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Topic Title: E&T magazine - Debate - Engineering in universities
Topic Summary: Industry should have more say in the curriculum for undergraduate engineering students
Created On: 13 November 2013 10:37 AM
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 13 November 2013 10:37 AM
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jpwilson

Posts: 66
Joined: 16 May 2007

For:
Industry should have more say in the curriculum for undergraduate engineering students

Against:
Industry should not have more say in the curriculum for undergraduate engineering students

The argument for:
Industry should have a say in what takes place in universities because the environment is competitive and continually changing. Forty or fifty years ago, it would have been common for students to leave university, enter the workforce, and go through a two- or three-year training programme. Now, industry demands that new graduates are able to contribute immediately and to achieve this universities and industry really have to work together to ensure effectiveness of curricula. But these things obviously take time.

While it is true that universities shouldn't be purely a training ground for today's industry, they do need to look at the problems that industry will face in the future. Engineers will study for four years maybe, but they work for 40. Universities cannot teach them to solve all the problems they will encounter during their working lives, and that is why it is important that graduates leave education with a combination of knowledge and skills - knowledge that constitutes the bedrock of future innovations and skills that enable them to tackle the engineering grand challenges.

The argument against:

There's undoubtedly a high level of technical competence that the UK needs to be supplied by its universities. But this competence is not the only industry requirement and it isn't even the majority of its needs. What it requires is a generation with high levels of social skills who are brilliant at developing business relationships and who are able to provide excellent leadership. And this isn't in the 'socket and plug' model at all.

We need people who are starting to develop the wisdom to use their minds intuitively as well as in a more formal reasoning way. This is critical, because it is wise leaders who are needed to drive successful organisations, and you will find that quite often with these people their original degree was not particularly aligned to the field in which they were successful.

I can't imagine how industry could ever write a university curriculum. Businesses don't have anything to gain from writing the course specification, and would be better served by reaching a clearer understanding of how engineering roles evolve, along with an acknowledgement of the high degree of uncertainty about technological and social change that graduates are likely to be engaged with. You could argue that it's for the universities to look upstream and to try to reflect change where it is deemed appropriate, rather than industry looking downstream and setting the agenda for a future they cannot predict.
 15 November 2013 03:27 AM
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kengreen

Posts: 400
Joined: 15 April 2013

I would always choose the candidate with experience rather than the one with paper!. It is( should be) the job in education to supply the tools of future advancement.

Ken Green
 15 November 2013 02:14 PM
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jarathoon

Posts: 1043
Joined: 05 September 2004

In 1949 George B. Jeffery gave the third Arthur Stanley Eddington Memorial Lecture entitled "The Unity Of Knowledge". It was published under this title by Cambridge University Press the following year and is still worth a read

On page 50 he describes the function of a university as he sees it and what practical measures we should take to secure their future...

"I will venture to assert three things of a university:
1. It should be a temple of knowledge, one and indivisible, and all who enter it should know to what the temple is dedicated.
2. It should be inspired by a social purpose. It does not exist for the intellectual comfort of its senior members. It exists to serve the wider social community within which it is set, especially in relation to the promotion and sustaining of the intellectual life of that community.
3. It should be a place of education, that is to say, a place in which young people are prepared in body, mind and spirit for service in other spheres of activity, usually outside the university."


The first point he says refers to the problems arising out of specialisation and the need for specialist knowledge. He writes:

"No field of study can continue to progress for very long under the hands of those whose experience is confined to a narrow speciality within it. Inbreeding sooner or later has its effects, and specialised techniques gradually lose their potency unless fertilised by ideas from a wider field. If we go on as we are going we shall find when the time comes that we have failed to produce the men [and women] who can effect this kind of cross-fertilization, and they are the very men [and women] who, above all others, a university ought to produce. I do not think there is much disagreement of the nature of the problem; it is when we seek the practical remedies that agreement is difficult to achieve"

I don't think industry should set the curriculum, but industry can supply teachers, mentors, encourage site visits, engage in debates etc.
We must empower undergraduate engineering students (who want to) to get as much as they can out of their university years. In part that means exposing them to people with a range of opinions and intellectual approaches to the difficult problems we face, so that they in turn can become increasingly confident and capable of thinking, learning, questioning consensus views and independently making difficult, and perhaps controvercial, engineering decisions for themselves.

