Friday, 24 April 2015

The Meaning of Silence

Most of us who write on here have written articles on the problems of engineering education in print publications.

These are usually published in engineer's professional journals or in the general press, as we have found it hard to get articles about the problems with engineering education published in journals controlled by educationalists.

Eventually we run into problems with even those publications which  will publish articles about the mismatch between engineering degrees and the engineering profession.

If we are bold and forthright in our criticism of current practice, we are told that we cannot say anything which might be thought disrespectful of individuals.

If we are more diplomatic, we are told that our new articles on the subject are just rehashing what we said before, as they have the same basic theme.

The response to the articles is consistently positive from practitioners. The most interesting thing is the response from academics. Silence. They generally speaking don't have a thing to say in public about these issues.

They only want to talk to people who agree with their basic axiom that engineering is the straightforward application of the far more difficult maths and science which they know about.

If you suggest that engineering is not the application of natural science and maths - silence.

If you suggest that the graduates they are producing are not fit to become engineers- silence.

If you suggest that a practitioner might know hard things that an academic does not - silence.

If you suggest that putting scientists and mathematicians in charge of engineering education was a bad idea - the utter silence of censorship. Not only they, but you will be silenced.

So much for the principle of academic freedom. Some things may not be said, and will not be said in peer-reviewed academic journals, or professional engineering journals.

So what does the silence mean? You can pin down academics in a corridor, and get a few answers:

1. "That's just technician level knowledge"
2. "I'm in touch with one of our alumni, and he says that engineering practice is exactly as we in academia say it is"
3. "Oh, that's the kind of thing X always says, pay no attention to him"
4. "All of our graduates get good jobs - Where's the problem?"
5. "University is about Education, not mere Training"  
6. "I AM an engineer, so the stuff I teach IS engineering"
7. "All of the faculty agree that this is what engineering is about"

There are many others, but what they all have in common is their thought-avoiding dismissiveness.

Technicians know things many professors do not. Much of this knowledge is needed to become a professional engineer, but most of what is missing is not known by technicians or academics. The technician level knowledge argument is an insult to professional engineers and technicians masquerading as an argument. Professional engineers know the theory that academics know, as well as the practicalities that technicians and professional engineers know. They will tell you that engineering is far more complex than the things they were taught in university.

The kind of alumnus who keep in touch with the kind of person who tries the "one of our alumni once told me" argument tends to be a bit of a suck-up. n=1 would not impress this kind of academic in any other sphere, but when it comes to confirmation bias, any datapoint which agrees with prejudice will do.

"That's the kind of thing X always says" is a straightforward ad hominem attack, backed again only by a lack of criticality founded in confirmation bias. Maybe that is what X always says, but please explain why he is wrong.

Data in this area is very flaky, but not so bad that we cannot say with some confidence that all of your graduates do NOT get good jobs. Many of them may not get jobs at all, and most of them will not get jobs as engineers. Would people teaching medicine be as unconcerned if less than half of their output were thought fit to practice?

Education vs training is the expression of snobbery of people who don't know what engineers do, but think that what they know is smarter than what engineers know, despite their not knowing what engineers know.

The researchers who say that they are engineers may have a point, but usually they don't. I read books by people like Vincenti, and I meet some academics who clearly know what engineering is about. I'm happy to call such people research engineers. It is very notable that such people's research is very directly useful to, and involves talking to practicing engineers.

"All of our faculty agree..." All of your faculty agree that if they are wrong about what engineering is they are going to have to do a great deal of work learning a subject they know next to nothing about from people they consider their social and intellectual inferiors. No-one will give them any reward for this work, and before they can do it, they will have to agree that they are the oompa loompas of engineering rather than the other way round.

What does the silence mean? It means that the present approach to engineering education is as morally bankrupt as it is intellectually lazy. It means that they hope we'll stop knocking if they ignore the door for long enough.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

A Whole New Engineer

David Goldberg claims that there are seven missing basics in engineering education, which are obvious to anyone who sees students attempting genuine engineering problems.

Goldberg's assertion is that universities are producing compliant drones for monolithic integrated companies which no longer exist. His Whole New Engineer is actually the old, bold engineer.

There is such a thing in engineering, unlike aviation, where they say : “There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.” 

But I digress - David was inspired by work at Olin, a small specialist private college in the US. He attempted to bring something of the feel of Olin's radically innovative approach to The University of Urbana-Champaign at Illinois.

This was (as one of the book chapter names indicates), trying to teach a big old dog new tricks. Illinois was not a small, rich, privately funded radical start-up like Olin, but a big, well-established research led (but as usual really funded by teaching) university.

He discusses how he overcame the barriers to any radical innovation in such institutions (nutshell: don't ask turkeys to vote for Xmas), and offers many insights from business change management literature.

There isn't very much activity at present in the UK driven by David's work, though there is an attempt to replicate Olin at the New Model in Technology and Engineering Institution soon to start up in Hereford. The Academic partners are two Russell Group (i.e Research led) universities, and Olin itself. It will be interesting to see how it works out.

Monday, 6 April 2015

How Can Almost Everyone Else Be Wrong, and Knud Right?

Everything I have written here is based on my claim that the entire foundation for all learned discussion of engineering education is fundamentally wrong. How is it possible that I could be right, or to put it another way, how is it possible that so many learned others are wrong?

It is not as implausible as it seems that this one small pseudonymous voice on the internet might be righter than the great and the good of the RAE, Engineering Institutions, Government, countless University Engineering and Education Departments, and his fellow professional engineers.

