Article - Issue 49, December 2011

Response to: Earthquakes, again; Response to: University Technical Colleges; Student placement schemes

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RESPONSE TO: Earthquakes, Aagain

Your editorial, Earthquakes, again, in June (Ingenia 47) on the importance of resilience for earthquake disaster mitigation proved highly relevant to those of us present in Christchurch that month as the city was struck by a another magnitude 6.3earthquake.

The Christchurch recovery project is still in the development stage following the February 2011 earthquake and my impression is that it is still too early for a considered lessons-learnt analysis and debate to be held. However, that debate is very likely to include a number of ‘systems’ issues.

For seismic design loading purposes, New Zealand is divided into a number of zones of varying severity. Christchurch was not in the highest severity category. Perhaps the modest size of the country and the complexity of our fault-strewn geology do not warrant a zoning approach.

Land use planning and building controls in New Zealand are largely delegated to local government, leading to variable approaches in application across the country. The Christchurch experience certainly calls for debate on a nationwide land use planning approach to geotechnical issues such as potential for liquefaction, rising groundwater levels, slope stability and tectonic movement. Other topics for discussion will include flood levels, tsunami vulnerability and rising sea level.

A significant issue is the upgrading of existing buildings and infrastructure to meet new and more onerous design code requirements introduced over time in the light of experience. Higher standards in new build properties are relatively easy to introduce. For existing buildings and infrastructure, upgrading is a much more challenging task including financial viability and resource availability, as well as technical practicality.

Not surprisingly, those directly affected by building failures have difficulty in accepting that the built estate has significantly varying as-built seismic resilience depending on the design code requirements in existence at the time of construction. Local building authorities have adopted a range of pragmatic approaches around grace periods and degrees of compulsion for implementation, and the standards to be achieved (which may be lower than for new build properties). A national policy might be needed here.

Restoration of essential utilities has presented challenges. Electricity supply was restored relatively quickly; water less quickly but this was manageable. Sewerage presented a major problem, with substantial areas without restoration for many months, managed with great difficulty through the international mobilisation of thousands of chemical and portable toilets. A review on mobile telephone capacity also appears justified.

My final comment is with respect to capacity building at a national level to handle the recovery phase of major disasters. A complex management challenge arises once search and rescue has run its course and restoration and rebuilding starts. A debate is needed on the appropriate level of national investment in developing management frameworks to facilitate rapid and confident roll-out of recovery activities. This is as much an exercise in local and national leadership, particularly in expectations management, as it is a technical systems challenge.

Russell Black FREng
Fellow, Institution of Professional
Engineers New Zealand (FIPENZ)

RESPONSE TO: University Technical Colleges

The article on University Technical Colleges (UTCs) in Ingenia 48 profiled the work of the first two UTCs and hinted at future expansion of such colleges. This has now started with the government’s announcement in October 2011 of a further 13 UTCs that are due to open across England. They will offer a first-class education to those teenagers who want technical, rather than purely academic, training (see chart alongside that indicates their locations and specialisms).

The hard work for each of these UTCs now starts, and we at the Baker Dearing Educational Trust are the point of contact should any employer wish to support their local UTC.

In the meantime, work on the UTC curriculum is intensifying. Following Professor Alison Wolf’s report on vocational education earlier in the year, the government has indicated that it is committed to ensuring that young people aged 14 and upwards are offered only the best qualifications and pathways to success.

Technical and vocational qualifications will count in school performance tables only if they pass a number of rigorous tests. The qualifications gained at UTCs must stretch and challenge young people, offer clear paths to further learning and careers, and be valued by employers.

The Baker Dearing Educational Trust supports these aims, which is why we, in partnership with the Edge Foundation, commissioned The Royal Academy of Engineering to identify technical qualifications in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) that would be respected by the STEM community. Our original aim was to help UTCs select the best qualifications. We now realise that the Respected: Technical qualifications selected for use in University Technical Colleges report will be of much wider value, not just in helping other schools to identify good quality STEM qualifications, but also by providing a template for assessing the value of qualifications, in other subjects.

The approach developed by the Academy could easily be adapted to provide a rigorous framework for appraising vocational qualifications in other subjects and disciplines – a point made by Edge and the Baker Dearing Trust in our submission to the Department for Education.

The report is now published and is available at

Peter Mitchell
Chief Executive,
Baker Dearing Educational Trust

University of Brighton students were able to experience working on high-profile projects such as Southern Water’s Cleaner Seas for Sussex scheme

University of Brighton students were able to experience working on high-profile projects such as Southern Water’s Cleaner Seas for Sussex scheme

RESPONSE TO: Student Placement Schemes

Your editorial Tapping the enthusiasm of youth (Ingenia 49) highlighted the challenges we face attracting high calibre students into engineering and how important it is that the student’s learning environment and early exposure to the profession are positive and inspiring throughout.

For many students their initial exposure to the real world of engineering comes in the form of site visits, lectures from practitioners, and work placements. For the latter, it is often the case that the student is obligated through a sponsoring organisation to undertake placements during the summer recess. It is also apparent that many of the students undertaking such arrangements are likely to be those already identified as potential ‘high flyers’, and thus it is important that their experience on placement is stimulating and in line with their expectations of their chosen career.

To achieve this, sponsoring organisations need to offer a highly structured environment where the students are well supervised and mentored, and undertake meaningful tasks fulfilling the role of a junior employee. However, expectations of the student and the sponsor need to be balanced if both parties are to benefit from the placement.

In the case of the student this is readily achieved through a positive and challenging learning experience, and by being regarded as a valued team member, fully engaged in the sponsoring organisation’s activities. In return the sponsor should gain a useful ‘employee’ for the duration of the sponsoring agreement as well as the ability to prepare the student for accelerated progress within their organisation after graduation.

While there are several models that can be adopted to meet these requirements, over the last four years the University of Brighton has successfully run the Southern Water Masters: Excellence with Industry placement scheme for students from our project management, construction management and civil engineering courses, with the key objective of satisfying both the expectations of the students and the requirements of future employers.

The underlying philosophy of the scheme is that the students are treated as a valuable resource. This resource is fully utilised through two five-week rotational placements over the last two summers of their degree. On each placement the student undertakes a structured module with explicit learning objectives, thus providing an integrated approach to academic learning at University and work-based learning with the companies.

Students undertake a rigorous selection process at the end of their second year and are expected to apply their knowledge and to develop additional communication, interpersonal, project and business management skills while on placement. They also source their major individual research projects from the sponsoring organisations, thus ensuring that their research is highly relevant to the needs of industry.

A significant advantage in operating a consortium partnership is the exposure of the students to different aspects of the profession; in our case, the roles of both design consultant and contractor. This gives the students a good basis to choose how they might launch their engineering careers. Towards the end of the programme each student is aligned with a potential employer. To date, the programme has proved very effective with a 100% success rate in placing students into graduate careers with the consortium companies.

Dr Steedman is correct in emphasising the importance of ensuring sponsored students have a positive and engaging experience on placement. We believe that the Excellence with Industry placement scheme is a model of this in action.

Dr Kevin Stone MICE CEng
Principal Lecturer, University of Brighton

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