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The recent summit on Work Integrated Learning (WIL) at UWA prompted me to reflect on progress in WIL in electrical, electronic, and computer engineering at the University. In first-year engineering at UWA in 1986, I expected my engineering studies to help me to secure work. Until 1988 we paid no tuition fees. Higher education was a privilege of top students, giving them responsibility to contribute to society and the economy. We learned much about mathematics, physics, computing, and engineering, especially analysis. It was an exciting time to study electrical engineering at UWA. A team from our department established the start-up QPSX. Graduates fortunate enough to work with QPSX were to excel in careers in innovation.
Engineering at UWA in the 1980s
Employability was not emphasised. Laboratory reports were the only significant writing we did, until our final year, when we wrote theses, and essays for a new unit, Engineering and Society. This was the first and only unit in which we gave oral presentations.
In most units, assessments included individual laboratory reports and/or assignments worth 10 per cent to 20 per cent, and examinations worth 80 per cent to 90 per cent. Students who failed a unit were required to repeat the whole year. The closest we had to formal teamwork was to share equipment in laboratory classes. However, it would have been impossible to survive without studying together, and we worked together at large desks in the then Science Reading Room. With tight cohorts, indeed learning communities formed.
Student clubs and societies in the University were vibrant. The compulsory 12 weeks of summer vacation employment was always paid. The top 20 students in the year enjoyed the Gledden Tour after third year, on which they visited sites of engineering interest overseas. When Cooperative Education and Enterprise Development (CEED) was established, industry partners paid for students to complete research projects.
A steep learning curve for graduates was not considered problematic. Many graduates were employed by government utilities with established graduate programs, and UWA graduates were well-equipped for the longterm, with strong foundations, analytical skills, the ability to learn under time constraints, an ability to collaborate, and a strong alumni network.
Beginning to reflect on education and work
In 2004 the Engineering Industry Advisory Board offered me a scholarship to study employers’ perceptions of engineering graduate competence. For my PhD I identified generic engineering competency factors. This was part of a movement in engineering and across higher education towards developing graduate attributes, and identifying, assessing and developing learning outcomes.
Engineering at UWA in 2018
In 2018, students continue to pay tuition fees and the employment context has changed. Government utilities now recruit relatively few graduates. Student cohorts are more diverse in ability, culture and gender. Students can take numerous combinations of units. If they fail a unit they repeat only that unit. Consequently cohorts may not develop as easily as before.
Some of the best features of engineering education have remained or been adapted in 2018, and improvements have been made, all of which support students to develop employability. Innovation is supported and students are encouraged to study abroad. The Science Reading Room has been transformed into the Clough Centre in which students can collaborate, and where they now have a Maker Space. Vacation employment remains compulsory, although with flexibility for four of the 12 weeks. Students often complete their engineering-related employment part-time during semester, and sometimes unpaid.
There are approximately 20 student clubs and societies in the Faculty of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences, most with strong relationships with industry or the community. In these, students develop communication, management, and leadership skills, and networks.
Within coursework, students now work in teams, write reports, and present in units from first to final year. Cooperative Education and Enterprise Development thrives. In capstone design units, Master of Professional Engineering students in every discipline of engineering complete authentic engineering design projects using authentic engineering processes.
Work Integrated Learning
The above engineering example demonstrates changes in context, an increased focus on employability, and increased use of and flexibility in Work Integrated Learning between 1986 and 2018. Similar changes have occurred in other disciplines.
Why and what?
Graduates should be able to contribute to a well-functioning society in paid and/or unpaid work, using the capabilities developed during their education. To this end, WIL links theory and practice to support students to develop employability – knowledge, skills and attitudes not only for work but also to create or secure work.
Employers, students, and academics have recognised placements, such as the 12 weeks required in engineering as transformative. Given their limitations, placements must be complemented with non-placement WIL throughout the curriculum.
With innovative use of technology and strong relationships with industry, the University can support students to engage with workplaces and practitioners face-to-face and electronically. For example, 300 students in electrical and electronic, and mechanical engineering design learned about safety in design, using virtual reality, in the first semester this year.
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