Young guns

Atkins | 16 Jan 2010 | Comments

The transition to a low carbon economy will be one of the greatest challenges the world has ever faced. How do we deal with this new landscape? By preparing the next generation of engineers for the changes that lie ahead. what role should industry leaders like Atkins play in ensuring their skills evolve with society’s changing needs?

Addressing the Royal Academy of Engineering in October 2009, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills Peter Mandelson said, “The transition to a low carbon economy alone makes the next generation of British engineers and scientists potentially among the most important in [the country’s] history…. It is our capacity to engineer and build on this massive scale that defines the modern challenge.”

The low carbon economy is one piece of a larger puzzle, albeit a major piece. Demographic growth, resource depletion and climate change will all require action on a mammoth scale in the near future. The question is: how can we be certain that the next generation of engineers is going to make the grade?

New directions

When the Royal Academy of Engineering produced a report on the state of UK engineering in 2006, it concluded that the standard of the profession was world class. But addressing the changing needs of society will require not only engineers of the highest calibre, but those with the specific knowledge and skills for the job in hand.

According to Chun Qing-Li, Atkins Professor of Civil Engineering at the University of Greenwich, universities will need to continually adapt their courses to reflect the ongoing changes in engineering application and thinking. Originally from the University of Dundee, Professor Li took up the Greenwich post in September 2006. He now works with Atkins to develop research and enterprise projects that meet the needs of industry.

“Ten years ago, people wanted to design today and build tomorrow,” says Professor Li. “The constant emphasis on safety aside, the priority was to use the cheapest materials and methods, with little thought given to the potentially high cost of maintenance further down the line. Whereas the teaching and thinking around engineering was static then, today it has a time dimension.”

Sustainability, explains Professor Li, now underpins design. Building sustainability into the equation means engineers must look at the entire service life of a structure rather than considering it in isolation, all of which requires new knowledge, skills, materials and technology. However, some fear that the pace of change in engineering application is such that the education system will be hard pressed to keep up.

The Engineering Council, which is responsible for setting the guidelines for University degrees, now expects all courses to incorporate a component of sustainability, but what that means in practice varies widely. While some universities are taking a whole-life approach, others are covering it more lightly.

“The broader view of sustainability isn’t always being taught,” says the current president of the Engineering Professors Council, Barry Clarke of Leeds University. “A department might, for example, look at alternatives to traditional materials, but it won’t go on to think about whether the structure is necessary in the first place or how it could be powered in a sustainable way.”

As engineering takes centre stage in enabling sustainable development, engineers will need to accept and adapt to a new, ever more prominent role in society.

“Whereas in the past engineers tended to move in silos and take an interest in the more technical side of things, they will need to develop better communication skills so that they can engage with the public,” says Professor Clarke. “We are going to have to make some very difficult decisions in years to come. People will need to understand the criteria on which they are made, the risks and limitations. Engineers will need to inform society and help them to understand engineering better.”

Back to reality

For some universities, ensuring their course content and teaching practice reflects industry’s current and future requirements presents its own challenges. As well as the speed of change taking place in the industry, academia and industry have, over the years, become somewhat disconnected, says Professor Clarke.

“In the 1950s and 1960s, the majority of engineering academics had a background in industry. By the 1970s and 1980s, there was a gradual shift towards teaching staff with a more scientific and academic past,” he explains. “Their experience was far more theoretical than practical, few having had any first hand contact with or knowledge of industrial practice.”

Strengthening that connection could prove critical in ensuring that engineering graduates are fit for purpose. Since January 2006, a partnership between the University of Greenwich and Atkins has proved a resounding success, on a number of levels. As well as sponsoring the Professor of Civil Engineering position and research support at the university, Atkins sits on the advisory board, contributing to the debate on the curriculum content and helping to develop departmental activities to meet the specific needs of the industry.

Whereas industry interaction with universities was once, at best, sporadic, Atkins involvement starts from week one.

“During the first week of the academic year, representatives from Atkins share their personal experiences and achievements with the students, and inspire them to do the same,” says Professor Li. Throughout the course, students benefit from visiting lectures from Atkins staff, trips to their design offices and, later, potential placement within the company. This produces budding engineers who are also able to connect theory with practice, and who understand the real world relevance of what they are learning in the classroom.

Pens down, gloves on

Atkins has part funded a large environmental chamber at the University of Greenwich designed to simulate climatic conditions and, in October 2007, the University became one of the few to offer a “Constructionarium”. This hands-on resource, run in association with Atkins, allows students to build scaled down versions of “real” structures, giving them practical experience.

“It represents a whole new way of teaching,” says Professor Li. “In the past, the designer of a bridge might not actually know how that bridge is put together. Now, before they even get down to the calculations and design, students visit the site, see how it’s built and even take part in the construction.”

For example, students at the University of Greenwich were recently tasked with recreating a scale model of the Millennium Galleries in Sheffield. They were encouraged to get involved with every step of the process, from planning and design to digging trenches.

Professor Clarke, who is also a vice-president of the Institution of Civil Engineers, believes bridging the gap between theory and practice is important, not only to ensure students have a rounded and relevant education, but also to manage their expectations of the engineering profession.

“Industry can bring reality into the classroom and help students to understand why each part of the course is relevant. But it’s also very important in motivating the students,” he says.

“There are currently enough students taking engineering in the UK to meet industry needs,” he continues. “However, some will decide to leave, either during their course or once they enter the profession. This may be because they are not motivated enough by the course or because the profession fails to live up to their expectations. This is where industry can help, by showing them what it’s like at the other end.”

Professor Li believes that the University of Greenwich’s relationship with Atkins should stand as a shining example of the value in building partnerships between academia and industry. The achievement, he says, has been considerable.

“When I first arrived at the university three years ago, there were fewer than 150 students on the civil engineering course, about 70 to 80 per cent of whom were from overseas,” recalls Professor Li. “Today, attendance is over 200, and of this year’s intake students, more than 60 per cent are home (local) students. I attribute that increase in demand largely to the partnership between Atkins and the University of Greenwich, and the close links that it provides with industry.”

As industry looks to address keys issues such as low carbon engineering solutions or changing demographic demands, universities will need to rewrite their curricula not just once, but continually. They will need to nurture graduates with tailored skills and a new way of thinking. Companies at the forefront of carbon critical design may prove vital in enabling them to achieve that.

Getting them interested early

The UK government is committed to investing in improving the uptake and delivery of STEM subjects, ie science, technology, engineering and mathematics. According to Professor Clarke, this is essential not only to ensure a consistent stock of budding professionals, but for people to fully understand the important and growing role that engineering has in society.

“The systems that engineers are putting in place today are becoming more complicated and interdependent,” says Professor Clarke. “People need to understand how things function, what happens when they break down and why, and that needs to start at school. For the most part, the relevance of engineering in our daily lives is entirely absent from the school agenda.” Here, again, industry can play a part.

Now in its second year, The Wren Academy in the London borough of Barnet, specialises in design and the built environment alongside a normal secondary school curriculum. It draws on the expertise of individuals and organisations in the design and environmental sectors to help it deliver an exciting curriculum and offer students a window into the professional environment. Through lessons and extracurricular activities, 11-to-18-year-olds learn how the built environment touches our lives, from conservation and sustainability to the practical design and aesthetics of buildings. The school itself is located in a brand new suite of buildings with state-of-the-art facilities, including ICT provided by management consultants from Atkins.

“Industry has a potentially very important role not only in helping to inspire young students to be engineers, but also in communicating the importance of engineering in society and the economy,” says Professor Clarke.

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