A university education should not be about creating corporate identikit engineers to meet a specification from industry or the engineering institutions. However university educated engineers will benefit from exposure to a wide array of common manufacturing, fabrication and build techniques in a range of industries.


Some flexibility in the support of vocational excellence can be appropriate in certain circumstances...to help the Bill Gates style university dropouts of this world, that suddenly become obsessed with understanding and working with a particular new technology or application of that technology, to get some recognition for their time spent at university.

Giving the option to perfect a vocational skill in a particular area, perhaps with the help of an industrial sponsor perhaps, is better than abandoning the student because they do make the grade in one or two other areas. Sometimes universities work so hard to maintain their own reputational standards, in regards to maintaining the quality of the factory based education model that they currently persue, that they can lose sight of what they are really there to do.



-------------------------
James Arathoon
 15 November 2013 04:29 PM
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kengreen

Posts: 400
Joined: 15 April 2013

well said, James.

I have long held the view that, while research is a proper activity in a University, there can be no case whatsoever for spending "time-on-the-job" to turn research results into money - that bit is properly a domain of industry!

One of the things I noticed most in those days when I was rubbing shoulders with undergraduates was the appalling lack of, or understanding the nature and the need for, - a dirty word - "fundamental principles".

Ken Green
 15 November 2013 07:48 PM
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Zuiko

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Joined: 14 September 2010

Should be a two way street.
 15 November 2013 08:25 PM
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kengreen

Posts: 400
Joined: 15 April 2013

Zuiko,

That is very true but I note that you used the form "SHOULD"; in any activity you must first learn the principles.

Some dreadful accidents occur (two in my own family) when people think that climbing a ladder is a piece of cake. What principles? Try a bit of trigonometry on that cake and you will certainly get a nasty surprise!

Ken Green
 19 November 2013 01:26 AM
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jarathoon

Posts: 1043
Joined: 05 September 2004

I notice there is a student fight back going on over the university teaching of economics.

Academics back students in protests against economics teaching

"A prominent group of academic economists have backed student protests against neo-classical economics teaching, increasing the pressure on top universities to reform courses that critics argue are dominated by free market theories that ignore the impact of financial crises.

The academics, led by Professor Engelbert Stockhammer of Kingston University, said: "We understand students' frustration with the way that economics is taught in most institutions in the UK.

"There exists a vibrant community of pluralist economists in the UK and elsewhere, but these academics have been marginalised within the profession. The shortcomings in the way economics is taught are directly related to an intellectual monoculture, which is reinforced by a system of public university funding (the Research Excellence Framework and previously the Research Assessment Exercise) based on journal rankings that are heavily biased in favour of orthodoxy and against intellectual diversity," they said."


Once you get an in bred group of myopic academics it is very hard to get rid of them, other than starting new educational institutions and letting the old ones fail. Which is slightly ironic I suppose, professors teaching free market theories of economics that don't actually apply to them.

I don't think such nonsense is happening in the field of engineering, but it would be good to hear from students who think their courses could be better by doing X, Y or Z.

-------------------------
James Arathoon
 19 November 2013 07:57 AM
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jencam

Posts: 608
Joined: 06 May 2007

Better late than never. I have criticised the unhealthy bias of British university economics departments towards Victorian classical economics / laissez faire free market economics for decades. More often than not universities only teach this flavour of economics and pitch it against traditional socialism and communism as the only other opposing school of thought, whilst ignoring other 'offbeat' economic theories such as Keynesian economics, green economics, and Islamic economics.

The problem with economics degrees is that if you want the top jobs in banking and the government then you have to be a died in the wool supporter of laissez faire free market Manchester liberalism. Nothing else will do. Graduates of alternative economic theories will find that there are very few jobs waiting for them.
 23 November 2013 01:25 PM
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kengreen

Posts: 400
Joined: 15 April 2013

jencam,

I have some sympathy with your post but why is success in, for example, the banking world stitched to a university degree?

My late brother, who never even thought of going to a university, ended with a top job in a high street bank. He was asked to resign when an honourable Minister, about to transfer to another ministry, wished to go out with a bang and demanded that heads should roll reference a certain recent banking scandal.

My brother had been given the job of cleaning up that particular mess which, I understand, he performed commendably. I have always suspected that his mistake was not that he jumped University but that he never saw a need to join a cult.

I am pleased to record that the Bank made handsome acknowledgement of his compliance.

