A Model of a European joint Venture in Engineering Education

by Derek Fordyce
Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, UK

Developments in electronic communication and information technology, along with freedom of travel, will revolutionise education. The idea that an individual goes to one institution to learn from a particular group of people who have specific knowledge and experience and learn in a particular pattern no longer is the case. A learner will have the power to take what information they need, when they need it, and work on that information flexibly. This does not mean that learners learn by themselves, learning is an interactive experience and in terms of engineering education learning is about nurturing particular qualities of thinking and developing particular abilities.

In terms of the work of a professional person, learning is no longer seen as a one off experience providing specialist knowledge which is then used in practice. Learning is now divided into initial education and continuing education. Initial education is that acquired prior to professional practice; continuing education is that acquired during professional practice, and is ongoing. This division recognises that the volume of specialised knowledge with any profession is too vast for any one person to learn, it also recognises that specialised knowledge is continually expanding. Accepting that specialised knowledge is too vast to learn, the nature of the initial education for a profession is open to question. The question has been debated seriously for the last ten years or more. The question is not so much what specialised knowledge defines a particular profession, but,

The theory

Companies such as Shell International are quite specific about what personal qualities they are looking for in graduates: capacity - ability to analyse information quickly and make judgements on facts, not be constrained by what are considered to be existing boundaries, manage uncertainty and produce working solutions with complex problems; achievement - exhibit drive and enthusiasm, willingness to tackle new problems and resilience to deliver results despite demanding workloads and tight time scales; relationships - have respect for others, value others regardless of culture or status, and have the ability to persuade others by sensitive and clear argument. The qualities defined span the cognitive and affective domains of learning: capacity, dealing with facts, is clearly in the cognitive domain; relationships, dealing with feelings, is clearly in the affective domain. Shell International require professionals to work in different countries and with people at different levels of authority. They require professionals to work on complex problems but arrive at effective working solutions.

Personal qualities relate to the approach to situations and circumstances taken by an individual; personal qualities define the potential of an individual.

The qualities defined by Shell International include the deployment of particular skills. Arriving at a working solution to a problem requires the context of the problem to be analysed and a solution synthesised using knowledge of what is practical, within an unrestrained perceptual framework. Knowledge in such circumstances is often conceptual knowledge; sound conceptual knowledge comes from depth of understanding. True synthesis occurs only when a situation is new to an individual. True synthesis brings with it risk, risk of an inappropriate solution. Where situations repeat themselves Åstandardå solutions may be formed. The danger with the initial education of engineers is that experienced teachers who have formed creative solutions to problems teach solutions and do not encourage learners to develop the ability to analyse problems and synthesis solutions for themselves.

Skills are deployed in a context, they require a subject. Knowledge is required; knowledge of facts and knowledge through experience of events. Certain factual knowledge may have no understanding: the diameter of the earth is a fact which is remembered, there is no inherent understanding required. But, specialised knowledge, technical knowledge, generally requires to be held in a manner which allows its use in new ways, such as with the skill of synthesis. Understanding is about structuring knowledge in a useable manner.

The reality

The initial education of professional engineers is primarily through the structured learning of specialised knowledge. The learning is structured by Åexperiencedå persons, who can demonstrate relevant ways of thinking and demonstrate the effective deployment of particular skills.

Curriculum design and the design of teaching, learning and assessment systems differ between countries, the differences reflect differences in culture and the value attributed to a particular learning experience such as a degree course. Curriculum design and the design of teaching, learning and assessment systems can also differ between higher education institutions within the one country. The greater differences in curriculum design and the design of teaching, learning and assessment systems lies between countries.

In the UK there is an emphasis on design in engineering curricula throughout the length of an undergraduate course. Specialist subjects feed into design exercises. As a result of the funding mechanism of higher education in the UK attendance is expected at all curriculum activities: lectures, tutorials, seminars, workshops and design studios. Cost efficiencies in higher education require low non-completion rates and course completion in a fixed time period. Cost efficiencies, along with the development of key engineering competencies, sets the culture of courses; engineering degree courses in the UK are short term (3 or 4 years), concentrated studies of a limited range of specialised subjects leading to the award of specified degrees. Some courses may build in a period of work experience which addresses the nurturing of professional qualities and the development of professional attributes. But, the nurturing of any professional qualities, or the development of any professional attributes tends to be through experience, which is often variable in quality. Professional status is granted to an engineer in the UK only after a period of professional development and training after graduation.