Firstly, those engineering departments contain very few engineers, as I define them. They may contain people who can do engineering, (or more commonly do some isolated aspect of engineering), but "Engineer" isn't just something which you do, it is something which you are.

There are disincentives for university lecturers to even learn about engineering, let alone become engineers. (These are rather selfish disincentives, but selfishness is taken for granted in academia) Promotion in academia mainly depends upon the quality and quantity of your research output. Scientific journals are deemed to have higher quality than engineering journals.

Teaching quality also comes into it nowadays, but this "teaching quality" is no such thing. The way it is measured is basically a measure of student happiness. The average engineering student likes realistic exercises, but not as much as they like spoon-feeding and high marks for low effort. It is therefore easy to manipulate. Teaching quality is in any case weighted far less heavily than research quality, so optimal teaching quality follows a j-curve.

So putting just enough effort into teaching to hit your institution's minimum teaching quality, whilst publishing as many non-engineering research papers as possible is the fast track to promotion. University lecturers are highly pressurized by management with respect to both research and teaching quality. Only the most exceptional have enough time to genuinely care about teaching. Few indeed have enough time to genuinely care about Engineering. Academics don't understand engineering.

So why don't the professionals make the academics teach what the profession needs? They also have no motivation to improve education of engineers. Their employers are not willing to pay them to do anything more than pay the odd visit to give a lecture of anecdotes from professional practice. We all know how little of our university education proved useful in professional life, but we don't give this much thought. We are too busy being engineers - it's an engrossing business. We are clear that "engineering education" is no such thing, but we have winner's complacency. We made it, so other real engineers can too. Engineers don't understand education.

If an Engineer should notice the irrelevance of the engineering education curriculum, and wish to change it, they will find another problem. Our engineering institutions are dominated by successful  academics, who have been selected in the way I explained above. I and several of my correspondents have found out by personal experience there is a great resistance to change embedded within these institutions, which brings to mind the Saber Tooth Curriculum

So the status quo sort of suits everyone involved in speaking for engineering education, and its associated profession. It brings in lots of blue-sky research money for universities, and allows practitioners to think of the irrelevant course they were made to pass as tests, whose actual content is irrelevant. Passing an engineering degree means to them simply that you are smart, hardworking and  and resilient. As I said, they don't understand education.

Engineerign employers do their own tests on the product of universities before employing them, and they reject at least half. As the selection process is pretty poor, most of this half are capable only of doing engineering. They will never be engineers. Employers consequently claim there is a shortage of engineers, and in a way they are right. Universities are not making engineers - they are making people who can do engineering.

The vested interests and narrow views of most academics, practitioners, institutions and employers stop them from seeing the inconvenient truth that what we need to do is make engineers. We could produce half as many engineering graduates as we do now, and industry would benefit far more than if we produced ten times as many of those who are presently making up the numbers on engineering courses.

But not all is lost. There are some who understand what engineers are about. Look here. Unfortunately, the system militates against anything being done about this.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

What's Wrong with Engineering Education From an Engineer's Point of View?

A lot of the difference between a beginner and an expert in engineering is to do with having a feeling for what matters. Expert engineers know which things are not going to work. They know the key metrics and heuristics which allow them to cut through complexity to be able to reliably predict the outcomes of situations which no-one can fully understand.

Vincenti explains all of this very well in "What Engineers Know and How They Know It", with the specific example of the "Flying Quality" of aircraft. Many educationalists would no doubt deny the possibility of the establishment of any reliable metrics for learning, let alone ingenuity, but I disagree.

I think that any good engineer can reliably and reproducibly tell a good engineer from a poor one sufficiently well to control the process of engineering education. Let us call the property they are estimating in making this judgement ingenuity.

As a good engineer I can tell from their average level of ingenuity that either the candidates I have been sent to make into engineers have been poorly selected, or (if these are indeed the best candidates available), the pool of sufficiently ingenious candidates is small.

I am not sure that I can see any significant differences in ingenuity between candidates of different genders, sexualities, skin colours and so on. It would not matter if I could, as it would be illegal for me to discriminate between candidates on these grounds (unless of course I was discriminating "positively", which I would rather not do).

Much of the discussion of how to improve engineering education centres on increasing numbers, both in general and of "under-represented" groups. The view of who is under-represented is however highly politicized. The great under-representation of the children of the working classes in engineering education is not apparently not a problem. The lack of a 50:50 gender ratio is however thought to be a problem. This is an ideological position, not a rational one. It is a political judgement, whose truth or otherwise is based on the acceptance or rejection of certain set of values and associated axioms.

We might set aside the issue of whether these values and axioms are right, and ask if this approach is likely to work, and if there is any evidence that it is working. But first we would have to agree about what "working" means. This is a problem I have come across many times in professional engineering practice. What is needed to resolve it rationally is an agreed metric.

In my recent discussions with Kel and Peter from the RAE, it seems clear to me that the immediate aims of the RAE's activities in encouraging applications to engineering courses are to produce twice as many engineering graduates, but that their ultimate aim is to produce more good engineers.

There is an implicit assumption in these approaches that more applicants in general, and more female applicants in particular will automatically lead to more good engineers. But this does not follow, whichever way you read the data on applications to engineering courses.

My belief is that we already train too many engineers in general, and poor engineers in particular. Even Peter's own figures suggest that almost half of our graduates are not being employed as engineers, and I think this analysis underestimates the problem due to the poor quality of its source data. Most professional engineers (including myself) think that today's engineering graduates lack ingenuity, and consider many of them unemployable as engineers.

