Blending arts and sciences: gimmick or necessity?

The two culture of arts and sciences are like oil and water, but, asks Prof Mehmet Karamanoglu, could they be mixed? Indeed, perhaps it’s essential that we get them to learn from each other?


The higher education sector has been battling with the issue of introducing ‘creativity’ into engineering education for decades, as if this never exists in engineering programmes. 

Many institutions in the UK have tried to address this by creating collaborative programmes between departments of Engineering and Art & Design. The academic programme often sits in an Engineering department with modules from the Art & Design department, but less so the reverse. 

Over the past 30 years, I have seen such projects come and go and the end result has been the same – not a positive experience for students or staff involved. It goes without saying that there are also issues in the use of the terminology – we often talk about ‘Arts and Sciences‘, but what we really mean is ‘Design and Engineering‘. 

In an attempt to explain why such collaborations have not been successful, we often put this down to the fact that the two areas have their own cultures. This gives rise to the term you now see used by the media and politicians, the ‘Two Cultures‘: although the term has been used in academic debate for decades since C P Snow’s lecture of that name in 1959.

To look at this more closely, first we need to understand the obstacles that get in the way. Let’s call these two cultures, Camp A and Camp S.

Some key characteristics:

  • Camp A has a monopoly on the word ‘creative’ and no other camp can use it.
  • Camp S does not associate itself with the word ‘creative’ even though it practices it daily to solve problems. 
  • Camp A hates structures and rules, an inherent part of its often rebellious makeup.
  • Camp S cannot operate without structures and rules – operates systematically and hates change.
  • Camp A is territorial even within itself. Not really happy to share resources. Each of its constituents operates in an autonomous mode.
  • Camp S is territorial externally but unified within itself. 
  • Camp A are divergent thinkers, hate constraints, often not interested in the end result but the journey it takes and the experience of that journey. The destination is often irrelevant.
  • Camp S applies constraints too soon and arrives at a destination but may miss vital opportunities along the way. It operates too rigidly.
  • Camp A practices team teaching, often with contradictory views among its members.
  • Camp S operates in solo mode – one class, one master.
  • Camp A showcases their work and teaches by teams of staff. Each team owns their programme and has their own work space.
  • Camp S keeps their work preserved for themselves, does not show off.

Barriers to making the two camps work together:

  • Financial barriers – budgets that are devolved to individual camps is a key obstacle and will lead to effort being spent on counting pennies than producing useful work.
  • Having own physical facilities – ends up in duplication of resources, neither as good as they ought to be.
  • Lack of trust, value and respect in each other’s way of working.
  • Each camp retaining their work environments and students visiting each camp for their studies.
  • If this is an academic programme, as the approaches are so different, this will set some serious confusion for students, they will end up as academic schizophrenics.

My personal experience to crack this issue:

  • Do not force the two camps to come together artificially. It is akin to making an academic emulsion but with far worse side effects. So many try to create joint ventures or programmes, but blending the two cultures from two separate entities does not work as they always preserve their inherent make-up. Short term success is possible, but it is not sustainable. It relies heavily on individual personalities which often clash and so the success does not last. 
  • The only successful way that has stood the test of time is to grow a single but a mixed-culture camp from scratch. In the camp you will need staff with Camp A and Camp S characteristics, but the critical point is that they belong to the same camp.
  • There are no financial barriers – it is a single camp with a single budget. In fact, take the staff cost out of the camp’s budget to the next layer up and what is left is not worth arguing about.
  • There are no mine-and-yours physical resource issues. It is all ours
  • Most critically, Camp A and Camp S type staff will depend on each other to survive, learn to get on together and accept that there are different ways to do things for both. In other words, accept, value and respect each other.
  • The mixed-camp needs to be given time to evolve and this will take a while. The more urgent the survival becomes, the sooner the integration will happen. Once established, the new camp develops its own culture.

Having been through such an experience myself in 1996 at Middlesex University, it took four years to realise that operating as two separate camps would not work, so I started from scratch. Now, nearly two decades down the road from setting up the Design Engineering Department, there is no looking back, but I’ll probably always remain a recovering engineer.

