a young engineer

Natural born engineers

Engineers think and act in distinctive ways. How they think about and relate to the world around them is what makes them different. But how do we educate our engineers of the future in order to nurture these unique perspectives?

So what drives an engineer? Stripped down to one core aim or value, you could say it is the impulse to make things that work, or making things that work better. Engineers are curious and resourceful problem-solvers with a unique attitude of mind. It follows that education should seek to nurture and expand this way of thinking, paving the way for a veritable army of future engineers, a production line of makers and doers.

As Professor Bill Lucas, director of the Centre for Real-World Learning at the University of Winchester, UK, says: “Engineers think differently from the rest of the world. And society badly needs their problem-solving, systems-thinking and relentlessly-seeking-to-make-and-improve mind-set.”

These ways of thinking can be referred to as ‘habits of mind’ and a picture of how we should harness these in our education systems, in order to capitalise on an ‘engineering way of thinking’, is starting to emerge.

According to US-based Medgadget editor Dan Buckland it all comes down to different philosophies of problem solving. Dan trained to become a medical doctor whilst trying to remain an engineer, which gave him an insight into how his training in different thinking styles lead to different problem-solving strategies.

“The engineer is trained to take a known solution and then use that as a starting point to hypothesise a solution that applies to the problem…Rather than starting from scratch like the scientist, or treating the problem as fixed like the physician, the engineer’s approach looks for the simplest novel solution using the current context,” he says.

Natural ability

We’re well aware of the news stories and articles about how Britain is short of engineers. We don’t have enough graduate and non-graduate engineers, as well as disappointingly low numbers of women studying or practising engineering. But delve a little deeper behind the headlines and the underlying cause can be seen to be a lot more than a simple problem of supply and demand. How do we get them on-board in the first place?

Indeed, how do we nurture their natural skills and unique perspectives? In short, how should an education system engage with the natural skills of the budding engineer? How do we tap into the way engineers think?

According to a Royal Academy of Engineering report ‘Thinking like an engineer – implications for the education system’, authored by the Centre for Real World Learning, that came out in May this year, young children are natural born engineers, constantly seeking to understand the properties of materials as they engage with the world around them.

“Young children exhibit engineering habits of mind in the raw,” the report says. “When the cardboard structure they have built is strong enough to support the weight of other toys and becomes a medieval castle, there is the thrill of persistent and successful experimentation.”

So the million-dollar question is, how do we nurture this innate hands-on inquisitiveness through the education system? In the UK, young people are expected to move away from practical learning as they progress through school and to become more theoretical and abstract:

“Schools, like post-Enlightenment society, choose to persist in believing that people who design, make and fix things must be less intelligent than those who can write essays, make speeches or understand quadratic equations.”

The report makes a strong case to suggest that, if the UK wants to produce more engineers, we need to redesign the education system so that these habits of mind become embedded.

Habits of mind

Looking at studies from around the world on the role of habits of mind in education systems, the Centre for Real-World Learning has developed six engineering habits of mind (EHoM): systems thinking, problem-finding, visualising, improving, creative problem-solving, and adapting. It suggests that whilst it is fairly unlikely that all six elements can be neatly found within one individual, the EHoM correspond strongly with the thinking characteristics of an engineer.

In making real things that work and serve a purpose, engineering seeks to make the world a better place. Consistent with the EHoM is the example of 20-year-old aerospace engineer Boyan Slat of Delft University, the Netherlands. Currently in the news with his ambitious plan to rid the world’s oceans of floating plastic, Slat exhibits many of the traits we are concerned with here.

Shocked at the amount of plastic he saw in the sea whilst diving in Greece as a teenager he made it his mission to find a solution, and from high school science project to crowd-funded foundation, the project is gaining momentum, producing robust results.

Slat had always been interested in engineering, from a very young age. Talking to the BBC he said, “First I built tree houses, then zip-wires, then it evolved towards bigger things. By the time I was 13, I was very interested in rocketry.” He added that the experience of making a Guinness World Record entry for the most water rockets launched at the same time (213, from a sports field in his native Delft), “taught me how to get people crazy enough to do things you want, and how to approach sponsors.” All skills and attributes central to the engineering mind.

Putting the E in STEM

There are many examples of excellent teaching in the engineering departments of colleges and universities around the UK.

A well-known teaching method used in higher education is the international CDIO method. The framework provides students with an education that emphasises engineering fundamentals set in the context of Conceiving — Designing — Implementing — Operating real-world systems and products. The structure of CDIO provides a mix of projects accompanied by internships in industry and stresses active group learning experiences in both classroom settings and in workshops and laboratories.

A core principle of CDIO is that hands-on experience forms the bedrock on which theory and science sit. To address this, CDIO programmes aim to improve the way engineering is taught and learned in four significant ways:

• they increase active and hands-on learning
• they emphasise problem formulation and solution
• they thoroughly explore the underlying concepts of the tools and techniques of engineering
• they institute innovative and exciting ways of gathering feedback.

Aston University, in Birmingham, UK, has adopted an approach to learning and teaching on its engineering courses called ‘Active Engineering’. The method is project-based, multidisciplinary and experimental, and requires students to work in teams and evidentially learn important skills of communication, collaboration, compromise, challenge and commitment.

The Active Engineering philosophy is derived from those of the CDIO framework and both programmes actively seek to cultivate ‘engineering habits of mind’. Indeed, Aston University’s website states that the programme will be of most interest and most benefit to students who don't want to spend all of their time sitting in a classroom and listening to traditional lectures and who want to solve problems, working in an open environment that encourages informed risk taking. It helps students who are focused on enhancing their employability skills.

This ethos is substantiated by Aston University industrial product design student Andrew Turner.

“Apart from academic knowledge of engineering and design, Aston also provided me with a structured way of working to achieve quality outcomes in limited time. Modules such as ‘Design for manufacture’ have been crucial in adapting to the real world environment,” he notes.

Onwards and upwards…

Although the engineering path from pre-primary to the workplace is still a rocky one, there does now seem to be an increasing number of street lamps illuminating the route along the way. With increasing numbers of universities using problem/project-based learning in real-world environments, together with active learning that promotes systems thinking and engineering design, and CDIO methods integrated across engineering education, then EHoM will be developed and take effect.

According to the UK’s Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, the last seven years has seen the numbers of young people taking up offers of engineering degrees grow by over 20 per cent to 25,300 in 2012, demonstrating that engineering as a career could be on the rise. The adoption of practices that focus on EHoM can only further enhance the education of engineers, and understanding how engineers think needs to be at the heart of the process.

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