The RAE's argument is that because some engineering courses have to go to "clearing" to make their numbers, we are not oversupplied with candidates. This to my mind still leads us to the conclusion that we have too many places available if our aim is to produce good engineers. Going to clearing means that these courses are taking on second choice students. If we believe that A-levels are measuring something which correlates with ingenuity, this dropping of standards reduces our chances of making good engineers.

Engineers have a feeling for the correct level of analysis. I have previously explained why I think analysis at the STEM level is unhelpful. Now I would like to explain why I think analysis at the "Engineering " level is unhelpful. Let us take the example of Chemical Engineering and Civil Engineering courses.

Even though only half of Chem Eng graduates get jobs as engineers, there has been a massive expansion in numbers and tariffs on Chem Eng Courses, and several new courses are being accredited. This may well be something to do that Chem Eng is the highest paid branch of engineering in the UK, more well paid than medicine. Chem Eng courses are 27% female, and Biochem Eng courses even closer to gender parity.

Contrast this with the least well paid branch of UK engineering, Civil Engineering. Civ Eng can't fill its courses, and it can't get the girls. So Civil Engineering may have a problem - does Chem Eng have the same problem? I think not. In my opinion Chem Eng is probably exceeding, and certainly approaching the saturation point for willing and able female candidates.

So it seems to me that in a system where we charge students £36K for an entry level engineering qualification, they are voting with their feet for the courses most likely to give a good return on their investment. Anyone who didn't wouldn't be a good candidate to be an engineer.

So it does not follow that some courses having difficulty making their numbers means that there is a crisis of recruitment in engineering courses. This might be a crisis for those working in the Civ Eng department, but if students don't care, and employers already have twice as many candidate as they need, why should engineering care? If we end up with too few civil engineers, it will presumably become better paid, but the laws of supply and demand suggest there are too many of them at present.

As well as the differences between disciplines, there are accredited and unaccredited courses, and courses at higher and lower status institutions. If the unaccredited courses at third rate institutions intended to cheat ill-informed students of their money (because institution and course status is often more important in the UK job market than degree classification) have difficulties filling their courses, this need not trouble Imperial College.

Employers have a vested interest in oversupply of labour, and even good universities will to some extent lay on courses for anyone willing to pay. Law now produces six times as many graduates as there are jobs as solicitors and barristers, and wages (though not fees) have crashed. We trained far too many pharmacists in recent years and what was a secure and well paid job has become akin to that of a shop assistant for many of those lucky enough to have jobs at all.

So when we strip out the unhelpful generalizations, special pleading and propaganda from vested interests, we see the following:

There is no general shortage of graduate engineers (or both employment rates and wages for graduates would be higher)

There may be local shortages of certain kinds of engineers and engineering students (but paying professional engineers more money can fix them)

Training more engineers will on the other hand not fix this problem, as it will (by increasing supply in a market which is already oversupplied) decrease both wages and the chances of employment for graduates and hence the attractiveness of undertaking our challenging and expensive courses.

Encouraging women to study engineering will not fix this problem (as there is no evidence that the profession suffers in any way because women generally prefer medicine to engineering)

It seems from Chem Eng's example that if it is politically desirable to increase the number of women in engineering education, paying engineers more seems to work.

So it looks to me as if much of what is presently being done is entirely wrong-headed, based in an uncritical acceptance of political propaganda.

We can however always use more good engineers. Maybe if we produced more of them we might once more have an economy based on designing and making things, driven by these good engineers.

In my opinion, many of the half of engineering graduates who get jobs as engineers should think themselves  lucky. More than 75% of them will never be good engineers. I have seen them in education, and I have seen them in practice, and they are just making up the numbers in my opinion.

I cannot tell reliably why this is. Have we already dipped to the bottom of the pool of natural engineers? Are engineers born or made? How can we reliably measure ingenuity? Can we foster it, and if so how? Are our present metrics of quality well correlated with ingenuity?

The answers to these questions are the key to making more of the good engineers we all think are needed. If we wasted less time on political agendas we'd have more time to find answers to them.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Good Engineers,Good Graduates, and Good Graduate Engineers

Recent comments from Kel Fidler and Pater Goodhew have invoked the idea of good degrees and good graduates.

The concept of the good graduate is fairly straightforward in UK HE. "Good graduates" are commonly held to be those with an upper second or first class degree.

But do these "good graduates" have graduateness? do they have goodness? and do either of these things map on to being a good engineer, (or a good candidate for being made into a good engineer if you do not think that the job of the university is to produce engineers)?

There is a lot of talk amongst educationalists about "graduateness", usually founded in a notion of a set of skills (especially soft skills) which all graduates need to have, and often an assumption that people employ graduates to get this graduateness.

It is also commonplace in engineering education for academics to assume that a "good" degree result correlates with being a good engineer (or potential engineer).

These links are however far from clear. Engineering degrees are hard, but they are a certain kind of hard. Their graduates are necessarily clever and hardworking, but as James Atherton pointed out recently, "assessment drift" means that university course assessments may have only a 15% overlap with the profession they share their name with. Are our graduates the right kind of clever? Are they ingenious? The profession says no when they reject perhaps one-third of our "good graduates", and half of our graduates.

So what is goodness? I would argue that not only is there not one kind of good graduateness, there is more than one kind of good engineer, and not all of them are the well-rounded product universities are so often shooting for.

For a first dimension of goodness, let us consider the Kirton Inventory. In my field, there are those who design rockets, and those who operate them. Design teams need one or two of Kirton's radical "Innovators", even though they will possibly cause conflict in the team. Operating crews are far better staffed overwhelmingly with the more pleasant, if slightly plodding "Adaptors".