To return to my opening point, it is not that we wanted to introduce ‘creativity’ into our engineering programmes, but rather it was actually about changing our practice and our way of doing things in order to acknowledge the evolving nature of the discipline, which has became practice-based. It was this that led to the creation of what I call the three pillars of practice-based learning in this new camp:

  • A curriculum model that recognises the appropriate teaching, learning and assessment approaches needed;
  • A physical Environmentthat supports the pedagogy adopted;
  • Staff resourcesthat can embrace the pedagogy adopted and operate within the environment created.

Prof Mehmet Karamanoglu is Professor of Design Engineering and Head of the Department of Design Engineering and Mathematics at Middlesex University, London.

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.

New Approaches to Engineering HE: The Six Facets

The EPC and IET are delighted to launch six case study examples for each of the six new approaches. We believe this proves that the required changes can be achieved – are already being achieved – and that by taking their lead, other institutions can be inspired to come up with new approaches of their own. Download the New Approaches Case Studies. or view the press statement.

New Approaches to Engineering Higher Education is on ongoing initiative that the EPC is running in partnership with the IET, with Professor John Perkins presiding as Chair. The aim is to encourage innovation in the sector’s approaches to policy, pedagogy and practice.

The initiative was launched in May 2017 at a landmark conference held at the IET in London on innovative approaches to the teaching of engineering in universities in the UK and globally.

One year on, the EPC hosted a round table meeting, at which the EPC, IET and senior HE stakeholders – including several vice-chancellors – met to take soundings on what we are calling ‘the Six Facets’ of innovative engineering higher education.

In the Autumn of 2018, we hosted a further round table of stakeholders with a national policy perspective. Chaired by IET Chief Executive Nigel Fine and hosted by Stephen Metcalfe MP, Government Envoy for the Year of Engineering, the workshop was an opportunity for MPs, leading industry figures and academics to talk through some of the challenges that need to be addressed in order to create a successful engineering skills pipeline between schools, universities and industry that suits the needs of businesses, educators, students and the UK as a whole. A summary of the main points raised as well as recommendations for policymakers, industry and academia to take on board that were put forward in the meeting is available here.

The Six Facets are common themes drawn from the papers presented to the New Approaches conference (the proceedings of which can be read here) that address fundamental problems: skills shortages; the shifting nature of engineering, the workforce and the demography of the student population; promoting inclusion and diversity.

While the EPC isn’t seeking to impose the Six Facets on anyone – that isn’t our role – we have identified these as key indicators of an innovative and adaptive response to today’s challenges. Universities can use them as a marker by which to judge their progress and as an inspiration for further development.

The Six Facets

Incorporating creativity into engineering: To reflect developing industrial needs and to attract a broad range of applicants, engineering programmes should enhance and emphasise the creative and innovative nature of the work of engineers. Although maths and science are important, they are a necessary but not sufficient part of the required skill set.

Broaden the diversity of students: The image of engineering means that women and ethnic minorities are far less likely to apply to study it. The emphasis (and the perception in schools of an emphasis) on maths and physics as a requirement to study engineering at top engineering schools also restricts access to the subject. This is especially true in physics where the proportion of female students at A-level is particularly low. Opportunities to increase the diversity of engineering students by proactive steps to address the image of engineering and the barriers to entry should be explored.

A strong emphasis on project work: Students engage and are enthused by authentic and relevant engineering experiences. In engineering, a primary vehicle for this is the design project. However, it is not sufficient that these are only in the latter years once sufficient grounding in theory is achieved. They should be from day one and spread throughout the degree programme to develop skills and encourage active learning.

Industry engagement in design and delivery: It is vital to work with industry to frame the skills graduates need and highlight to students their relevance and importance. This is particularly important to encourage students to enhance their transferable and employability skills.

Experience of the workplace for students: The formation of the professional engineer is a process; one that involves education, training and experience. In an ideal world these are not separated. It is incumbent on academics and industry to work together to develop programmes that bridge the separation between university and work in a way that provides equal opportunities for all students, regardless of background and career aspirations.

Greater interdisciplinarity: Modern engineering challenges and the global issues that most enthuse our current cohort of students will not be solved by any one discipline, but instead by teams of engineers from across the disciplines and non-engineers, bringing together their skills and expertise to create innovative solutions. We must prepare out students for this with appropriate experiences, such as undertaking complex projects in interdisciplinary teams.


There has been a lot of support for the work of the EPC and IET so far and we will now be looking for  exemplars from across the sector. If your work exemplifies one or more of the Six Facets, please contact the Chief Executive with your thoughts.