Teaching students to learn for themselves

Dr Sunny Bains, author of a new book on emerging technologies, examines how to support students to make use of the technical literature and to look beyond it.

The best engineers can be thrown in at the deep end of a new problem and research their way out. That’s part of the ethos of combining conventional academic courses with more practical, project-based learning. 

This approach forces students to discover constraints and compromises for themselves, optimizing their solutions as well and as creatively as they can, rather than solving well-constructed questions with tractable answers. Often, they do this work as part of a group. 

Deep-end problem-based learning ticks a lot of boxes: teamwork, creativity, critical thinking, application of technical skills, and so on.

Unfortunately, what we choose to teach students formally before we launch them into these projects is often insufficient. 

Yes, they’re trained in the deep technical skills that we think they’ll need, and (if they’re lucky) even some of the transferable onesBut what we don’t normally teach them is how to systematically and thoroughly research a topic. 

More specifically, we don’t teach them where to look for answers to questions. Partly, this is because we are academics: to us the answer is usually a technical paper, possibly a book, and we’re so used to looking for these that we don’t think twice about it.

But to use technical literature first you need to be able to search for and find what you need effectively. Even if you do find the papers you think you’re looking for, you may not yet have the expertise to read them. This is especially, but not exclusively, true for undergraduates. Further, once you’re in industry, journals and proceedings aren’t going to alert you to what your competition (possibly start-ups in stealth mode) are up to. 

If I had to prioritize, my top three suggestions for helping students to research a new subject would be as follows: keywords, the technical press, and patents. Although you might think that the current generation (which grew up with the iPhone, never mind the internet) would be more expert at finding material on the web than we were, that’s far from true. Just a few minutes teaching them some basics can go a long way.

Keywords are key

First, we all know that keywords are critical to all kinds of searches, including the technical literature, but what students don’t realize is how creative you have to be in using them. Very similar ideas often have different names in different fields, and searching for the wrong terms can miss most of the most important information. 

Students need to know to gather lots of different keywords from the various sources, and then to search for them in different combinations to find the information they need.

Journals and magazines

Next, students should know that not all useful information has to be of the highly-technical variety. A good way of getting into a new field is to find news that’s readable but still contains specialist information. This might be in publications aimed at an industry (like Water and Wastewater Treatment), a society (like E&T Magazine), or even a popular science market like Wired.

A good place to start for articles like this is Engineering Inspiration, a website we set up at UCL (and free for all) that brings together interesting technical articles from across the web (we have 50K+ articles online to date). Reading enough of this kind of material can do wonders to set the context for a project: with the constraints and values of the industry coming through in every story.

Patently clear

Finally, patents (which are now freely available to search on the web) are a great source of information because they cover a lot of technology that is too commercially sensitive to be published in other forums. 

It’s true that they’re completely unreadable, but by following the breadcrumbs of who has filed what patent it’s possible to figure out who is doing roughly what. With a little imagination, engineers can pull together clues based on what the inventors did before the patent, who they’re working with now, what theydid before, and so make an educated guess about what is in the pipeline.

Of course, there are many more sources to look at: conference programmes can be even more informative than proceedings; books (remember books?) can be hugely helpful if used well, and peoplecan provide insights and feedback that no written source ever could… 

The main thing is not to assume that students will somehow learn their research skills by osmosis. We forget how much we take for granted after a lifetime of information-gathering: by giving our students just a little bit of formal instruction on how to do this critical task, we can make them hugely more productive.

Dr Sunny Bains (see sunnybains.com) is the author of Explaining the Future: How to Research, Analyze, and Report on Emerging Technologies.She teaches engineering and physical sciences students at University College London.

EPC Congress 2019 Bookings

 

 

 

 

 

Before we take you to the UCL store, please read the information below to help you select the correct ticket type.

All tickets include:

  • Monday evening social
  • All sessions and events on Tuesday
  • Congress dinner at Senate House on Tuesday evening
  • Congress programme on Wednesday (ending at 3.30pm).

Accommodation is NOT included. A list of options to suit different budgets is available here.

Early bird booking rates – giving you £50 off the full congress package (or £30 for the already heavily discounted early career staff rate) – end 8th April.

TICKET TYPES

Full Congress: EPC member

Most UK universities with an engineering department or faculty are members of the EPC. To check whether your institution is a member, please click herePartner organisations may also attend Congress at member rates. This is a discounted rate.

Full Congress: EPC non-member

Most UK universities with an engineering department or faculty are members of the EPC. To check whether your institution is a member, please click herePartner organisations may also attend Congress at member rates. If you are not a member, you are still very welcome. Please select this rate.

