With such a diversity of potential graduate outcomes, is there a set of attributes which characterises (or should characterise) a graduate? Is it meaningful to speak of ‘graduateness‘ – a phrase which enjoyed a few years of popularity around the turn of the 21st century? [QAA, 1997]
If we look in the UK Subject Benchmark Statement for Engineering, or UK Spec (the UK professional accreditation specification), or ABET (the US equivalent), we find statements such as:
‘An approach to threshold standards based upon the mastery of a set (or sets) of defined elements of content would seem to be unattainable.’ [QAA, 2006]
‘In order to operate effectively, engineering graduates thus need to possess the following characteristics. They will be rational and pragmatic, interested in the practical steps necessary for a concept to become reality. They will want to solve problems and have strategies for being creative, innovative and overcoming difficulties by employing their knowledge in a flexible manner. They will be numerate and highly computer literate, and capable of attention to detail. They will be cost and value-conscious and aware of the social, cultural, environmental and wider professional responsibilities they should display. They will appreciate the international dimension to engineering, commerce and communication. When faced with an ethical issue, they will be able to formulate and operate within appropriate codes of conduct. They will be professional in their outlook, capable of team working, effective communicators, and able to exercise responsibility.’ [Engineering Benchmark Statement: QAA, 2006]
‘Chartered Engineers are characterised by their ability to develop appropriate solutions to engineering problems, using new or existing technologies, through innovation, creativity and change.’ [UK Spec; Engineering Council, 2008]
‘Student outcomes [should!] include:
a) an ability to apply knowledge of mathematics, science, and engineering;
b) an ability to design and conduct experiments, as well as to analyze and interpret data;
c) an ability to design a system, component, or process to meet desired needs within realistic constraints such as economic, environmental, social, political, ethical, health and safety, manufacturability, and sustainability;
d) an ability to function on multidisciplinary teams;
e) an ability to identify, formulate, and solve engineering problems;
f) an understanding of professional and ethical responsibility;
g) an ability to communicate effectively;
h) the broad education necessary to understand the impact of engineering solutions in a global, economic, environmental, and societal context;
i) a recognition of the need for, and an ability to engage in life-long learning;
j) a knowledge of contemporary issues; and
k) an ability to use the techniques, skills, and modern engineering tools necessary for engineering practice.’
What paragons we must already be producing! But how hard it is to specify the necessary learning outcomes in detail, and to measure (that is, assess) them. To take but one example from the lists above: How might we check that our graduates demonstrate ‘an ability to identify, formulate and solve engineering problems’? You possibly reckon that you know this ability when you see it, but could you be more specific? How would you define a graduate-level problem? How does this differ from a masters level problem? How do you assess ‘solve’ for an open-ended typical engineering problem?
A rather simpler description of graduateness might be ‘ability to be an independent learner’, coupled with – ideally – a strong interest in engineering!
A recent (2014) study by the Royal Academy of Engineering entitled “Thinking like an engineer” explores the habits of mind which make someone an engineer. The six habits of mind identified in the report are systems thinking, adapting, problem-finding, creative problem-solving, visualising and improving, coupled with a positive attitude towards making things and making things work better. It seems to me that it would be wonderful if many citizens, and all engineers, developed these habits of mind. While this book is about higher education and the education of engineering graduates, it is never too early to encourage good attitudes and “thinking like an engineer” could surely feature in the education of all young people from the age of 5 or 6.
Read on … (but first leave a comment)