So no point on the Kirton spectrum is incompatible with employment as an engineer, though adaptors are better suited to operations and management, and innovators to design and troubleshooting.

I was surprised upon entering academia from practice to find that universities are mostly filled with adaptors. I had imagined that they would be staffed with sparky, spiky innovators, but outside the professoriate, they are very rare in my experience. HE is an operational environment.

"Goodness" in any human system tends to consist primarily of being like the people doing the assessment, and secondarily with compliance with rules. "Good graduates" tend consequently in my experience to be more frequently conformist adaptors than radical innovators.

These "good graduates" are a good match for the needs of operating companies. The likes of BP tend to prefer first class degrees, and they are wise to do so. They don't want awkward people who question the rules, or get bored easily in a dangerous environment where procedure has to be followed attentively at all times.

Back when engineering had huge vertically and horizontally integrated companies, any number of these "dogmatic, compliant, stuck in a rut, timid, conforming, and inflexible" adaptors might get jobs, but the world has changed.
Our "good graduates" are not likely to be radical innovators. In my opinion, we have weeded innovators out of engineering education. My alter ego teaches design, and he notices that only around 10% of the 3-As-at-A-level students he teaches it to have the knack of engineering.

The other 90% can't draw, can't think, can't write, can't integrate or apply knowledge. They have no feel for numbers, no "spatial intelligence", and no teamworking ability.

These are unfortunately for them the skills of the engineer. The skills our engineering graduates have been selected for are the ability to pass exams without understanding their subject, and then forget all that they have learned.

That anyone will employ 50% of these engineering graduates as engineers demonstrates the depth of the shortage of good ones. The answer is not however to just make yet more mediocre ones which industry will not employ. We need to figure out a metric which correlates with "good engineerness", or ingenuity, if we are not to waste our time and a lot of our students' money.

If we can teach it, we need to teach it, but all engineers know that you can't control something you can't measure. We need better assessments, which measure ingenuity, rather than conformity. I believe that every real engineer can spot a fellow real engineer in a short conversation about engineering.

If we can promote it outside education, we should do so. Maybe there was more of it about back when we used to take things to bits for fun, mend our own bikes and cars, build and program our own computers, and make beer-powered rockets.

I don't know the answer, but I am convinced that these are the right questions. Graduateness and Goodness are nothing to do with Ingenuity.

Monday, 30 March 2015

The Missing Basics of Engineering: A Feel for Numbers: The "STEM Shortage"

Professional engineers tend to concur that one of the problems with new engineering graduates is a lack of a feel for numbers. Engineers are good at dealing with uncertainty, but universities are pretty bad at teaching this.

We are professional engineers, and (as we have said before) we think that the numbers which support the "STEM shortage " argument are pretty dodgy.

We were honoured yesterday to receive a comment from Peter Goodhew, author of "Teaching Engineering" and apparently a forthcoming RAE report on the shortage of engineers the RAE has been consistently claiming exists.

Peter told us that "There is no evidence..."most cannot get jobs as engineers" In a way, that is fair comment. Much may depend on the definition of a few key terms.

When we say "jobs as engineers", we mean exactly that. Jobs with a job title whose last word is "engineer". We know that this definition causes upset in academic circles, but that is the definition of "engineer" which we are using. 

In Peter's comment he said that " the vast majority get professional jobs, mainly in engineering.  Of the 77% of graduates who revealed their first destination job: 15% went on to further study, 78% started a professional job (two thirds of them in engineering), while only 7% took a non-professional job". He also says that he is basing his analysis on "the most recent cohort of engineering graduates for which we have data". 

We don't want to seem to be picking on Peter, we are grateful for his engagement, but these statements contain or imply the standard assumptions of all analyses which conclude there is a STEM shortage. We are not saying:

That engineering graduates don't get "professional jobs"

That engineering graduates don't get jobs under the HESA category  "Engineering & Technology"

That engineering graduates don't get jobs under other HESA categories corresponding to "STEM"

We are not even saying that engineering graduates don't get jobs "in engineering"- (they might have jobs as teaboys, or worse still, managers).

We are saying that most cannot get jobs as engineers (by our definition), but there actually isn't that much ground between Peter and us, even though he is using a broader definition.

He is saying that 2/3 of 78% of graduates get jobs "in engineering" - I make that 51.5%.

We are saying that most graduates cannot get jobs as engineers. This means that we are right if less than 50% of graduates get jobs as engineers.

So we only differ by about 1.5%. As we are both engineers with a feel for numbers, we would suspect that neither of us believe that our answers are precisely correct. As Emma Smith and Steven Gorard pointed out, the stats in this area are unreliable. We are going to need to add some error bars to our estimates.

Let us say in the interest of harmony that half of engineering graduates get jobs as engineers, or even Peter's term "in engineering". So, why do we think there is a shortage of engineering graduates if half of the ones we are producing now cannot get jobs "in engineering", let alone "as engineers"?

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Making Engineers: Lessons from the iFoundry#1: Words Matter

One of the key benefits identified by those responsible for the iFoundry (an attempt to bring Olin's groundbreaking approach to engineering education to the University of Illinois) was students' enhanced identification as engineers.

They were not the first to think that this was an important aspect of engineering education. Curtin University of Technology in Australia addresses its students as ‘student engineers’."There is a subtle but important distinction between an engineering student and a student engineer."

Like iFoundry faculty Curtin think that the words they use are important. In " A Whole New Engineer", the account of the founding of the iFoundry, they cite the Heath Brothers book "Made to Stick" about how the use of "sticky language" can make the difference between success and failure in change management.