Full Congress: Early career staff

Any academic staff at EPC member institutions who have been employed in academic roles for no more than five years qualify for this rate. Additionally, there are 10 free spaces available for ECS, a maximum of one free space per university. Apply for your free space here.

Engineering higher education faces multiple threats, according to new landmark report

A worrying convergence of challenges, outlined in a high-profile report published today, is threatening the vital role of higher education in supporting the UK’s engineering sector, a critical part of the country’s economy.

Led by the Royal Academy of Engineering and with significant input from the Engineering Professors’ Council (EPC), Engineering Skills for the Future – the 2013 Perkins review revisited has found key barriers for addressing the annual shortfall of 59,000 engineers and technicians in the UK workforce.

In the context of higher education, the post-18 education funding review, falling research revenues and international student numbers after Brexit, proposals in the Immigration White Paper, and the challenge to diversify the intake of students are all cited as issues that could undermine the supply of essential engineering graduates into the UK labour market.

The report highlights how the whole education system cannot produce enough engineers to support the UK economy, especially with increasing reliance on home-grown talent post-Brexit.

The report, produced by Education for Engineering, an engineering education and skills policy body, makes a raft of recommendations for government including relaxing the rules on how the Apprenticeship Levy may be spent, addressing the shortage of skilled teachers, and ensuring engineering higher education is well resourced and attractive to applicants in the event of changes to student funding.

The 2013 Review of Engineering Skills by Professor John Perkins FREng, commissioned by government, was a landmark report, the first to review engineering education from primary schools to professions. Engineering Skills for the Future – the 2013 Perkins review revisited is an independent report from the engineering profession.  It revisits the challenges highlighted in the original Perkins Review, and sets out a roadmap for government and the engineering community that identifies urgent priorities for action. 

The report specifically recommends that the UK must remain part of international partnerships to continue to attract students from the EU and all over the world and should extend opportunities for graduates to stay and work in the country after their studies. It also emphasises the need for top-up grants for engineering courses in the event of any cuts to tuition fees.

Also relevant to higher education, is the report’s call for an urgent review of post-16 academic education pathways for England. Young people should have the opportunity to study mathematics, science and technology subjects along with arts and humanities up to the age of 18. The report recommends this to encourage more students from a broader range of backgrounds into further and higher engineering education. The current system runs the risk of narrowing education choices and potentially closing the door to technical and creative careers.

Professor John Perkins CBE, Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, who led this report, said:

“Engineering is enormously valuable to the UK economy but suffers from a chronic shortage of skills, let down by the leaking pipes of the education system that removes the option of an engineering career for too many young people at every stage of their education. There has been scant progress in addressing the UK’s engineering skills gap since I first reviewed the education system five years ago, but the government’s Year of Engineering campaign in 2018 has shown what can be achieved with concerted and coordinated action. As a profession, we must now continue to raise the profile of engineering nationally and leverage this to galvanise change for the better.

“We need to broaden the curriculum for post-16 education, value technical education on a par with academic progression, unlock more potential from the Apprenticeship Levy, and guarantee affordable, fair and inclusive access to engineering degrees. These changes have the potential to pay dividends in the years to come for young people, the economy, and society.”

Professor Sarah Spurgeon OBE, President of the Engineering Professors’ Council, said:

“We wholeheartedly welcome this report and are proud to have contributed to its findings. The chain that links the development of tomorrow’s engineers through schools, colleges, universities and into the workplace is broken. This is not just a problem for UK engineering, but for the whole economy. Engineering is at the heart of the Industrial Strategy and Brexit will bring huge challenges in terms of skills shortages.

“As the seedbeds of innovation, our university engineering departments have been particularly successful in attracting talent from all over the world. International students make up 40% of our students and they contribute hugely to our education system and businesses in so many ways.” 

!New! DATA BLOG: First glimpse HESA student data for 2017/18 highlights a decline in part-time, postgraduate, and male enrolments

First glimpse official 2017/8 HESA student data appears static in the Engineering and technology subject group (https://www.hesa.ac.uk/news/17-01-2019/sb252-higher-education-student-statistics/subjects).

A closer look at the absolute numbers shows a nominal one-year fall in Engineering and technology enrolments – against small increases overall and in all Science subject areas.

