8.1 The way forward

The next few years

It requires no great insight to conclude that higher education, in the UK and to some extent elsewhere in the world, is going to suffer funding problems over the next 5 years (2010 to 2015 as I wrote the first edition but not significantly different for 2015-2020, I fear). Despite this constraint it seems likely to me that there will be an increase in active learning, an increase in the number of academics prepared to take teaching very seriously and an increasing influence of non-traditional disciplines on engineering. I have in mind biology, psychology (human factors) and planning but I am sure there will be others. The techniques and issues discussed in this book will continue to be debated and practice will gradually (but not rapidly) change. I am not the only elderly academic to believe that we have now reached the tipping point beyond which it will become increasingly acceptable for an academic to concern himself seriously about learning and teaching.

The next 50 years

In this final section I want to peer further ahead, and raise some even bigger questions about where engineering education is going. Clearly neither I, nor anybody, can be certain that any of my predictions will come true, but I would bet that several of them will. However I make no claims for this very speculative section!

First let me make some not-very-clever assertions, which I regard as very likely to come to pass:

  • In future, graduate working lifetimes are likely to be >50 years;
  • There will be regular national and international crises. There will be a number of ‘grand challenges’ (global warming, energy, water…);
  • There will be rapid change in ways we cannot today imagine. The rate of change will be higher (Moore’s law for engineering?);
  • The macroscopic laws of physics will not change;
  • There will be more ‘knowledge‘;
  • Information will be readily accessible, by almost anyone, almost anywhere;
  • There will be new engineering disciplines;
  • Biology will be more important, and more controlled;
  • Engineers, and understanding, will be even more crucial to the operation of society;

If you believe most of this, a number of consequences follow:

We will have to design and offer engineering courses, now, which can provide the basis for practice as an engineer in 55 years time. To give you a feel for the engineering advances likely in this long period of time I will list some of the familiar things we take for granted in 2014 which had not been invented, discovered or accepted 60 years ago, when I was a schoolboy. In no particular order: Laser, PC, mobile phone, optical storage, internet, heart transplant, MRI, space travel, pulsar, catalytic converter, fuel injection, CCD, digital imaging, jet airliners, photocopier, geodesic dome, bucky ball, VCR, integrated circuit, LED, LCD, genetic modification, spreadsheet, cheap air travel, the Euro, security scanners and nuclear power. We have no chance of predicting what the equivalent list will look like in 2070 and therefore there is no point in trying to tailor engineering education to meet it. Indeed the strongest argument could be made for concentrating on physical fundamentals to the complete exclusion of applications. What we have learned by experience is that this is unlikely to motive a sufficient number of students, so I doubt whether this will happen.

I will make a few more, less certain, assertions:

  • Few individuals will be prepared to spend more than 4-5 years on their initial formation as an engineer;
  • The apparently most important applications for engineering (in terms of addressing society’s issues) will change every ten years or so;
  • Bio-inspired processes will become important to engineers;
  • We cannot, and will not be able to, demand depth of study in all areas deemed ‘important’ by any group of engineers or employers (or even academics!).

Since I cannot predict what engineering content we might need in future, let’s zoom out to some generalities. What might be the future purpose of engineering education?  What are our graduate engineers to do?  It is likely to be more than one of the following list:

  • Creative innovation (… design new things);
  • Entrepreneurial activity (… make money);
  • Research (… expand our knowledge);
  • Work as engineers in wealth-creating industry (… keep the economy going);
  • Work as non-engineers (… keep society going);
  • Vote (… encourage states to do the right thing);
  • Continue to learn (… or get left behind).

A key question for future educators is therefore how many of these purposes can be addressed in a single higher education system?  How many of them should be taken into account when devising a single engineering programme?

A related question is how we should partition the available learning time (say four years of initial formation) between:

  • Expertise and knowhow (… can do);
  • Knowledge (… understands);
  • Appreciation ( … is aware of);
  • Communication skills (… can explain);
  • Societal understanding  (… does the right thing).

In thinking about the attributes of the future engineering graduate, I like to address the question via assessment. What should we test after 4 years? I suggest:

  • The ability to hold a discussion with an expert about one topic at the cutting edge of research (demonstrating ability to study in depth);
  • The ability to formulate a reasonable solution to an open-ended engineering problem given incomplete data (demonstrating engineering aptitude);
  • The ability to tell a story, and answer questions, about the development of an engineered artefact – to include all aspects of its life cycle from societal need to eventual disposal (demonstrating understanding, societal and communication skills);
  • The ability to retrieve information and deploy it quickly and accurately (demonstrating knowledge, agility, dynamism, persistence);
  • Credibility as a team member, and possibly as a leader (demonstrating employability).

It seems to me that, perhaps with the exception of the fourth, none of these attributes is best tested using a conventional written examination. If anything needs to change over the next 50 years, it is our methods of, and motives for, assessment.

I realise that I have posed a large number of questions and given almost no answers, but this is the nature of the future – none of us knows what it holds, which is why it is so fascinating. Do enjoy it.

End of Chapter 8.  (please enter a comment below)


One Response to “8.1 The way forward”

  1. Peter Goodhew

    On re-reading this chapter I can find almost nothing I would wish to change, apart from the dates. Nothing which has happened in the past three years has caused me to doubt the necessity of taking a long-term view and the paramount importance of assessment.


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