Words do matter. Today's "engineering students" (being given a STEM education by scientists and mathematicians who tell them that they are being prepared to be the oompa loompas of science) identify as part of STEM.

Many of the brightest become "STEM ambassadors", persuading more kids (especially girls) to study STEM subjects, even though we already have a massive oversupply of both candidates and graduates in engineering education.

So, our best and brightest students have had their enthusiasm and goodwill to others exploited to serve an ideological agenda and the promotion of the interests of non-engineers. It's a sad state of affairs.

iFoundry encourages these keen and idealistic students to take part in activities such as Engineers without Borders, using their skills and knowledge to serve real needs, and identifying with their fellow engineers around the world. This is encouraging students to identify as engineers, and bringing them into our community of practice.

We would argue that we need to take the E out of STEM, because all most people hear is the first word. They think it's all science. In "A Whole New Engineer" they trace this fallacy back to the lack of understanding of the distinction between the four parts of STEM of the American military in the Second World War. So STEM basically means the same as "Boffin", but we are not boffins, we are engineers. Even scientists don't want to be boffins.

Scientists and mathematicians didn't make the atomic bomb for those WWII generals, put men on the moon, or create today's ubiquitous electronic devices and air travel for all. Engineers did all that and more. We made today's world. Scientists are our ugly friend - we will need to shake them off if they are going to steal our clothes.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Engineering Education: Are Degree Apprenticeships the Answer?

In James Atherton's post on our blog, he wondered whether the "call for a revival of graduate-level apprenticeships may finally be heeded".

It turns out it already has been, "Degree Apprenticeships" were rolled out mid-March, and we already had "Higher Apprenticeships", which allowed degree level study alongside vocational training.

There is however a problem with such approaches in a society as conscious of class nuance as the UK. As Alison Wolf pointed out, many consider vocational qualifications a great idea - for other people's children.The supposed equality of degrees in the UK is already a polite fiction.

In an article in "The Chemical Engineer" magazine discussing these changes,  they say "For hundreds of years, universities have offered up something philosophically different from vocational training courses - focussed on growing pure knowledge and understanding rather than simply making students ready for the world of work".

This sentence sums up a number of the key misunderstandings, generalizations, stupidities and manifestations of snobbery which will make any "Degree Apprenticeship" a second rate qualification in the UK.

What for example is "pure knowledge and understanding"?  Whatever that might be, it is nothing to do with engineering. Engineering may be "impure" in the sense of being applied and practical, but the application of the positive value judgement "pure" to knowledge and understanding is simply snobbery. Knowledge itself is neither pure nor impure, except that we judge it so.
The original purpose of universities was monkish study. Insisting that everything which takes place in universities has to conform with earlier ideas of their purpose is illogical. It is analogous to the lexical "root fallacy" where the true meaning of a word is its supposed original one. Words change their meanings, as do institutions. If it were ever true that universities were ever about what TCE magazine says they were, they aren't now.

In any case, chemical engineering only made it into universities in 1887. There can be no appeal to hundreds of years of tradition by chemical engineers. That first chemical engineering course (delivered by George E Davis, a practical working engineer and chemist now seen as the founding father of chemical engineering) was criticized by contemporary snobbish academic purists for being mere "commonplace know-how".

Such are the roots of chemical engineering, but it seems that it wishes it were higher-born. Medicine doesn't seem to worry about being a practical business, why should we? But of course in the UK, medicine is a profession, and an "engineer" rods your drains.

The cartoon at the top shows the hierarchy of purity in academia. There was not room in the frame for those teaching apprentices, who would be around a metre to the left of the sociologist at the scale used. Rather than insisting that the answer is a new qualification (understood by all to be for working class children) we need to remind engineering that it was never pure.

To get a job as an engineer, graduates need nowadays to have already experienced work as an engineer. Industrial placements, internships and so on are on the CV of every smart budding engineer.

So, what is the difference between a supposedly pure degree, with a year or so of industrial experience, and a job straight out of school with an applied degree on the side?

In terms of learning, nothing significant, (though there is every chance that the vocational students will be worked harder both at work and at university, and actually learn more). In a society alert to every shade of class distinction, everything.

The apprenticeship route will not be competing with Russell Group universities for the "best" A-level students, it is for the bright working class kids who don't get those grades. It will lock them into the slow lane in their professional lives, just as we have seen the old degree level technical apprenticeships do to those who took them.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

What Aren't The Problems of Teaching Engineering - And Why Are These The Issues We Are Addressing? #2: "The Lack of Women"

We engineers tend not to fix things which ain't broke, and if our fix doesn't work, we consider the possibility that we may have misunderstood the problem. We also tend to fix the biggest problem first. If only more engineers were involved in education. We might get a few problems solved, and waste less time on non-problems like the supposed shortage of women in engineering.

A great deal of effort goes into figuring out why women don't study STEM subjects and/or figuring out how to get them to do so. I am not however sure that the problem addressed by these efforts actually exists, especially in the field of engineering education. As the graphic shows if there is any imbalance in engineering, it is pretty trivial compared with a reverse problem in other professions.

The broad brush of the STEM classification obscures rather than assists analysis, as discussed previously. Two of the three subjects in which women are most proportionally overrepresented (courses related to veterinary and human medicine, and education) are often classed as STEM subjects.

During the time that these efforts have been made to persuade more girls to study STEM subjects at school, the gender divide has actually worsened in the most gender segregated courses like veterinary and computer science. We might speculate that getting more girls to do STEM A levels has just upped the number of applicants for STEM courses which fit with traditional gender roles.