But this unremarkable picture belies some underlying Engineering and technology subject group trends that warrant a closer look once the fuller picture is published by HESA at the end of January:

  • There was an overall increase in full-time enrolments. 1,105 (1%) more full-time Engineering and technology enrolments in 2017/8 were masked by a part-time slump (-1,285, 4%). This reversal was almost exclusively not first year enrolments; are part-time returners switching to full-time study?
  • There was a small increase in (full-time) undergraduate enrolments. Undergraduate Engineering and technology enrolments were up slightly overall (+ 485) but a similar reduction in part time enrolments (-495) masked a small, 1%, increase (+980) in full-time undergraduate numbers.
  • But there was a drop in the number of full-time undergraduate first years. Down by 2% (-655).
  • There was an increase in first year full-time postgraduate enrolments. These increased by 4% (+660).
  • But a drop in postgraduate enrolments overall. Also down by 2% (-665). Education was the only other subject to see an absolute fall in postgraduate numbers.
  • This was largely owing to a drop in post-graduate re-enrolments. Postgraduate enrolments which were not first year declined by 1045 in 2017/8.
  • The gender gap is closing. Female enrolments in Engineering and technology have increased by 17.5% since 2013/4 compared to a 1.1% increase in males. In absolute numbers, female enrolments have increased 3 times more than male enrolments (+4470 and +1465, respectively). In 2016/7, the number of male Engineering and technology enrolments decreased.
  • First degree is the only level of study where enrolments are increasing over time.
  • The profile of Engineering and technology enrolments to Welsh providers appears to be changing. In 2013/4, around a quarter of all Wales institutions enrolments were other undergraduate. This proportion has dropped each year to 15.5% in 2017/8. Part-timer enrolments to Wales have fallen correspondingly, from approximately 1 in 3 to 1 in 4 in the same period.

A more granular level of student enrolment data will be available from HESA at the end of January.

DATA BLOG: EPC engineering enrolments survey results

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EPC Engineering Enrolments Survey

Firstly, a huge thank you for your contributions which the Recruitment and Admissions Forum confirmed are highly valued by our members. You told us that the data is used in many ways, from enabling individual members and departments to understand their experience relative to the sector and their comparators, to evidence-based decision making on new courses to offer. The survey gives us all an early temperature check of the health of HE undergraduate and postgraduate engineering enrolments; our survey is the only place you can gain this insight, many months before enrolment data for 2018/19 is published by HESA.

This year we saw improved member engagement and data quality, plus an increased response rate from a greater number of universities resulting in better overall coverage across more discrete disciplines. We will continue to work to make your involvement as easy as possible.

Stable enrolments, changing distribution

  • The EU share of the undergraduate market contracted for non-Russell Group universities; while the Home share expanded.
  • Postgraduate courses saw a higher proportion of overseas enrolments; especially in the Russell Group which reported greatest volatility.
  • At undergraduate level, Non-Russell Group universities dominated the home market.
  • London universities reported a decline in engineering enrolments.
  • Mechanical engineering remains the sector headliner, but fares poorly when it comes to attracting women.
  • The most notable growth was reported in Biomedical engineering, with Product design, General engineering and Other also showing clear growth overall.
  • The most notable decline was in Mineral, metallurgy and materials engineering.
  • Software engineering may also be on the up, but for undergraduates was proportionally the singularly most EU dependent discipline.
  • A three-fold growth was reported in enrolments on degree apprenticeships. But where are the part-time enrolments?

Summary findings

Mechanical engineering remains the sector superstar, dominating our sample population (and official data shows undergraduate numbers have doubled in a decade); members also reported that the applicant field in this area remains strong.

Software engineering features more prominently in our survey than ever before. But interim UCAS undergraduate data doesn’t suggest an engineering surge, so if software engineering is really taking off, it may be at the expense of other disciplines. What’s more, at undergraduate level, software engineering is proportionally the singularly most EU dependent discipline in our sample (charts 1 and 2).

Both disciplines fared poorly when it comes to attracting women into engineering, between them they had the worse female:male ratios in our sample, at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels.

Nor does the EU student sample support the cause, which is surprising given Europe’s track record in this space. But recruiting from further afield (other overseas) does, particularly if you’re in the Russell Group…and enrolling postgraduates! Biomedical engineering continues to have the best female:male ratio in our sample.

This year we celebrated huge gains in the coverage of our female:male data, which was almost complete for home undergraduate enrolments (chart 3).

The EU share of the undergraduate market has contracted in our survey for non-Russell Group universities, while the Home share has expanded. Could this be an early sign to the new direction as Brexit looms near?

Postgraduate engineering courses saw a much higher proportion of overseas enrolments, especially within the Russell Group. At undergraduate level, Non-Russell Group universities dominated the home market (chart 4).

There are huge regional variations, with the North and London attracting the most enrolments from overseas, particularly at postgraduate level (chart 5).

Our survey showed part-time undergraduate enrolments to be pitiful in numbers, mostly seen in Civil engineering. At postgraduate level, part-time study was far more common, with Civil engineering again leading the way.

