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Rethinking engineering education

11 Feb 2021 | Advance HE During her keynote speech at the recent Advance HE STEM Conference 2021, CEO of the New Model Institute of Technology and Engineering (NMITE), Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, reflected on her journey to develop a more ‘authentic learning’ approach to engineering education, as we celebrate the International Day of Women and Girls in Science.

“In the UK, we know that we need almost two million engineers by 2025, but each year we observe that there is a deficit of 37,000 engineers and 60,000 technicians. If this is added to the fact that companies in the UK indicate that about 61% of the industry don’t have the confidence in engineers for advanced work and large proportion of the industries report a lack of appropriately qualified engineers, the problem is pretty big.

“If one investigates a little more, it appears that recent graduates appear not to have the skills to start working as an engineer from day one. They seem to behave as students still, hence graduate training schemes. In addition, they needed help to communicate effectively with colleagues from other disciplines, hence the pressure to develop interdisciplinary approaches.

“So what did we do? We started a brand new higher education institute from scratch.”

She says the ambition of NMITE was to ‘disrupt education’ and embed diversity in their programmes.

“Diversity in the discipline is fundamental, because diversity of ideas only comes from diversity of communities. So the ambition was to create an inclusive environment with 50% representation of women. If 50% of the population are women, then 50% of the engineers should be women.

“Our programmes are all integrated, we don’t separate programmes into civil, mechanical etc. we integrate elements of each of those along with liberal subjects such as ethics, sociology, history and arts. Our programmes are accelerated, three years instead of four, which is cheaper for students and we have a pipeline of trained engineers to help meet the demand as soon as possible.

“In order to create a diverse and integrated environment, we also need diverse and interdisciplinary educators. We have people who come from literature, humanities, finance, marketing and business. Crucially the emphasis at NMITE is on learning how to learn.”

Elena grew up and studied in Monterey, Mexico a large industrial city in the north of the country. After moving to the University of Sheffield she realised that engineering education was broadly similar across the globe and set about changing that.

“As most engineering students and graduates can attest, we tend to learn engineering through theory. I had the opportunity to apply that theory through a very good placement programme at the university where I studied, which was a huge boost to my employability. However, the reality is that the degree itself did not provide the employability skills that I needed so I had to acquire them externally via the placement.

“A few years after working in industry, I decided to come to the UK, where I eventually moved into academia. I found that that the pedagogical approach to engineering used in UK institutions was very similar to that I had experienced in Mexico, and I learned that that was the same all over the world.

“This realisation inspired me to look for alternative approaches that allowed for a more realistic experience to be embedded in the curriculum. If you can’t take students into the real world, how can you bring the real world into the classroom?”

Authentic learning

Elena said she started to bring real clients, from vulnerable communities, into the classroom to try and give her students real experiential learning opportunities where they could apply their theoretical knowledge.

“What we were looking to see was if these real clients would be a good vehicle to develop real skills through experiential learning.

“We gave the engineering students the opportunity to use the theory they had learned in other subjects to develop competencies closer to doctors, for example, where you have to understand the client’s needs in the context of the problem in order to seek a solution, not only technically but also ethically, legally and economically.

“The examples that you can see from this slide are examples that come from a real customer need, and the application of the engineering skills into a solution. This undoubtedly, and I can attest, helped these particular customers, but more importantly gave the students the experiences that I was seeking to give them.”

NMITE

She says her experience in industry, and the success of her approach to experiential learning pushed her to investigate authentic pedagogies across the world.

“It gave me the food to investigate authentic pedagogies in different disciplines such as medicine, architecture and engineering of course and how they are applied.

“At NMITE a lot of work was done benchmarking different approaches that were being used at colleges and universities across the world, from Canada to Vietnam. But for me it was a lot more impactful to understand and ask the questions directly to different students. So I conducted interviews with engineering students and professors in different countries such as Chile, the UK, Ethiopia and Australia, focusing on the following questions: What is learning? How do you learn best? How do you know you have learnt? How can I know that you have learnt? When does the mark meet the learning?

“The first conclusion that I reached was that everything should be based on learning rather than teaching. One learns when you can criticise, you can explain, you can teach others, you can question, you can relate and when you can use and apply what you have learnt.

“Teachers can see when students have learnt when they apply what they’ve learnt, can teach someone else and can understand when they’ve made a mistake and why. The most appropriate vehicle they identified for the lecturer to see learning is open-ended and unstructured problems.”

She discovered that for learning to be ‘authentic’, it had to be based on real life experiences and unstructured problem solving, where there is no ‘right answer’. This is the approach she took when setting up NMITE.

“Authentic learning, I concluded, seems to be more effective where ‘authentic’ means being based on real problems, without structure and without a unique solution. Engineers learn to be engineers best, by being engineers not engineering students.

“Technology is important but does not replace methodology. Covid-19 has forced us to use technology in an unprecedented way, but technology is a vehicle for us to communicate, it is not a pedagogy in itself.”

The 6th International Day of Women and Girls in Science took place on 11 February, with an assembly at the UN headquarters. The 6th Assembly's theme was "Beyond the Borders: Equality in Science for Society", with a special focus on the value of the social aspects and cultural dimensions in Science, Technology and Innovation to enhance sustainable development programs.

Taking place virtually over 16-18 March, the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Conference 2021 will discuss 'Courageous conversations and adventurous approaches' and 'Creative thinking in tackling inequality'. Find out more.

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