Article - Issue 33, December 2007

Engineering is Not a Spectator Sport

Professor Peter Goodhew FREng

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Professor Peter Goodhew FREng

Professor Peter Goodhew FREng

The University of Liverpool is spending £30 million on refurbishing its buildings and laboratories both for research and to enable the delivery of engineering education in a new way. Professor Peter Goodhew FREng gives his opinion on the current lecture system and what Active Learning does differently.

Major engineering projects, from the 787 Dreamliner to the latest MP3 player, are brought to fruition by interdisciplinary teams containing engineers. Employers of engineers have pointed out for many years (most recently in the Academy’s report Educating Engineers for the 21st Century) that in addition to theoretical understanding they value practical application, confidence, creativity, innovation, team working and fluent communication skills.

However, most engineering education (in UK and worldwide universities) is either delivered to a passive audience by chalk and talk, or by its modern, Powerpoint-driven counterpart look and listen. Yes, it does sound like a primary school experience. This education is then assessed in a closed, non-interactive environment by paper-based examinations which test the use and understanding of theory.

Most teachers of engineering like to make sure that this theory is quantitative, so that their graduates can at the very least put numbers accurately into (somebody else’s) equations. This falls a long way short of assessing the full range of the engineering graduate’s most useful and important skills.

There is abundant research dating back to the 1960s that shows the conventional 50-minute lecture to be no better (and no worse) at transmitting information than undirected reading. We have known for more than 40 years that, in order to transmit information, we might just as well say “read chapters three and seven of Smith’s book” as stand up and deliver two lectures a week.

Ah, say the lecturers, but a lecture can inspire the student. This is probably true but educational research also shows that the average attention span in a lecture is 15 minutes and that the fraction of lectures which actually inspire the student is vanishingly small.

So why do we continue to deliver uninspiring 50-minute presentations? If you think I am exaggerating consider that you probably received between 500 and 1000 lectures during your own undergraduate programme. How many can you remember as having inspired you?

How can we reconcile our educational practices with either the needs of professional employers or what we know about the efficiency of our teaching methods? We can’t – or at least, I can’t. It is clear to me that engineering education needs to be re-balanced: its abundant engineering science content must be enlivened, invigorated and made pertinent by being embedded in an experience of the whole engineering continuum, from requirement to product and beyond. Let me give a few reasons why.

Before they are exposed to it, most bright young people are not convinced that engineering is interesting. Applications to study engineering from excellent candidates – equivalent, let us say, to 3 A grades at A level – are insufficient to fill even the top 10 engineering schools in the UK.

When they are exposed to it, many are unconvinced. Less than half of the UK’s engineering graduates carry on working in any engineering-related role.

After they have been exposed to it, almost no engineering graduates become high profile enough to be role models. Few members of the general public can name an engineer other than Brunel. So, what needs to be done to enliven, invigorate and make pertinent (and thus attractive) our education of engineers?

Firstly, we must help budding engineers to become professionals. We can do this by treating them as professionals from the moment they start their education – we do this with musicians, doctors and vets, so why not engineers? We could also encourage early discovery of, and commitment to, the profession. Engineering schools in our universities could demand the endorsement by a chartered engineer of each student’s application to study engineering. You don’t get into vet school without prior experience in a veterinary practice, nor are you admitted into a music college without having had professional music lessons.

Secondly, we must involve the students, once in our universities, in two quintessential aspects of engineering. We produce things, and so should our students. We do it in teams, and so should our students.

Thirdly, we should demonstrate our supposed ability to think rationally and to learn from research evidence, and we should radically change the way we expect students to learn. Active learning (‘learning by doing’) is not only well established but is well suited to our profession. I could reel off a list of 50 active techniques which could replace or enhance the lecture, but they are deployed only sparsely in our universities.

In my utopian world, the only proper occasion for a lecture is when a group of students, having wrestled with a difficult topic which they need to understand in order to solve an engineering problem, asks for one. They would thus demonstrate not only their interest and need to know, but their ownership of their own education. As an academic I would love to respond to such requests.

I am not quite alone in my utopian dream. The 30 partners in the international Conceive, Design, Implement and Operate (CDIO) initiative are trying to reform their engineering courses in the direction I have indicated. I draw strength from them. My own Department of Engineering at Liverpool is committed to making active learning central to the undergraduate experience, and is fortunate to have the funds to re-build its learning environment.

All my friends in CDIO report the same problems: active learning is more expensive than chalk and talk; innovation in teaching and learning has to compete with research for the attention of good academics (and often loses); and we can’t wait for the outcome of authoritative pilot studies before acting – or we won’t have any students at all.

So I’m not going to give up – Thomas More wrote Utopia and was beheaded, but I’m hoping for a milder fate.

Further reference (download the ‘Active Learning’ pdf)

Biography – Professor Peter Goodhew FREng

Peter Goodhew is Henry Bell Wortley Professor of Materials Engineering at the University of Liverpool and Director of the UK Centre for Materials Education. He was a member of the working party which produced the report Educating Engineers for the 21st Century and in the fairly recent past he has been Dean of Engineering and Head of the Department of Engineering at Liverpool.

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