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How the pandemic might change engineering education forever

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Like the rest of the world, university engineering courses were severely disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. How have universities responded to the lockdown and how might it affect the way engineering is taught in future?

“It was definitely really weird to begin with,” recalls Iyanu Agbedejobi, a first year ChemEng student at the University of Bath. Like countless others, Agbedejobi’s studies came to an unexpected halt on 23 March when the UK entered its coronavirus lockdown. Lectures went online, exams were conducted from home, and lab work became impossible. However, while the pandemic proved highly disruptive, it has also triggered a wave of innovations. 

How has the pandemic affected students and the way engineering is taught?  

When engineers think back to their university days, most will remember lab experiments, group work and, of course, the student night life and extra-curricular activities. Not so for the class of 2020. 

“I felt shocked at how fast it changed,” says Mariatu Davies, a MechEng student at the University of Birmingham. As the lockdown was implemented, “we went from having uni one day to everything being closed the next”. 

Others had already begun self-isolating. Sally Warren, a third-year Civil Engineer at University Central London (UCL), explains that her group work partner had come down with coronavirus-like symptoms prior to the lockdown itself. “I went into self-isolation two weeks before everyone else as I’d been in contact with my research partner, and it meant we couldn’t finish our group work module.” 

A silver-lining was that most courses were already close to the end of the teaching period anyway. In most cases, only a couple of weeks of lectures were missed, all of which were soon delivered online.

While there were teething troubles, the students that we spoke to were positive about how their institutions handled the transition. Warren notes that UCL provided “loads of online resources for managing stress and numbers to call for anyone having troubles”. 

At Bath, Agbedejobi notes that the university offered free meals to students stuck on campus – a lifeline for those who might have lost part-time jobs or couldn’t travel home. There has also been plenty of support from student unions and nationwide associations like the Association for Black and Minority Ethnic Engineers putting on guidance webinars for their members. 

After the initial disruption of lockdown, the next biggest worry for students was exams. It was obviously impossible to sit them in exam halls, so most institutions opted for open-book tests. 

Mungo Cullinan, also a third-year Civil Engineering student at UCL, explains that “they imagined up what would normally be the hardest question on an exam paper and gave you five of them. You then had 48 hours to return the answers.” Most students saw this as a fair response. 

Many universities implemented a ‘no detriment’ policy. This meant the year’s grades were calculated as an average of the modules where the students got their best marks. 

However, there were difficulties. Agbedejobi explains that for international students, many of whom returned to their home countries, time differences made it hard to attend ‘live’ Zoom lectures. Cullinan adds that he chose his course at UCL specifically because it emphasises group and practical work, which will be harder to implement with social distancing next year.  

The coronavirus has also put a dampener on other aspects of the student experience. “The week everyone’s exams finish is supposed to be the best week of the year,” laughs Agbedejobi – there were no celebrations for students this summer. Warren’s summer plans were also cancelled. She had been hoping to work on a bridge-building project in Bolivia, which, besides being an adventure, is the kind of experience that looks good on a CV. 

That said, Davies at Birmingham did manage to land herself an internship over the summer at BP. While it’s all been virtual, she has still managed to learn plenty of skills while working from home. 

As universities closed, engineering departments scrambled to respond, putting lectures on Zoom and offering open-book exams. Most of these responses were initially intended to be short term. However, just as millions of businesses have discovered they can work in new ways when forced to, universities seem to have come to the same conclusion. 

“Lockdown happened and we didn’t have a choice. However, it has been a good opportunity to rethink how we teach engineering as a subject,” explains Dr Safia Barikzai, an associate professor of computer science at London South Bank University (LSBU). 

For example, as of the autumn semester, LSBU’s school of engineering will begin trialling the use of VR headsets in teaching settings – something that might have taken much longer to introduce in the past. Having adopted new technology overnight at the beginning of lockdown, universities are, for now at least, open to trying out new pedagogical approaches. 

Employment

Engineering jobs remain steady

With a looming recession, now might seem like a terrible time to graduate. Is it time to apply for a postgraduate degree then? Not necessarily.

According to Bill Richards, MD of jobs board Indeed: “Engineering is one of the few job categories that has held up well against the headwinds of Covid-19. In fact, since the outbreak of the virus there has been a slight increase in the share of engineering jobs on Indeed.”

Indeed’s data shows:

From June 2019 to June 2020 there was a 19.3 per cent increase in the share of engineering jobs on Indeed

Since the start of lockdown, there has been a 4.1 per cent increase

Companies with the most ‘engineer’ job postings over the previous three months are BAE, Mittie and Amey.

Right across the country, engineering departments have been grappling with how to deliver courses in a world of social distancing. While it’s easy to offer lectures over Zoom, many engineering modules require students to be physically in situ. It is, after all, impossible, ineffective or dangerous to do most experiments anywhere but a laboratory. 

Dr Gary C Wood of the University of Sheffield’s MechEng department recently ran a series of webinars with colleagues that summarise tips and advice for teaching engineering under lockdown. 