Then there are all of the things which are not apparently problems: the over-representation of women throughout HE is not a problem. (The only groups proportionally underrepresented in UK HE are "White" and "Afro-carribean" working class males). The under-representation of men on the courses which women dominate is apparently not a problem (though a few others have noticed this). So why is it felt that the shortage of women on engineering courses is a problem?

It doesn't appear to be a real problem either for engineering, or for the women who want to study engineering as far as I am aware. Having encountered many female engineers in both education and practice, we haven't noticed them bringing as a class anything special to the table. They are not noticeably better or worse than men at the day to day business of engineering. Engineering does not seem to be missing out by not being half female, and there is (as discussed previously) an oversupply of both those wanting to study engineering, and engineering graduates.

In educationalist circles all kinds of benefits which might in theory accrue from a greater number of women studying and practising engineering are discussed, but they are not apparent in practise. Of course education is as disproportionately female as engineering is male-dominated, so the consensus opinion of educationalists is not gender bias-free.

Why do less women than men study and practice engineering? "stereotypes within the education system, norms governing gender roles in the household that constrain a woman’s choice of occupation", or to put it another way, they don't want to, generally speaking.

So women are not studying these subjects because they do not want to. Isn't the right number of women studying engineering as many as are capable of doing so, and want to? Who are educationalists to tell women what to want?

There is no evidence to suggest that that women are more innovative or otherwise better engineers than men, though there is an argument that more diverse teams are more innovative. Diversity is however even more slippery as a concept than "STEM". The missing diversity in HE appears to be a social class. If we are going to start carrying out social engineering, that is arguably where we should start.

But if we do want more women in engineering for ideological reasons, we need to promote Engineering to them, not "STEM". Promoting STEM to girls, and getting them to do more STEM A-levels appears to have simply further imbalanced the gender ratios in the subjects they do want to study.

Or why not follow Olin's lead, and based on the understanding that engineering is not applied science and maths, take in students without STEM A-levels. This would widen the pool of female candidates by allowing them in with the A-levels they do want to study.

The problem with engineering education is however not a lack of women. It is a lack of engineers, and a consequent lack of understanding in educational circles of what engineering is.

If this mistaken understanding of what engineering is about has an unwanted side-effect of excluding women who would like to be engineers, that should be one more small nail in "STEM"'s coffin. Such a situation would be inequitable, and in many countries, illegal.

We are not however aware that any inability of suitably qualified and motivated women to get on engineering courses, or to practice as engineers has actually been proven. If it is true, why has no-one been prosecuted in those countries where sex discrimination is illegal?

The arguments about a supposed lack of women on engineering courses seems to be based squarely on an unexamined axiom that the ratio should be at least 50:50 (or arguably more, as women outnumber men in the population, and outnumber them still more in HE) Why?

Engineering Education: "Assessment Drift"

Celebrated educationalist James Atherton has given us a mention on his blog here. Thanks, James!

Monday, 23 March 2015

Are Universities Providing the Best Education for Chemical Engineers?

There is an interesting debate going on over on an IChemE Linked In group about whether Chemical Engineering education is fit for purpose, based on this Guardian blog post.


There are people around who are worried about the state of engineering education.  But engineering education is not just for students sitting in classrooms and lecture halls. Engineering education is something that is needed outside our schools, colleges and universities – to improve understanding of an activity of fundamental importance to society in all its aspects, yes – Engineering.  We need our young people, teachers, parents and families, media workers, civil servants and politicians to know what engineering is about.

Why?  So that we can get more of our best young people working as engineers, encouraged in that aspiration by society, so we can meet the challenges of the future – challenges of Energy, Food, Water, Transport, Communication, Buildings, Health, even Entertainment…

The Big Bang Fair of Science and Engineering is one example of the huge effort that is being made to educate young people, parents and teachers about engineering.   

The latest one, held at Birmingham NEC attracted over 70,000 people and has led to numerous videos being uploaded onto YouTube. And that is where we see problems.  One video shows a teacher saying that the Fair is the best place to find out about Science, a view supported by the comments of several schoolchildren.

In another video showing Nick Gibb MP (Minister of State for School Reform) opening the Fair, he says “What (the Fair) shows is that science isn’t just about white lab coats in a laboratory, or engineering isn’t just about lying under an oily car or vehicle – it’s about exciting modern companies doing exciting modern things”. Stuck for examples of these modern things, Nick? (I suppose a Law degree background is of little help!)

Greg Clark MP (Minister for Universities and Science) was also at the Fair and has his own video.  He waxes lyrical about Science and Scientists (13 mentions), mentions Engineers and Engineering (4 times), Technology and Technologists (4 times) and Mathematics (Twice).  At the end of the video he seems to attribute Robots, Space Exploration and Food to the work of scientists and mathematicians!  (I think you’ll find engineers have a major involvement in all three, Greg, but then an Economics degree wouldn’t help tell you that!).

And there is the problem.  The lack of understanding of engineering, and in particular its relationship with science perpetuates a significant problem for us in the UK (a problem we share with the US).  Because, as many have tried to clarify, engineering is not a part of science; engineering is a creative activity which aims to solve problems to produce those ‘modern things’ – wind farms, tidal generators, solar farms, power stations, modern agriculture, manufacturing facilities for food and drink and all the goods we use in everyday life, clean potable water, cars, lorries, ships, planes, trains, houses, skyscrapers, airports, tunnels, mobile phones, radios, tv, …. The list seems endless, because it covers everything surrounding us on which we rely. 

