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Studies of Expert Engineers Tell Us We Need to Change Engineering Education

Guest post blog by James Trevelyan, January 2015

My new book “The Making of an Expert Engineer” is based on extensive studies of several hundred engineers in four countries, several of them true experts in their own domains.

An unfortunate reality exposed by this research is that engineering education has become almost completely divorced from practice for three main reasons:

  • It is rare for engineering educators to have any significant industrial experience outside research labs. Contrast this with medical schools where practically all the teaching beyond the halfway point in the curriculum is delivered by people who practice medicine every day in the wards of teaching hospitals.
  • Even when they are involved in courses, usually as visiting lecturers, practitioners have lost their ability to describe the greater part of their work, the 60-80% component that involves organised collaboration between all the people engaged in typical engineering enterprises.
  • Engineering courses emphasize solitary technical problem solving exercises. Contrast this with the workplace where good engineers devote much more effort to avoiding problems. On the occasions when engineers do solve technical  problems, they engage in a complex social process involving negotiation and collaboration with many other people: it is rare that a technical problem can be satisfactorily solved by an individual working on their own.

The separation of practice from the curriculum allows students to develop many misunderstandings, partly because real stories about practice are absent, and partly because of myths that are repeated without being questioned or critically examined.

In the book, these myths have been classified and some are presented as misconceptions, for example:

Misconception 3: Engineers are naturally concise and logical

Engineers (and engineering students) often think that . . . However, research demonstrates that . . .
Engineers think and express themselves concisely and logically (in comparison to others). Engineers are often neither concise nor logical. Engineers are not as good with logical arguments as many other people.

In our research we have found that contemporary engineering education sets up students with 100 or more significant misunderstandings about practice.

The consequences are catastrophic.

First, in the industrialised world, I have shown in the book how misunderstandings of practice impair the abilities of engineers to deliver predictable results, frustrating their employers.  This particularly affects large engineering projects where the success rates are shockingly low.  Industry research shows that only one third of large projects costing over $1 billion succeed.  Many leaders of engineering enterprises and clients interviewed for this research reported frustrations with engineers, for example this quotation: “I get rid of engineers wherever I find them in my organisations.”

However, the real catastrophe lies in the developing world where billions of people continue to endure poverty because their engineers cannot deliver what we take for granted in the industrialised world.  Just for example, we found that the real economic cost of safe drinking water in low-income countries can be US$30-70 per tonne, whereas in Australia it is around $2 per tonne.

What could be done to improve this situation?

In the book I argue that the changes first have to come in the world of practice.  The book explains how engineers can change the way they think about their work.  Just having terminology to explain the technical collaboration performances that dominate practice is a good start.  Engineers can begin to understand that the greater part of practice that perhaps most today regard as “non-technical” and “not real engineering” is definitely real engineering and common to all engineering disciplines and settings.

Only when enough influential engineers see that all their work is “real engineering”, not just the small parts that involve solitary technical work like calculations and design, will it be possible to change the undergraduate curriculum.

Until then, well-intentioned attempts to expose students to the realities of practice will continue to encounter strong resistance because of the large number of deeply reinforced misunderstandings among students that are explained in the book.

The only way to work around these misconceptions is to expose students to the contradictions that arise from them, and help students through the inevitable confusion that follows.  Many novice engineers endure discomfort in their first job from the realities of practice that directly conflict with their mistaken conceptions.  The resulting confused state of mind may actually promote learning, given appropriate resources.  That is why I argue in the book that the ideas it presents are best learned in the workplace.

Educators may find the book informative and it may help them gain some new insights into practice.  There are many stories for students that will help them understand more about the real world of engineering they will soon be a part of.

I have also argued that teaching students to teach engineering to their peers is one of the best ways to prepare them for the realities of practice.

An environment that encourages and rewards students who help each other to learn leads to the kind of infectious enthusiasm that Dave Goldberg, Mark Somerville and Catherine Whitney have presented to us in their book, “A Whole New Engineer.”  Coming from different perspectives, they have shown how it is possible to create this kind of enthusiasm that will definitely help students with the difficult transition to practice still in front of them.  Their book complements “The Making of an Expert Engineer” by alerting the engineering education community about the need for change.

Bio of James Trevelyan

James TrevelyanProfessor James Trevelyan is a Winthrop Professor in the Mechanical and Chemical Engineering School at The University of Western Australia, Fellow of Engineers Australia, and practices as a mechanical and mechatronics engineer developing new air conditioning technology.

His main area of research is on engineering practice, and he teaches design, sustainability, engineering practice and project management.

He is well known internationally for pioneering research that resulted in sheep shearing robots (1975-1993).  He and his students produced the first industrial robot that could be remotely operated via the internet in 1994. He was presented with the 1993 Engelberger Science and Technology Award in Tokyo in recognition of his work, and has twice been presented with the Japan Industrial Robot Association award for best papers at ISIR conferences.  These are the leading international awards for robotics research.  He has also received university, national and international awards for his teaching and papers on engineering education.

From 1996 till 2002 he researched landmine clearance methods and his web site is an internationally respected reference point for information on landmines.  He was awarded with honorary membership of the Society of Counter Ordnance Technology in 2002 for his efforts, and was also elected a Fellow of the Institution of Engineers Australia.

Professor Trevelyan’s web page is providing further information on his research and teaching.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. This is fantastic insight. There is in fact a disconnect between how engineering is taught and how engineering is practiced. I would like to see how other engineering educators are addressing this disconnect. This could be a very useful future discussion through Big Beacon.

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