ECM Faculty Focus
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Founding an engineering degree
What does an engineering student really need to know and be able to do? If you met a graduate from UWA what would you be embarrassed that they hadn't mastered? What are the tricky troublesome areas which always catch some students out whilst others sail through? Which are the questions students always mess up in exams no matter how much we go over the topic in lectures? These are some of the very obvious but critically important issues we are currently trying to think about in building our new Foundation program.
Apart from some, who have had the opportunity of redesign, most commonly curricula have developed in a very ad hoc manner, subjects springing up due to interests and availability of staff with different expertise. Then it's squished into an accreditation framework.
First year often gets a little more attention, as this can be the make or break year for novices. However, usually this still sounds like a rather disparate set of menu items. Whatever our thoughts on the sense and sensibility of the new 3+2 we can make sure that what gets created is an exciting, ground breaking program for students to really learn how to be an engineer. Students who are ready and able to face the world's most intractable problems.
It won't be the structure or the number of years that bring students here or send them away, it will be word of mouth, shared experience, insight. Ultimately it will be the kind of engineers we develop.
I heard from a key employer at Rolls Royce a few years back that they had elegedly stopped taking as many Oxford grads as before. Even though they were bright and knowledgeable at a technical level, he told me they were not creative enough, they thought in straight lines, it was not they who would bring the next big idea to the company.
A colleague in Dupont told me why they sponsored engineering education. It was, the then Director of Dupont Canada told me, to increase the number of ah ha!s per minute. We need to try to develop our students capability to define as well as solve problems.
That will also help address the shocking gender disparity. Much research tells us that it's not the women who are somehow unenlightened about the potential of engineering. But that engineering can be off-putting because machines and technology appear to come before people's needs. We may know differently but this has to be clear to the engineering student, and to the school student before they even come.
The Foundation units for the Engineering Major are the place where students will learn how to learn, how to question and how to enter their chosen engineering career. This foundation needs to include the core, big ideas, which students need to fully grasp, which will guide their thinking for years to come. It will also include many important thresholds, which open up new ways of thinking and practicing.
The particular vision that we hope to establish with the new program is an engineering foundation, which is integrated, interdisciplinary, and innovative. The program will allow students to draw on and integrated the knowledge and skills they will be learning in their other elective courses including broadening and complementary units.
Engineering students will graduate to work in teams with practitioners of many different professions and with clients/team members from many different cultures and background. They will be working to define and solve problems which themselves do not have disciplinary boundaries.
Our aim is to develop a graduate who is knowledgeable and excels in the engineering technical arena whilst understanding the needs and the environment within which they will be working so that their engineering is appropriate to the context. Personal and professional skills and attitudes can be learnt in an integrated and practical way alongside the technical core.
In the light of the above, the unit outlines may be defined in a very different way to the traditional subject areas, which we know and love. However they will not lose any of the critical core fundamental knowledge that students need to learn. The complexity of the design problem we are facing, within a very short time frame, is enormous but do-able if we get as much participation as possible from discipline experts and work within a pedagogic framework, which makes sense.
Your Foundation Working group representatives are as follows. Please contact them with your suggestions for the big ideas we need to include in first and second year, to open students up to the learning that they will do in the third year and in their masters programs. Deadline March 15th for the first draft of the unit outlines. Final submission to the Faculty will be March 29th and to the University April 7th.
Winthrop Professor Caroline Baillie
Professor of Engineering Education; Chair
Faculty of Engineering, Computing and Mathematics
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