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Engineering education: a barrier to innovation?

Atkins | 19 Dec 2013 | Comments

Engineering, education and innovation: these were at the heart of the 2013 Atkins Futures Christmas Debate hosted by the Royal Society of Engineering (RAE) in London. While opinions varied, the conclusion was clear on both sides: there is still work to be done.

Innovation in engineering has produced remarkable results, from the wheel on down, but is the way engineering is being taught right now a help or a hindrance?

This was the question set for Atkins’ Futures Christmas Debate, with the discussion touching on wide ranging issues from educational milestones to corporate bureaucracy as well as societal attitudes towards engineering. After all, education starts in the home, but what lessons are we learning, especially when it comes to the role that engineering plays in the world today?

And, ultimately, where does innovation fit into this equation?

Those in favour

On the walls of the RAE, there is a poster that features the following quote by Academy president Sir John Parker: “We must create a climate that enables research, innovation and entrepreneurship to flourish in the UK.”

For one team in the Futures debate, this was clear vindication: engineering education is not living up to the task – in fact, it has reached a “crisis situation”.

When it comes to further education, only five of the top 50 engineering courses in the UK even mention innovation in their prospectus. Students spend 37 hours a week in lectures and preparing for exams, giving them little or no time to develop independent thinking.

This memory-based, prescriptive learning structure, the team continued, contributes to courses becoming a “systemic step in the shutdown of our ability to innovate”. Designed to achieve the highest pass marks in exams, such a narrow focus stifles discovery, sucks the oxygen of innovation from students’ minds and sets a precedent where failure is not an option.

As a result, engineering graduates become risk-averse in their thinking as they move into their careers. As ICE president Geoff French said in his inaugural speech: “An engineer won’t tell you what 2 + 2 is without asking what factor of safety you would like to be built into the answer.”

When it comes to teaching innovation, the statistics send a powerful message: an OECD report on innovation culture published in 2011 put the UK at twenty-fifth out of 33 of the world’s leading nations.1

Dealing with the challenges of population growth, urbanisation and future-proofing our cities will require engineers with a broad range of skills who can work across disciplines. But as the team pointed out, 96 per cent of teachers and lecturers agree that the current school curriculum’s subject-based mould does not fit the needs of the 21st century. This project-by-project, issue-by-issue, narrow disciplinary approach in engineering education has become distinctly old-fashioned.

What does this mean for innovation? Can it be taught? For those arguing that current engineering education practices are barriers, absolutely. Innovation is about open minds and multidisciplinary practices. The idea that this can only be taught in the field is nonsense; capturing the spark of creativity and applying it to the real world can be taught – and the earlier the better.

Those against

What of those who believe engineering education in the UK is no barrier to innovation? Members of the team arguing against the resolution were clear: the purpose of education is to convey the fundamentals that will lead – eventually – to innovative thinking. As proof, the team pointed to a list of the top 50 innovations since the wheel published in The Atlantic magazine: 37 required a solid grasp of engineering fundamentals.

The UK is very good at teaching the fundamentals, so much so that the UK has three universities in the top 10 in this year’s Times Higher Education world rankings. Almost one-third of people studying engineering and technology in the UK in 2011-12 were international students, drawn by this world-class engineering education.

Innovation in engineering is something altogether different: it means turning ideas into value. It derives from an understanding of the basics coupled with real-world experience, and it requires the right environment in which to fly.

Even the Imperial College London agrees, proclaiming on its website: “We believe that comfort with the basic principles is what ultimately drives innovation, the lifeblood of engineering.” As the producer of more successful spin-out companies in the past decade than any other university, it should know. A similar stance is taken by Cambridge – the number five engineering school globally and number one in Europe – which has produced spin-out companies valued at more than £1bn.

However, the UK’s ability to create value from this research base and teaching expertise is woeful, according to the team. Universities need to concentrate on remaining world-class in research and teaching, they argued, while others fix the actual barriers to innovation, which lie in the next steps in their career path.

What are these barriers? The Nesta Everyday Innovation report 2009 cites finances, resources and time as the biggest three issues. The way engineering is taught is not a factor.

Instead, it seems that management is stifling innovation, despite hiring qualified and educated graduates. And when managers themselves are asked, 75 per cent of them cite bureaucracy as the biggest barrier to innovation.

As the team pointed out, it’s no wonder that engineering institutions such as the IMechE are imploring management to make better use of the skills already at their disposal to foster innovation. Large companies already employ graduates who thoroughly understand engineering theory, so they should help them to become more innovative in their thinking and tap into that value.

For most engineers and engineering firms, the team suggested, innovation is about finding increasingly clever ways to do tomorrow what you did today and yesterday. It’s evolutionary, not revolutionary, game-changing, “light-bulb” moments: engineers need to learn that ideas to drive down costs are just as valuable an innovation as driving up functionality. And they will learn that lesson best on the job, not in the classroom.

To learn that lesson well, engineers need to have the right ecosystem around them: management support, money and a corporate culture that pays attention. How engineering is taught is the enabler of innovation, not the barrier. For the barriers, you have to look elsewhere.

As William Butler Yeats said, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” The UK has an impressive university system, which delivers good-quality engineering graduates. These universities need to keep up that good work, while business itself needs to understand how to turn graduates into innovators instead of bureaucrats.

A new resolution

On both sides of the debate, there was agreement that there’s always room for improvement in education and a need to shift attitudes to engineering in this country, starting with younger students. There is no doubt that engineers will have to think and work differently if they are going to solve the many and varied challenges ahead. Education establishments and businesses need to create and encourage an environment where people can think outside of the tried and tested parameters. The UK has gone through a period of de-industrialisation; it now has to fill the gap that’s been left – using innovative engineering and technology to create innovative services and a better future for us all.

Which side are you on? Add your views to the debate in the comments below.