Degree apprenticeships

We received submissions for 3.5 x more degree apprenticeship enrolments than last year (572), and these were returned by one quarter of our respondents (approximately half of these were in addition to the enrolment figures submitted elsewhere). Degree apprenticeship enrolments were reported in all disciplines excepting Biomedical engineering, Chemical, process and energy engineering and Product design. They were dominated by Mechanical, aero and production engineering and Civil engineering. Just 3% of these were at postgraduate level (chart 6).

Undergraduate enrolments compared with 2017-18

The most notable growth was reported in Biomedical engineering, with Product design, General engineering and Other also showing clear growth overall. The most notable decline was in Mineral, metallurgy and materials engineering. Among the other disciplines, there were mixed fortunes.

Following an apparent hit last year, Chemical, process and energy engineering witnessed greater growth than decline this year. Members report that attracting core Electronic and Electrical Engineering students continues to be challenging.

The levels of stability (the gaps between the lower and higher bars) were relatively uniform in the data, suggesting relative stability in the engineering undergraduate sector (chart 7).

At postgraduate level, growth outweighed decline across all disciplines except Civil engineering and Software engineering. The stand-out pattern is, similarly, the consistency of those reporting their enrolments to be about the same (chart 8).

Enrolments at universities across Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland collectively showed a notable increase overall, together with those in the South and the North. At undergraduate level, universities in the Central region also showed much greater growth than decline. Across the board, universities based in London fared worse with both undergraduate and postgraduate enrolments reported as being most in decline relative to their growth (chart 9).

While non-Russell Group universities reported relatively stable enrolments overall, the Russell Group witnessed greater volatility, showing growth overall, most convincingly at postgraduate level (chart 10).

Reflections

Notwithstanding Brexit, we also know that some (non-EU) overseas markets are struggling. And, of course, we know that recruitment and selection are made in the context of institutional strategies and targets. Share your own reflections below…

In addition to the slides published here, a headlines slide deck is available to download for all EPC members.

International Baccalaureate: the perfect preparation for engineers?

This blog has been written for the EPC by Henry Coverdale, Director of Post 16 Education at King Edward’s School in Birmingham. Henry was the author of one of the posters presented at the EPC Recruitment & Admissions Forum this month. 

“Our narrow education system, which encourages early specialisation, is no longer fit for purpose in an increasingly interdisciplinary world.”
Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, Nobel Laureate and President of the Royal Society.

With offers as they currently stand, International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma candidates are less likely to enrol on STEM courses at university the students with other qualifications (HESA).

This is a tragedy on three fronts: firstly, Engineering desperately needs more undergraduates with the sort of skills that the IB provides. The fact that every IB graduate has studied Maths and a Science, while also tackling humanities, literature and a foreign language, makes them ideal for the ethically difficult and creative problems that will face society in the future.

Secondly, IB graduates do fantastically well at university on STEM courses. They are more likely to be awarded a ‘good degree’ than an A level contemporary and, critically for STEM, they are also twice as likely to embark on further study after the completion of their first degree (HESA).

Finally, IB graduates are disproportionately women, if engineering departments were to actively seek out IB candidates it would be a pathway to some superbly creative and scientifically minded young women in schools, which would help to develop diversity in Engineering.

If Engineering departments were to be proactive in recruiting IB students, it would encourage more schools to take the plunge and offer this brilliant qualification, which would improve the calibre of British engineering students no end.

“More schools must adopt the IB – students shouldn’t be forced to narrow their options so early”
– Naomi Climer, President of the Institution for Engineering and Technology

The first, and arguably most important, place to start is reexamining the maths requirements for entry, especially now that the IB maths course is changing to create ‘applications’ courses that should be of particular benefit to engineers and economists. The IB Higher Level Maths course is internationally regarded – up there with Singapore Maths school-leaver qualifications – and it is the one subject where the UCAS points equivalent to A level Maths really doesn’t stack up. Research suggests that Higher Level Maths grade 6 is at an A* grade, with a 4 being approximate to an A at A level. As such, universities examining their Maths requirements could be an excellent start to encouraging more IB students to follow engineering careers. Perhaps, even (following Warwick University’s lead) either Maths or Physics at Higher Level is sufficient, given the other skills IB students arrive with.

If the UK is to tackle its uncertain future from a position of strength, with a workforce able to tackle problem solving in a creative and interdisciplinary way, it is imperative that more pupils are able and encouraged to take the IB diploma at 16. University engineering departments demonstrating they value the depth and breadth of the diploma would be a great step in the right direction. As David Willetts, former Minister for Universities and Science, has pointed out, universities are uniquely placed to influence Sixth Form curriculum decision-making.


