Engineering courses give students a great theoretical grounding but to foster creative minds we need an earlier emphasis on encountering real life

Most engineers would agree that their field of expertise doesn’t enjoy the most glamorous reputation. In films, the engineer is usually a background character briefly brought into focus to solve a problem before the main man deals with it. We’re rather more than bit-part players in real life of course, and without our inquisitive nature, we’d certainly feel more threatened by the carbon reduction challenge we now face.

Thankfully it’s not glamour that the typical scientific mind craves, but the engineering profession could benefit if it had the reputation it deserves, based on the myriad achievements across its broad spectrum of expertise. This would, in turn, help to attract more creative minds to study engineering.

I’m not convinced that most courses have the right emphasis. There’s a distinct focus on new buildings, but when 99% of them are existing stock in need of modernisation to help avert climatic disaster, is that the right approach? It’s easier to design a new environmentally friendly building than deliver the same performance from heritage stock. It’s negotiating the complexities of older buildings where the hard work happens.

What we need is a generation of engineers and sustainability experts who have been taught in a way that encourages creativity; analytical minds solving old problems in new ways and hungry for fresh conundrums.

On most courses, there’s a distinct focus on new buildings, but when 99% of them are existing stock in need of modernisation to help avert climatic disaster, is that the right approach?

Our universities give a great theoretical grounding and imbue our graduates with depth of technical knowledge. The four-year process following graduation on the road to chartered status means they have to meet 16 competencies in five categories: knowledge of new technology, problem solving, leadership, interpersonal skills and personal commitment; and it is here that they start to learn “real-world” engineering. Isn’t that too late?

I believe there should be more real-life application of the theories from the start. My own training life, several years ago, featured elements that gave me a genuine perspective on my studies: during a five-year course I spent six months installing, another six months with a manufacturer and six more months testing and commissioning in a live environment. But 21st-century engineering education needs to acknowledge the more practical approach of the 20th century.

I believe four elements need changing:

  • Students need practical work placements that give them worthwhile time on site and in manufacturers’ plants, solving proper problems and working with real equipment.
  • They need exhaustive carbon efficiency teaching and more time examining problems inherent in complex, existing buildings.
  • They need greater business awareness to develop better commercial acumen; financial viability remains a barrier to sustainable solutions and cost efficiency across an entire scheme can make or break a project. Maybe business modules should be compulsory.
  • They need to be taught context and a holistic viewpoint. The best engineering solutions aim for passive performance and fulfil multiple needs, while also meeting client objectives, corporate social responsibility goals and legislative requirements.

We in the industry can make a substantial difference too. We must get more involved in education. We need to offer meaningful work placements and apprenticeships and hold open days that focus on the problems we solve. We need progressive experts to mentor students and offer time to lecture, interacting with students using real-life case studies.

And we need to encourage universities to introduce practical, midway placements that allow students to return to their studies with a real-world perspective.

Our many industry associations can help us achieve all this. They need to establish closer links to help guide engineering education to the point where there are more imaginative, experienced graduates in larger numbers.

We can’t promise fame and fortune, but we can offer the chance to save the world.

Philip King is a design director at Hilson Moran consulting engineers