Ken Green
 02 December 2013 09:02 PM
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jencam

Posts: 608
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This is a trick question. It all boils down to money. If a university department attracts plenty of fee paying students then it will be happy and content to continue the way it does with little desire to have its curriculum dictated by corporate bosses. Only if a university department struggles to attract enough students will it resort to alternative or unconventional tactics in order to try and encourage more to apply. A real world example are the computer science departments of the redbricks which attract many (wealthy) overseas students stick with traditional academia, whereas departments of ex-polytechnics offering courses in video games have teamed up with industry and are almost a passport to a career as a video game developer.
 11 December 2013 01:21 PM
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amillar

Posts: 1918
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Having (just for once) some free time last night, I (just for once) actually read my copy of E&T. Apart from this being IMO the best argued of these debates I have seen in E&T, it is also the first I have seen that has actually changed my mind on the subject.

Over many years I have worked with Universities, sat on Uni advisory panels, validated courses, and generally done everything I can to try and have an industry say in the curriculum.

Despite that, I have voted "disagree" because I thoroughly agree with the points made by Steve Carter here. I am heartily fed up with seeing graduates who have technical knowledge of specific aspects of engineering, who know how to run a simulation, maybe even how to construct a gantt chart, but have no level of creativity, imaginitive thinking, innovative problem solving, or ability to relate diverse and often abstract concepts. I had been thinking that this was due to lack of exposure to industry, but I am now coming round to the view expressed very well by Steve that this could be because of exposure to industry.

Now, I do believe (DO BELIEVE) very, very strongly in the importance of the year (or two, or three) in industry as part of the University education process. That's where the student can learn the process bits, the bits we (in industry) already know, the bits that let them do today what we did yesterday.

But that actually strengthens Steve's point: this leaves the Universities free to concentrate on the parts that we don't know about, and not just in engineering. Maybe his suggestion that "every degree course [should contain] a year in which students learned how to think" is going a bit far - but maybe not. Ensuring that students are going to be capable of going beyond the levels that their industry mentors cannot even imagine is vital, and this involves skills outside engineering.

It's actually the same as excellent product development - technology doesn't progress by giving your customer the new product he thought he wanted, but by giving him the much better product that you can develop because you have the expertise in that area. Well, in this case the engineering industry is (fairly) good at engineering; but developing and growing the capabilities of human beings is something that we, as an industry, do not have expertise in and - we have to accept - are not particularly good at.

Of course there must be discussion, as there must be with any customer and producer, but the customer isn't always right...or at least, does not always have the best view of how the producer can fulfil his actual needs.


And I was delighted in the same issue to see my old friend and fellow Cornish resident, Roger Dettmer, blowing the trumpet for one of my favourite engineers, Richard Trevithick! Who knows, I might even read a copy of E&T again sometime...

-------------------------
Andy Millar CEng MIET CMgr MCMI

http://www.linkedin.com/in/millarandy

"The aim of argument, or of discussion, should not be victory, but progress." Joseph Joubert
 12 December 2013 06:12 PM
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pecplc

Posts: 2
Joined: 05 August 2009

Originally posted by: amillar

Having (just for once) some free time last night, I (just for once) actually read my copy of E&T. Apart from this being IMO the best argued of these debates I have seen in E&T, it is also the first I have seen that has actually changed my mind on the subject.



Over many years I have worked with Universities, sat on Uni advisory panels, validated courses, and generally done everything I can to try and have an industry say in the curriculum.



Despite that, I have voted "disagree" because I thoroughly agree with the points made by Steve Carter here. I am heartily fed up with seeing graduates who have technical knowledge of specific aspects of engineering, who know how to run a simulation, maybe even how to construct a gantt chart, but have no level of creativity, imaginitive thinking, innovative problem solving, or ability to relate diverse and often abstract concepts. I had been thinking that this was due to lack of exposure to industry, but I am now coming round to the view expressed very well by Steve that this could be because of exposure to industry.



Now, I do believe (DO BELIEVE) very, very strongly in the importance of the year (or two, or three) in industry as part of the University education process. That's where the student can learn the process bits, the bits we (in industry) already know, the bits that let them do today what we did yesterday.