Wood explains that platforms like Zoom were useful for certain types of ‘synchronous’ learning – lectures where students might want to ask questions directly to their professor. On the other hand, many ‘asynchronous’ classes could simply be pre-recorded and watched at any time. 

More challenging are lab sessions, design-and-make classes, and computer simulation courses. “A key thing we had to do was to go back and look at what the actual learning outcomes are for students from being in the lab.” Labs serve many different purposes, explains Wood. “Sometimes it’s about being hands on and developing your experimental skills – these are the most difficult to do at home.” 

Other times, the learning outcomes were more about “getting to see a phenomenon they’ve learnt about in lectures”. In this case, it is possible to replicate the experience online. At Sheffield, high-frame-rate cameras filmed experiments. Students could then slow these down and see more detail than they could in real life. 

Wood’s team also offered online lab sessions with a demonstrator where “students gave instructions by proxy”. Using Zoom, they could ask what would happen if intensity was increased, or speed was changed, or something was added to the mix. “They still get the experimental approach and develop those skills.” 

Sheffield is also looking at sending out packs of kit so students can do some experiments at home next semester. Certain students won’t be unable to visit campus because they are part of a high-risk group or have moved abroad. In this case, packs that let them do some basic experimental work at home offer the next best thing. This might include kits for simple chemical experiments they can do on the kitchen counter, or circuit boards for computer science students. 

As students return, most universities will introduce some form of ‘blended’ learning, where there is more working from home and social distancing when on campus. At LSBU, Barikzai and her colleagues have been looking at how to implement social distancing. “One of our biggest computer science labs is built to fit up to 70 people. However, because of Covid it will now take a maximum of 16, with a two-metre radius around each.” In future, lab classes will likely involve more sessions with smaller groups. 

Both Barikzai and Wood see many positives in what they and their colleagues have learnt during lockdown. It has introduced new ways of teaching engineering, many of which could go on to become permanent features of taught courses. 

Take this year’s widespread use of open-book assessments. Engineering exams are often based on recall of a specific formula, yet this is, in many ways, a fairly arbitrary skill. “In the real world of work, engineers don’t remember every formula. Instead, you look it up and figure out how to apply it to the context,” says Wood. An open-book exam is arguably more like the real world of work, in that it tests a student’s ability to search for then apply information, and sense-check the results.

When it comes to teaching and the student experience, universities seem to have done a good job responding. But how might the pandemic affect the sector more generally? 

Johnny Rich, chief executive of the Engineering Professors’ Council, warns there could be tough times ahead. UK engineering courses are perhaps some of the most heavily subscribed by international students – up to a third of engineering students at many universities are from abroad. However, general uncertainty around travel could have a serious impact on how many students can get here or decide to move abroad at all. 

Rich explains that almost all English university courses charge £9,250 per year for domestic students (fees vary in other UK nations), yet the average engineering course costs over £13,000 to deliver to each student. International students, who pay significantly more, effectively subsidise British students and fund research, which makes many UK institutions world class. When coronavirus is combined with uncertainty over Brexit and diplomatic spats with China, the outlook is concerning. 

That said, demand is still up, especially among domestic students. “With a huge recession looming, going to university probably makes sense for school leavers right now – there may not be jobs elsewhere,” points out Rich.

Indeed, data from UCAS, the university admissions board, shows that overall applications for UK engineering courses are still healthy, with more applicants in 2020 than the previous two years.

In a few years’ time, when today’s engineering students have graduated, we can imagine the conversations they’ll have with colleagues: “You were at uni that year?” Overall, they will mainly have positive things to say – of departments that responded fast, innovative assessment methods, and of being at the vanguard of new approaches to teaching that went on the become the norm. 

However, while many of these new approaches will change and perhaps improve the teaching experience, 2020 will also be remembered as a year of real disruption, which led to many universities facing major financial issues too.  

As Bath student Iyanu Agbedejobi points out: “You just had to get used to it and adapt.”

Advice

Job-hunting for engineering grads

Annaliese Hindson is a recruiter for engineers at The Sterling Choice, a firm that hires in the FMCG sector. Despite the virus, she says, “the need for engineers in the sector hasn’t slowed down”.

Here are her top tips for finding a job under current circumstances:

Try to become ‘multi skilled’, because this is what firms are looking for now. If you’re a MechEng, for instance, try and pick up some skills around chemical and electrical engineering too.

Make your CV stand out with a reference. If you had a positive year in industry or an internship, ask your manager to write a quote to go on your covering letter.

Consider alternative routes. You might have your heart set on a specific job title, yet this may not be possible right now. You could opt for a job that still uses your skills (such as technician roles) then look again in a few months’ time.

Ask for advice. Recruiters will always be happy to review your CV and give tips on how to improve it. You could also approach CV-writing companies to give it that extra sparkle.

Stay positive. It’s tough for everyone right now and applying for jobs is frustrating, but staying positive can only help.

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