The case for new pedagogies in engineering education
What do engineers do? Why do we need engineers? These questions are examined through the challenges for engineering in the 21st century and looking at the past and future of engineering education.
The 20th century saw some of the greatest engineering achievements that humankind has created, and these have arguably improved virtually every single aspect of human life. The new century no doubt holds as many challenges as those in the past and as the world population continues to grow, the challenge of sustaining civilization’s continuing advancement, while maintaining or continuing to improve the quality of life for the expanding global population will become ever more pressing.
With these challenges in mind, new degree programmes are being developed and momentum continues to build as more young people beginning their engineering careers recognize the role that engineering provides to society and people, and the need for a global mindset for working and engaging with engineers anywhere in the world in the 21st century.
In 2014, the Royal Academy of Engineering gathered a group of engineers, academics, and educators to explore professional traits that are common to engineers. At the core of the engineering mindset is the determination to ‘make things work’ or ‘make them work better.’ In order to achieve the ‘make’ outcome, there are a series of supporting habits of mind. They do not exist in any particular order, but a natural pattern based around the engineering design process does begin to emerge.
The first habit is problem identification. Engineers need to be able to articulate and specify a problem to arrive at a solution.
The second engineering habit of mind is creative problem solving. The third engineering habit of mind is visualization. Visualizing is a key component of the engineer’s skill set and it builds in sophistication during the lifecycle of an engineering project – from 2D sketches to 3D CAD, to physical models and functional prototypes.
Adapting is a further trait exhibited by engineers, who will apply solutions from different contexts, rather than developing solutions from first principles each time. It is the application of ideas and knowledge which is a key attribute of engineers. Improving and a relentless drive to make products better is another attribute of engineers.
Systems thinking is the final trait of engineers, who recognize that their work is only a subset of a larger system and that their designs and solutions may have unintended consequences on the wider system. The iterative improvement cycle therefore plays a key role in the systems approach. The development of the Engineering Habits of Mind in young people, from school age onwards, may help them to understand the role of engineers better and also give them the confidence and the self-efficacy to take on engineering challenges themselves.
In practice, a motivated person with access to a good library has always had the capability to study and achieve knowledge up to degree level in many subjects, and there are many examples of self-taught people achieving considerable eminence. This includes some academics that have moved into fields substantially different from their first qualification. By careful reading and increasingly by use of resources such as videos on the Internet, individuals can gain a good knowledge of many humanities and science fields, and perhaps even a fairly deep understanding. However, it is the general practice that degrees in science and engineering include some practical work in laboratories.
Engineering is about doing, not passive receipt of knowledge or the process of finding out about science, and engineering students should be ‘doing’ as much as possible during their degrees. This goes along with the current the view of active learning and also the initiatives of Education for Capability and CDIO (the initiative in engineering proposing Conceive, Design, Implement, and Operate).
Classical science-based teaching promoting formal derivations and learning of ‘right’ answers needs to move to methods more aligned with design and creation, including work that is literally ‘hands-on.’ Part of this ‘doing’ can only be achieved by students being physically present, and much else can be better done if they are. Failure to do this will lead to graduates unprepared for industry, and may lead to the students moving to universities which are deemed more satisfactory by employers.
While learning technologies can and should be used, they do not of themselves achieve education, which depends on recognizing the objectives and understanding the processes needed. These must be the ones which are appropriate to the subject, not those suited to arts degrees. Forming effective work habits and solving problems are possibly as important as the syllabus.
Traditional universities with engineering need to move (carefully) away from the traditional model of passive lectures as the main activity and the emphasis on science. In order to be attractive to students and effective in producing engineering graduates, as much practical work as possible should be done, and this must be for every student, not just a favoured few. This should be accompanied by as much design work as possible, with students in teams or groups, and with the basic theory and mathematics immediately recognized by the students as support, not a separate chore. New buildings should be considered as a means to facilitate practical and project work, and this could give immense advantages if done well.