1.11 The prior knowledge and experience of 21st Century students

Long, long ago in the mists of the 20th century it was possible to assume that students presenting themselves to university Engineering Schools would have constructed models using Meccano, could wire a plug for mains electricity (and would have received a 110 or 240V shock), had changed and mended the tyre on their bike, would have taken apart a clock and might even have taken off the cylinder head of their, or their parents’, car. Today none of these things is likely, although equivalent students might have keyboard skills and might have added more RAM chips to their laptop. There are two basic reasons for this – modern attitudes to safety, and the increased complexity and miniaturisation of everyday devices, leading to the black-box syndrome. The modern student cannot (almost literally) learn much from opening the back of a digital watch, or clicking together Lego, or opening the bonnet of the family car to reveal a plastic filter cover embossed with the maker’s name. No gear wheels, spark plugs or even nuts and bolts, are easily visible. All the engineering, both clever and mundane, is hidden within a ‘black box’. This paucity of practical experience of engineering must diminish the almost subliminal store of knowledge and understanding which the student brings to the beginning of his or her studies. He has every excuse for not knowing how a Hard Drive recorder or an iPhone works – they have no visible working or moving parts. Realisation of this inevitably restricted level of engineering experience dictates that educators must make substantial efforts to provide an engineering context – almost an explanation of what engineering is about – to first-year students.

The number of the factors described above, and their multiple combinations and interactions, mean that there can be no single ‘engineering education’ which is fit for every purpose. A well-designed curriculum must surely involve compromises and at best can only be biased towards a particular graduation outcome, based on some knowledge of the experience and aspirations of the incoming students. Part of the necessary compromise arises from the realisation that many students will change their intentions, their attitudes and their motivation as they progress through their programme.

A question: What can your students do that you couldn’t at their age?

We’ve been here before.

It is instructive (or possibly depressing) to realise that many issues in engineering education have been around a long time. The following paragraphs are reproduced unchanged from the preface to a study of engineering education sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation in 1918, almost 100 years ago [Mann, 1918].

‘Fifty years ago … the engineering course … was four years. The first two  were spent mainly in the fundamental sciences – chemistry, physics mathematics and mechanics; the last two years mainly in the application of these sciences to theoretical and practical problems. In the half century which has passed this course of study has been overlaid with a great number of special studies intended to enable the student to deal with the constantly-growing applications of science to the industries.

While the original teaching plan remains as the basis of the four-year engineering curriculum, the courses given in most schools have been greatly modified in the effort to teach special subjects. As a result, the load upon the student has become continually heavier and bears unequally in … different  parts of the course. In addition there is a widespread feeling that under this pressure the great body of students fail to gain, on the one hand, a satisfactory grounding in the fundamental sciences; and on the other hand do not fulfil the expectations of engineers and manufacturers in dealing with  the practical problems with which they are confronted on leaving the  engineering schools.

… engineering education will never be satisfactory until theory and practice  are taught simultaneously. …

It is an interesting fact that while much is said about the teaching of science in the modern school, the methods of teaching science are but little changed from those employed in teaching the subjects that filled the curriculum before the teaching of science began in the school.’

I would not need to change many words to update this message to 2014!

End of Chapter 1 – please add a comment below

One Response to “1.11 The prior knowledge and experience of 21st Century students”

  1. Ciaran MacNamee

    Initiatives like Arduino and Raspberry Pi are very relevant in this context. In some ways these platforms offer an experience that may have some similarities to tinkering with a parent’s car.


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