Ultra-low emission vehicles for driving schools, anti-flooding street umbrellas and neighbourhood heat storage batteries were just some of the ideas designed to address real-world challenges as part of a pilot programme for UCL’s How to Change the World course.
Eight ways to change the world
Engineering students proposed eight ways to change the world in response to a specific challenge set by organisations such as the Red Cross, the UK Environment Agency, the Department for Energy and Climate Change and the Department for Transport. Challenges focused on areas such as smart heating, forecast-based disaster preparedness, crowd-sourcing for humanitarian relief, ultra low vehicle emission, safer schools and valuing materials. In addition to working on the projects, UCL staged talks from leaders in policy, business and social enterprise, which showed how engineering really can change our world.
“The students responded with great creativity, leveraging both their technical engineering skills while developing a broader sense of the societal contexts in which they will need to apply those skills in their careers,” says Dr Jason Blackstock, How to Change the World course director and acting head of department at UCL STEaPP, who explains that the programme will run every year for IEP students as a capstone at the end of their first two years of study.
Kenneth Lam, a second year biochemical engineer, worked on the valuing materials challenge, set by the Department for Energy and Climate Change.
“The tasks that we were assigned were rather unspecific, which was great as our ideas were not confined by the project; we could actually be creative, think outside the box and come up with innovative solutions to tackle real world problems,” he says. “Throughout this course, I have applied my analytical and problem-solving skills to determine the feasibility of our proposed solutions.”
The energy used in packaging
In this category, the winning idea from team ‘Where is Alonso?’ looked at the energy used in packaging. The students delivered the shocking statistic that the energy taken to manufacture a television’s foam packaging would be enough to run it for 386 hours and suggested an alternative: locally made cardboard made from fast-growing and easily recycled bamboo. Dr Natasha McCarthy, How to Change the World executive director and cohort leader for the valuing materials challenge, worked with the students in this category and says ideas also included improving bottle recycling systems and designing-out common faults in white goods.
“All the students really thought about the issue from the consumer point of view which was great,” she says.
A water harvesting umbrella
Elsewhere in the flood resilient cities challenge, set by the UK Environment Agency, 'Team'Nero’ came up with a new item of street furniture: a water-harvesting umbrella which would extend when it rained and collect the downpour for slow release to sewers later. In the smart heating category, winners team ‘E Heat’ proposed to smooth out the patchy provision of renewable supplies by installing community-level heat storage in the form of zeolites. Made of aluminium and silicon, the materials are highly water absorbent and can store a great deal of heat and act as thermal batteries.
Meanwhile, team ‘Swift’ the winning team in the personal travel demand category, set by the Department for Transport, put forward two ideas to provide a faster and more efficient bus service: a remote chip that would speed up boarding by eliminating even the need to tap an Oyster card on a sensor; and the concept of each line running semi-fast and fast buses which skipped every five to 25 stops, taking different routes between them to ease congestion. The latter was crowned overall winner after a crowd vote from the students’ peers
Developing soft skills
Swift attributed their success to team work, with students taking responsibility for different areas of the project. Indeed although students acquired technical know-how to meet the challenges, Lam said the overall project was more about developing the soft skills such as teamwork, time-management and communication which he believes are a valuable addition to the CV: “Because getting to work with different engineers across the faculty provides the hands-on experience on how real world problems are solved, where expertise across multiple disciplines are needed to work together and come up with solutions to issues.”
Dr McCarthy agrees and emphasises to students that nearly every interview will involve questions on areas such as teamwork, negotiation, creative thinking and overcoming challenges.
“The students on the course have great content for their CV and for interviews on how they have managed the kinds of opportunities and challenges that any exciting job will bring,” she says. “We learned a lot from this first year of the course and look forward to making it even better next year.”