This blog reflects the views of the author. The EPC does not have a stated position. To add your view to the debate, please comment below.

Applications open for RAEng Engineering Leaders Scholarship

Are your students the next generation of engineering leaders?

Undergraduates who are leaders, or act as role models in your institution or their community should be encouraged to apply to the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Engineering Leaders Scholarship (ELS) scheme.

Some of the previous recipients of the scholarships have mentioned that without the opportunity to explore the opportunities that the funding provides (£5,000 to put towards career development activities) they may have turned their back on engineering and pursued finance, consulting or other professions.

Other recipients have met senior engineers that have acted as mentors or provided advice during their scholarship which in some cases has turned into a graduate job post-graduation.

Each year of the three years that students are part of the programme they will attend an annual networking weekend along with around 100 other ELS scholars from all over the UK.

Applications are welcome from all talented undergraduates who meet the criteria but for those of you at Post-92 universities if you could raise awareness with your students and encourage them to apply as they are less likely to apply to the scheme than undergraduates at either Russell group universities or other institutions that have been successful in the past.

Jacqueline Clay, the University Programme Manager at the Royal Academy of Engineering is more than happy to speak with any of you or your students so please get in touch for more information els@raeng.org.uk

More information on the Engineering Leaders Scholarships can be found here.

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DATA BLOG: Will this year’s undergraduate engineering intake really be bad news?

An interim assessment of placed UCAS applicants for this autumn highlights that engineering follows a sector-wide slide in placed applicants overall but bucks a sector increase in applicants placed from the EU and a bumper crop of placed applicants from overseas.

Of course, this is only part of the story – in so far as it is limited to undergraduate unconditional firms through UCAS, is a snapshot taken quite a while before movement is complete, and will not translate directly to enrolments – but the findings highlight the importance of getting a better picture of actual enrolments as early as possible. The only way to get an early look at the patterns of actual enrolment is through the EPC’s engineering enrolments survey, and the more universities participate, the clearer the picture will be. Never has this early insight been so critical.

UCAS data highlights

Applicants placed on undergraduate engineering courses through UCAS looks set to fall for the second year running. The latest UCAS data, which gives the 2018 entry position 28 days after A level results, shows that the number of applicants accepted to engineering through UCAS has fallen below 28,000 at this point in the cycle for the first time since 2014.

A look at the national context across all subjects shows that engineering is following the overall trend.

But for pockets of undergraduates, is the outlook worse for engineering? For those from England, the growth between 2009 and 2016 was certainly stronger in Engineering, and the decline is marginally less. This is positive news and represents a significant slice of the market. However, for placed applicants from the remaining UK administrations engineering appears to fare worse than the sector as a whole. And while the sector saw growth in placed applicants from the EU and overseas (as well as those from Scotland) between 2017 and 2018, engineering did not.

Of course, this interim assessment of the 2018 cycle isn’t yet the full UCAS picture, and I am reminded that a count of unconditional firm UCAS applicants doesn’t translate to the bums on seats at enrolment (or even full admissions data).

It is not yet possible to say which engineering disciplines have been hardest hit in UCAS terms as data at engineering discipline level won’t be available until late 2018.

However, the findings of the EPC Engineering Enrolment Survey will be launched on 14th November at the annual Recruitment and Admissions Forum which will be held this year at Sheffield Hallam University. The preview of enrolment patterns to engineering courses at UK universities is critical benchmarking data, valuable for any staff with an interest in recruitment or admissions for engineering departments. Our survey gives us all a first glance at engineering enrolments long before official HESA data becomes available. You can complete this year’s survey via the EPC website.

The Forum also welcomes Helen Thorne, UCAS’ Director of External relations, who promises to share unprecedented insight into undergraduate engineering trends and applicant behaviours. You can book your place here.

The full data on which this analysis is based is available to download from the UCAS website.

Engineering enrolments survey 2018-19

Download an .xlsx version of the EPC engineering enrolments survey

Go to the online survey

The EPC’s annual engineering enrolment survey gives us all a first glance at engineering enrolments long before official data becomes available. We hope that as many of you as possible will participate again this year; the more responses we receive, the more robust the wider insight we can provide. We understand that enrolment numbers will not yet be completely stable but ask that you provide your best estimates based on your university’s latest information. Our survey will close on 22 October 2018. The results will be launched at the annual EPC Recruitment and Admissions Forum at Sheffield Hallam University on 14th November 2018.

Book your place

The survey results will also be available on the EPC website.

Thank you for attaching your completed survey by email to s.fowler@epc.ac.uk. Or for completing it online at http://www.smartsurvey.co.uk/s/82B8J/..