‘Radical reform': Professional Engineer Jan 2017

‘Radical reform': Professional Engineer Jan 2017

Taken from The Professional Engineer. Dated 01.17


Do we need a shake-up of the way engineering is taught? The backers of a plan to open a new university think we do.

The mantra “fixing the leaky pipeline of engineering talent” is repeated so regularly that there is a risk of switching off and turning away from the issues that are exacerbating the skills shortage.

This can be particularly true when analysing the scale of the problem. In a 2015 report by Oxford University’s Centre on Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance, an analysis of employment found that the percentage of those graduating from engineering disciplines and going into the corresponding industry sector is generally less than 50%, and in some cases less than 10%.

So why are talented young engineers turning their backs on the industry? David Sheppard, a retired marketing consultant and one of the masterminds behind a new engineering university, believes that many students get put off by the traditional teaching methods at university. These Do we need a shake-up of the way engineering is taught? The backers of a plan to open a new university think we do. Tanya Blake reports radical reform have been likened to a “long death march” of maths and physics before eventually leading into engineering topics.

In a bid to tackle this issue, Sheppard, along with a handful of volunteers, is working to build the country’s first greenfield university in 40 years. It will be based in Hereford and will take a radical approach to teaching engineering.

Due to open in September 2019, the New Model in Technology and Engineering (NMITE) University will teach an accelerated integrated masters liberal engineering degree (AIMLED).

The AIMLED programme will present the degree over three years. This will entail 1,600 study hours, or forty 40-hour weeks, per year. Each academic year will have about 13 three-week blocks, with each block involving up to 30 students in groups of five working to solve problem-based projects. With inter-block breaks this will require the commitment of students for 46 weeks, the rest of the year being taken as holiday.

In a bid to attract a broader range of students from different backgrounds and more women, the curriculum will have no lectures, which Sheppard says are a “wholly inefficient way of transmitting information”. Instead, students will be asked to solve real-life, problem-based projects, with as many as possible contributed by industry.

For example, a group of students could be asked by a company to reduce the cost of manufacturing, and the environmental impact of, an engine over one three-week block. “That requires an understanding of thermodynamics, but also finance, materials, and a raft of other things such as ethical and political issues that you would have to apply in the real world,” says Sheppard.

“We are teaching not just the fundamentals of engineering. Any one block will be 60-65% engineering, and 35-40% of the other stuff that engineers need for their job.”

Students would be supported by teachers and would occasionally have an industry representative present to provide guidance. If the group cannot find a solution, the problem would be passed on to the next group of students.

The key is that the curriculum will still give students all the skills and knowledge required for a general engineering degree, despite the projects being provided by industry. “They will have to encounter the main things in the physical world such as energy, motion, sound and light, and cover engineering skills like design, modelling and analysis, innovation, a systems approach and project management,” says Sheppard. “We must look at these 25 experiences and put a matrix up and ensure they will encounter all of these things. There won’t be any holes.”

The liberal engineering degree will be based around four themes. The first, Feeding the World, will cover agricultural technology, automatic recognition, driverless vehicles, such as tractors, clean water and desalination plants. The second theme, Shaping the Future, will cover advanced manufacturing, the maker movement and 3D printing, and lowcarbon energy and transport. The third, Living in Harmony, will include smart cities, big data, cyber security, energy and water. Finally, A Healthy Planet will look at climate change and sustainability.

Peter Goodhew, emeritus professor of engineering at Liverpool University, has been brought in as a consultant to NMITE and is helping to shape the curriculum. He says: “Those four themes enable us to tap into all manner of engineering – civil, electronic, mechanical – but we will ensure they are presented to students as the reason we are doing engineering.”

Goodhew says the aim is to pitch engineering as a humanitarian discipline, rather than purely a technical degree, to attract a broader base of students.

The AIMLED programme will not lead to a specialised degree in civil or mechanical engineering but will be broadly interdisciplinary. However, during the final year students will be able to pick a “major” in a particular sector, such as food manufacturing or automotive engineering. The university is also focused on looking to provide skills for future challenges. For example, NMITE is in talks with Arup and Costain to develop a final-year major in smart city engineering.

While for many in the UK the NMITE approach may seem radical, parts of the model have been successfully tested elsewhere. Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts has pioneered the integrated, experiential, project-based learning approach but over a traditional semester timeframe. This way of delivering degrees pioneered over the past 17 years by Olin has proven to be a huge success, says Sheppard.

NMITE took the idea of teaching in blocks from the Canadian liberal arts and sciences university Quest. The concept is that, unlike at conventional universities where several classes are taken in a semester, students are able to focus on a single “block” without distractions. So there are no “competing opportunities pulling students in different directions”.

Goodhew says: “We have picked aspects of teaching where universities are doing it well. All we want to do is take the best bits and put them together in quite a radical new style.”

Sheppard explains that students will also be given a “learning to fail” course for a few days at the start of their degree. He says most school leavers will have been through a system that required them to get the right answers, and if you don’t it can be seen as a failure. “In real life things go wrong, and this is particularly true in engineering,” he says. The idea for the course was picked up from Olin college where students had been through the particularly success-orientated US secondary school system. “The students had to be weaned off the concept of having to get everything right and that in fact you can learn something from getting things wrong,” says Sheppard.

This feeds into the image of the kind of students that NMITE will be trying to attract. Unusually, it will not require entrants to have A-levels in physics and maths. This is based on professional advice that these subjects taught at A-level are often “the wrong kind” for engineers and need to be re-learned.

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