But that actually strengthens Steve's point: this leaves the Universities free to concentrate on the parts that we don't know about, and not just in engineering. Maybe his suggestion that "every degree course [should contain] a year in which students learned how to think" is going a bit far - but maybe not. Ensuring that students are going to be capable of going beyond the levels that their industry mentors cannot even imagine is vital, and this involves skills outside engineering.



It's actually the same as excellent product development - technology doesn't progress by giving your customer the new product he thought he wanted, but by giving him the much better product that you can develop because you have the expertise in that area. Well, in this case the engineering industry is (fairly) good at engineering; but developing and growing the capabilities of human beings is something that we, as an industry, do not have expertise in and - we have to accept - are not particularly good at.



Of course there must be discussion, as there must be with any customer and producer, but the customer isn't always right...or at least, does not always have the best view of how the producer can fulfil his actual needs.





And I was delighted in the same issue to see my old friend and fellow Cornish resident, Roger Dettmer, blowing the trumpet for one of my favourite engineers, Richard Trevithick! Who knows, I might even read a copy of E&T again sometime...
 12 December 2013 06:56 PM
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pecplc

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Joined: 05 August 2009

We need electrical engineering students to do lab work. e.g. measuring current in a wire. Graduates who have never done lab work cannot have a deep understanding of their subject no matter how much they think about it.

We ask graduates at interview why they did not do such things at university. Some answers are:
"the lab equipment did not work and so we could not do labs"
"the lecturers were not interested in practical work"
"we had a lot of computer based exercises to do and there was no time to do labs"

Industry involvement at a university, when it is involved at all, is usually as part of the curriculum planning process or, more likely, rubber stamping a curriculum plan. Those industrial reps who dare to mention that nowhere in the course is there an opportunity for students to measure current in a wire, are not likely to be asked back for another lunch.

The IET could, if it chose, refuse applicants who could not measure current in a wire but then it would have a lot less members.

John Sanderson CEng FIEE
Power Engineering Consultants Plc
 13 December 2013 01:24 AM
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kengreen

Posts: 400
Joined: 15 April 2013

the above posts call to mind a whole host of memories linked to our summer intakes of "vacation students".

I often spent the first hour of a morning in going through the homework-problems of our junior technicians and was often intrigued to see at the rear several of our undergraduates. Later, as a technical writer, I sought clarification of a mysterious design only to discover that the highly paid "engineer " who was responsible was one of those who received his first instruction in amplifier design from myself "

The mystery of his design proved to be that he knew of only one of the entire family of multivibrators and that inevitably it was the wrong one.

Ken Green
 15 December 2013 01:07 PM
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jarathoon

Posts: 1043
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Originally posted by: pecplc

The IET could, if it chose, refuse applicants who could not measure current in a wire but then it would have a lot less members.

John Sanderson CEng FIEE

Power Engineering Consultants Plc


AC or DC Current measurements in what range? Would they have to use an instrument to measure currents down to 10e-16 Coulombs per second, and then state how they accurately calibrated their device using a current balance standard for measuring the ampere, that can't be used for measuring currents anywhere near this small. Do they also have to state how they handled current noise sources and instrumental drift as well?

Obviously if you make statements without clear boundaries or domain limits they could be used as a way of excluding virtually all the membership. However other than that I agree with the point you raise.

One of the main experiments engineering students definitely need to carry out is Joules experiment on the equivalence of heat and work. In my opinion laboratory work is not an optional extra to an engineering course, it is a vital part of an engineering training. At some point we have to test our core ideas, and the limits to them, with the use of actual physical hardware; in comination with a logical approach in designing the order and scale of the experimental work needed to test operational limits and eliminate and examine failure modes .

Therefore if there are University courses that have effectively got rid of all laboratory experimental, and practical construction work, then their courses should be relisted as humanities courses; i.e. students limited to working in the realm of the imagination and writing essays about how one might carry out an experimental test of ones ideas, if only one was given the opportunity.

Engineering is in large part about learning how to physically break things in a safe and controlled test environment, in order that those same failure mechanisms don't break the device or component in an uncontrolled and unsafe manner in the outside world.

I don't want to write engineering courses in detail, thats for academics, however engineering specialists from all fields must have some sort of common core components of language and experience, to fall back on, when they are communicating on some topic one or other of them does not understand. E.g. thinking about a mechanical device or biological process in terms of an electrical model and visa versa. (analogical thinking being one specialist engineering field and another being of the core general engineering components in my opinion)


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James Arathoon
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