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.