-Walter Pity

Saturday, 21 March 2015

What Aren't The Problems of Teaching Engineering - And Why Are These The Issues We Are Addressing? #1: "The STEM Shortage"

Those in engineering education whose hearts are in the right place have a vague feeling that there is something wrong with the education they are providing.

It is however made very hard for them to identify the real problem, as the discussions are dominated by discussions of non-problems.

The first of these is the supposed STEM shortage. Our well-meaning investigator talks to supposed experts, and reads the educational press and they are given a strong impression that the real problem in engineering education is a shortage of STEM graduates.

It is however far from clear that there is a shortage of STEM graduates as Stephen Gorard and The Atlantic Magazine pointed out a few years ago. The data simply is not there to support what has become the basis for almost all discussions of the subject. Those who get jobs as engineers may attract high wages, but only half of engineering graduates get to work as engineers.

There are vested interests who might wish all discussions to be based on this axiom. Universities, Employers, and Engineering Institutions all largely support the myth of the STEM shortage, arguably for reasons of self-interest.

In the UK, universities are ranked on their ratio of applications to accepted candidates. In many engineering courses this ratio may be as high as 10:1. There is no shortage of willing candidates for engineering degrees.

This does not however mean that university admissions tutors wouldn't like this marker of status to be higher. A higher ratio allows them to be pickier about the "tariff" of examination grades they will accept from candidates. This tariff is also a marker of status, reported in ranking tables.

There is no apparent upper limit to aspirations in these areas by universities, but this is nothing to do with making more or better engineers, as the pre-university exams have nothing to do with engineering ability. It is about managing the status of their institution.

A level results may correlate with degree classification, but degree classification does not have a simple relationship with ability as an engineer. This is in my opinion due to the lack of engineering in engineering degrees.

So if there is no evidence to support the idea that there is a shortage of applicants for STEM courses, perhaps there is (as employers organizations regularly claim), a shortage of STEM graduates?

Not only is there no evidence for that, there is strong evidence to the contrary. An uncomfortably high proportion of STEM graduates cannot get jobs in STEM. Surely if there are shortages, even our poorest graduates would be snapped up, and wages would be rising? But that's not what is happening.

If there is no shortage of STEM workers, why would employers' organizations say that there is? As with so many things in this debate, much lies in confusion over terms. Sometimes this lies with the authors of press releases, and often with journalistic misunderstanding.

A "STEM shortage" might be a local shortage of staff with certain specific training, shortages of time-served tradesmen, shortages of doctors, or simply a shortage of workers willing to work for what employers are offering.

A shortage of trained staff might be fixed by an employer being willing to train. The present shortage of time-served staff was caused by persuading 50% of young people to go into HE. Shortages of doctors have nothing to do with supply of engineers, and the last category is entirely soluble by a wage rise.

This last is presumably the reason why employers institutions are supportive of  the myth of the STEM shortage - oversupply will drive down wages.

What we are NOT short of is people willing to undertake accredited engineering degrees, or STEM (including engineering) graduates. There is clear oversupply of both of these things (in some cases massive oversupply as with UK pharmacists at present)

We may be short of chartered engineers, though the answer to this is not to allow non-engineers (people without at a minimum accredited degrees in engineering, and ideally with five years of experience as an engineering practitioner) to carry the title, as our engineering institutions have done.

In any case, STEM (Science/Technology/Engineering/Maths/Medicine) is too broad a brush. It is the cause of engineering institutions being involved in campaigns which are of no benefit to engineers in particular or society in general.

Our institutions send people into schools to promote STEM, rather than engineering, but even promoting engineering in schools is often wrong-headed. The only beneficiaries of yet more unsuccessful applicants to wildly oversubscribed engineering courses are the universities.

As we are already producing worldwide around twice as many engineering graduates as there are jobs for, one would think that there is little point in expanding engineering education provision, but the debate is so ill-founded in HE that that is exactly what we are doing.

The STEM conflation is also the cause of the major problem of engineering education. It supports the many people in university engineering departments who think that they are providing a STEM education rather than an engineering one. They consequently make students learn irrelevant science and maths, and employ scientists and mathematicians to teach them.

There will always be a shortage of excellent engineers - even in engineering practice there aren't that many. My students mostly have three As at A-level, but I would consider only about 10% to really have the knack for engineering which is needed to make a great engineer. There is no real sign of a STEM shortage, but there does appear to be a knack shortage. I will discuss what I think the reasons for this are in another post.

Engineering Educators: You're Doing it Wrong!

Science: if you dont make mistakes you're doing it wrong...

Some of us on here are practicing engineers, so we know what engineers do. We know what engineering is about. We know the tools and techniques which engineers use.

We also all went through a university education on courses which shared a name with our profession.

Some of us also teach on such courses, and some are involved in accreditation of these courses on behalf of engineering institutions.

We are concerned that there are very many people who have not practiced engineering involved in either teaching or accreditation.

Most of the people involved in teaching and accreditation are either researchers or managers. They do not personally do research, or carry out engineering duties such as design or technical support of engineering operations. They manage these activities, but they do not do them. Some of them do not even have first degrees in engineering.

So those greatly influential in the content and delivery of engineering degrees do not understand what engineers do, or how they do it. Many of them have never practiced the discipline, and often think of real engineers as their social and intellectual inferiors.

Many think that the "purer" subjects in which they have first degrees are more intellectually demanding than real engineering. Perhaps they think that teaching abstract theory irrespective of its relevance to engineering practice is "an education", but teaching practically relevant material is the vastly inferior "training", fit only for technicians.

