On Thursday 27th September, Engineers Australia’s Structural Engineering College convened a workshop at the Australasian Structural Engineering Conference to explore how engineering education can best prepare and maintain our engineers for engineering practice in a rapidly changing world.

Approximately 200 engineers attended the workshop which was facilitated by Dr David Cruickshanks-Boyd from WSP, National President of Engineers Australia in 2015.  The workshop involved a panel of engineers from the University sector, professional associations and design consultancies:

  • Professor Kourosh Kayvani, Managing Director – Design, Innovation and Eminence, Aurecon
  • Professor John Wilson, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Swinburne University of Technology
  • Faith Wainwright, President of the Institution of Structural Engineers
  • Freddy Smyth, recent graduate and Project Engineer at WSP, and
  • Kyle Hourigan, recent graduate and Project Engineer at Robert Bird Group.

The importance of this topic was exemplified by the rich and diverse discussion of ideas from both the panel members and the wider audience.  This paper summarises the main points raised and we hope provides valuable recommendations for educators, professional institutions and employers of engineers.

 

The primary skills to be cultivated by our tertiary educational institutions

There was widespread agreement that our tertiary educational institutions must ensure that our future engineers are provided with a thorough grounding in ‘First Principles Thinking’.  The ability to think critically and cut to the chase. To be able to really think about the essence of what is being asked of the engineer.

Two fundamental skills of future engineers were emphasised by participants:

  • The ability to think
  • The ability to communicate and collaborate

It is essential that our tertiary institutions develop a clear understanding of the engineering habits of mind – systems thinking, adapting, problem finding, improving, creative problem solving, and visualising.  And establish learning outcomes based on these learning habits.

Refer https://www.raeng.org.uk/publications/other/ehom-poster-royal-academy-of-engineering

and

https://www.raeng.org.uk/news/news-releases/2014/may/do-you-think-like-an-engineer

As engineers move into practice in a changing world, where they will increasingly work alongside artificial intelligence, these fundamental skills will be essential.

There was also much discussion about the value of our teachers and mentors in the tertiary educational institutions to inspire our future engineers about the purpose of engineering as it contributes to improving our world for the benefit of the wider community.  A number of contributors spoke about the lasting impact on their future careers from educators who had the ability to inspire them and to relate to them on a personal level.  This critical role of the educator is often overlooked.

 

The important role of employers

There was also very widespread agreement that employers must be involved closely in the education of future engineers.  Everyone agreed that grounding educational learnings in engineering practice was a fundamental requirement in the training of engineers.

How this is achieved can vary considerably and there is no ‘one size fits all (12 week placement)’ approach that was advocated.  Suffice to say, the richer the involvement of employers in the educational experience of future engineers – the better the outcome.  Internships in particular are highly valued ways for undergraduate engineers to develop engineering skills.

Once in the workplace, as stated by the younger engineers on the panel, employers should offer graduates a broad range of experiences in all areas within their workplace. This is a really good way to open up opportunities to explore different types of work. Employers need to ensure that existing employees are very welcoming.  New graduates are encouraged to get to know as many people in the workplace as possible, to assist the transition between graduation and full time employment.

 

Engineering is a profession

A key point was made by one member of the audience, reinforcing the obligation for our engineers to understand what it means to be a professional. Unfortunately, engineering in many cases is now treated as another discipline of science. Being a profession implies a significant responsibility on our engineers to understand and abide by a Code of Ethics which includes a commitment to maintaining their skills and knowledge by engaging in lifelong learning.

And engineering is increasingly becoming a global profession.  The key skills required to work across boundaries are flexibility, speed and ability of learning.  To prepare future graduates for a global career, tertiary institutions should promote and focus more on the student’s desire to learn and curiosity for working globally. Universities should promote more study tours and global exchange programs as these are extremely helpful.  These exchange programs are a great way to spend time outside the local bubble and spark curiosity. It is good to see the impact that engineering solutions can have around the world and how much good they can do.

 

What can governments and Engineers Australia do?

 It is critical that government’s set the right KPIs and incentives for the tertiary institutions.  Ones that will encourage the development of engineers well prepared for the future.  There are many impediments on our tertiary institutions which inhibit achievement of this goal.  Policy makers should consider how to set these KPIs and incentives to facilitate the rich learning environment discussed throughout this workshop.  And Engineers Australia should ensure that their accreditation standards and practices do the same.