So teaching students to use "MATLAB", a maths program which is used to write programs in a research setting (though entirely unused by practitioners for QA reasons) is education, but teaching students to use "Autocad", the industry standard drawing package is mere training.

Teaching students to carry out the mathematical transforms which were important to the electrical engineers of long ago is education (even if the students are not studying electrical engineering), teaching them qualitative knowledge about how instruments and actuators can be put together to form an effective control system is "training".

Teaching students a dumbed - down version of a philosopher's idea of ethics is education, teaching them real professional ethics is training.

There is a useful area of philosophy which no-one seems to teach as part of engineering degrees - epistemology. This is the study of the basis of knowledge, and knowledge to a philosopher is "true justified belief".

If we were really going to teach students how to think, we should be teaching them about the ways in which engineering has a different epistemology from science or mathematics. Engineering is not founded in science or mathematics, nor does it share their foundations. How could something which predates science and mathematics be founded in them?

Our beliefs as engineers are justified by experience: a combination of personal experience, and collective experience, in both cases usually codified by heuristics. These heuristics may take the form of codes of practice, design standards, rules of thumb, or cautionary tales. Best practice in engineering has been defined by BV Koen as following the most current commonly held heuristics amongst active practitioners.

Those who think that you can do engineering from mathematical or scientific first principles have never practiced the profession. Teaching maths and natural science is not teaching engineering. Unwillingness to understand when you are doing it wrong isn't even good science.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

UK Initiative in Fixing Engineering Education?

No sooner than I have said all of the initiatives are coming from America than I see this.

It's clear that their heart is in the right place, and they are linked to Olin in the US, as well as a couple of UK universities.

Is this the breakthrough we need? What do you think?

Monday, 16 March 2015

Initiatives in Fixing Engineering Education

For some reason. more or less all of the well-known initiatives in realigning engineering education with engineering practice come from the US. They have recognized the same problem as we have:

"Engineering education programs throughout much of the 20th century offered students plentiful hands-on practice: Accomplished and experienced engineers taught courses that focused on solving tangible problems. But as the century progressed and scientific and technical knowledge expanded rapidly, engineering education evolved into the teaching of engineering science.

Teaching engineering practice was increasingly de-emphasized. As a result, industry in recent years has found that graduating students, while technically adept, lack many abilities required in real-world engineering situations.

Major companies created lists of abilities they wanted their engineers to possess (e.g. Boeing's Desired Attributes of an Engineer). To encourage schools to meet real world needs and rethink their educational strategies, the Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology, ABET, listed its expectations for graduating engineers.

Industry and ABET had identified the destination; it was up to educators to plan the route. Faced with the gap between scientific and practical engineering demands, the educators took up the challenge to reform engineering education. The result of the endeavor is the worldwide CDIO Initiative"

Two other programs linked mainly through one man also address these same problems; Illinois iFoundry/Olin's Big Beacon. These two also bring in humanities subjects in line with the US Liberal Arts model of education in what look to be credible and appropriate ways.

There are some in other countries who are trying on some of these ideas and approaches for size, but the Americans seem to be taking the initiative here..

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Sorting Out Engineering

"I am not alone in believing strongly that Engineering is not Science, or (as is often suggested) a subset of Science, although the converse might be argued by some. Whilst Science is about understanding the world – producing and evaluating models of observed behaviour which are then used to predict other behaviours (the ‘Scientific Method’), Engineering is about creating things, and thus subject to a quite different discipline, embracing design, creativity, and innovation. Engineers will make use of Science where appropriate and advantageous (for example using the findings of semiconductor physicists in the manufacture of integrated circuits), but not always (there was, for example, no science of thermodynamics before the first steam engines were built)! No one would dream of suggesting that Engineering is a branch of Mathematics, even though the mathematics used in the signal processing to be found in mobile phone communication systems, or the matrix transformations used in computer game images, is of the highest complexity. No, Science and Mathematics are enabling, facilitating disciplines used by Engineers – to create things."

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Engineering Education Problems

There is something wrong with engineering education. At root the problems stem from a mismatch between the aims of university courses and the needs of the profession.

After the second world war most engineering degrees were changed worldwide from a design based professional/technical education to a scientific/mathematical education which relied on industry to make engineers.

This basis for engineering education is now so established that many cannot imagine ever going back, but the future is not in a model inspired by the development of the atomic bomb, the space race, and supersonic passenger jets.

These are the future of the past. Today's problems need the practical problem solvers which the old model used to produce.

What's Wrong with Engineering Education?

What's wrong with engineering education? Where to start? How about the following?

1. It isn't usually delivered by engineers, or even people who know what engineers do

2. It doesn't consequently usually involve learning much about the things engineers do

3. It does however involve learning a lot of things about what scientific researchers do

4. It does involve rote learning, regurgitating and then forgetting uncontextualized "facts"

5. It does not involve use of the creativity which distinguishes a good engineer from poor one

6. It does not often involve working in collaborative groups, as engineers do

7. It is too hard in all the wrong ways

8. It does not require synthesis of the various modularized subjects which are taught

9. Types of mathematics which professional engineers never use are emphasized

10. Scientific research skills, tools and software unused by engineers are emphasized 

11. Essays and lab reports are taught, though engineers never write either

12. Drawings are often not used at all (even though these are what engineers mostly work with)

The reasons for this are manifold, but most notably, there was a mistake in setting the model of engineering education after the second world war, and a consequent handing over of engineering education to academics.

Unfortunately for the engineering profession, almost all academics see the teaching aspects of their job as that of producing more academics, irrespective of the name of the department they work in. Engineering academics usually have far more in common with the academics in the classics department than they do with professional engineers.