In most countries in Europe the undergraduate curriculum is a minimum of 5 years in duration, but is flexible in maximum length. Standard of performance would appear to be valued more than completion rates. In some countries professional status is granted on graduation, such as France and Denmark. In such cases work experience and design exercises form a key part of the undergraduate curriculum. Such elements of the curriculum address the development of professional attributes, but development may be more as a consequence of the experience, and therefore random, rather than in a controlled and structured way. In other countries focus is given to specialist knowledge and depth of understanding as an important basis for professional practice. Professional status is granted on a measure of professional competence after a period of industrial training, as in the UK.

Curriculum development

International forum have existed for some time where engineering education has been discussed. The forum allow for intercourse between educators and practitioners, and for the sharing of experience. One forum is the European Society for Engineering Education (SEFI); a second, more specific, forum is the Association of European Civil Engineering Faculties (AECEF).

One outcome of such forum is raised awareness of alternative models of engineering education, and raised awareness of the changing nature and consequently needs of industry. In the UK, for example, the consequence has been the revision of the nature of the initial education of professional engineers. There has been a deepening and broadening of the initial education of professional engineers. The depth of specialist knowledge is designed to better match that on continental Europe. The broadening of the curriculum is to better match the nature and needs of industry, an industry which is more cost and environment conscious and competitive on a national and international scale. More consideration is required to be given to the structured development of professional attributes.

A second outcome of such forum is raised awareness of the strengths of engineering practices and engineering curricula in other countries. This awareness has resulted in the setting up of mechanisms to allow for student mobility during their period of initial education. An individual is now able to gain much more experience from their initial education than may be possible by studying solely in one location. Technical knowledge is broadened, thinking is broadened; learning in a second language, and within another culture, develops personal attributes which are key professional attributes for an increasingly international profession.

The difficulty with mobility is the matching of curricula at two institutions in two countries to provide an acceptable initial education for a profession within a particular country. The financing of mobility is also a serious difficulty.

A way forward

The Department of Civil and Offshore Engineering at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh has had ERASMUS links with two institutions in Europe: INSA Lyon and TU Vienna. For Heriot-Watt the links have been with their Master of Engineering (M.Eng.) course in Civil Engineering with European Studies. The M.Eng. course is five years in duration with the final year being spent in Europe. The M.Eng. course is innovative in that it has professional development as a continuous theme throughout the length of the course.

In year 2 undergraduates study the commercial structure of the civil engineering industry within the context of Europe; in year 3 undergraduates study the management styles deployed within the civil engineering industry within the context of Europe. The studies are student driven, students are divided into groups and carry out their studies under the guidance of senior practising engineers in international companies based in Edinburgh. Inputs are provided by engineers and staff members on key professional attributes using designed activities to allow processes inherent in the deployment of skills, and the reasoning behind actions, to be shared and explored. Students maintain a Professional Development Journal which is a record of professional development with skills, and as a record of reasoning behind actions. Journal entries are responded to by practising engineers and qualified staff members. The comments are shared experiences, not corrective statements. Students are taken away at the end of each year to assess their ability with key professional skills and to assess personal qualities. Progression on the course requires a minimum level of professional development, a minimum level of ability with professional skills and evidence of relevant professional qualities. As a basic requirement students must attain a minimum level of academic ability with engineering subjects. The professional development element of the course uses one hour per week of time-tabled time. The series of exercises involving industrial personnel is to allow the sharing of ways of working and a comparison of working environments, and thus the nurturing of professional qualities.

In year 4 of the course students are required to carry out a project for industry. The project must demand intellectual rigour, but, it must also be of commercial value to a company. Students negotiate the cost of the work. They have to carry out the work to an agreed time table, to the agreed cost, to the standard of presentational quality demanded by industry and to a level of academic rigour demanded by both industry and the University. Students maintain Professional Development Journals throughout the year along with bi-weekly project management reviews. This type of project is a replacement for a standard academic undergraduate project undertaken in the fourth year. The fifth year is spent at an institution on continental Europe, but students are required to undertake, as a supplementary requirement, a study of an aspect of the civil engineering industry within the host country. The study is required to be written up as a comparative study with the UK.

A Joint Venture Partnership

A recent development has been made with this model. Two factors have been the reason for the development.

A Joint Venture Partnership has been set up, between international companies and two Universities in Europe. The Partnership is a pilot. The European companies involved in the Partnership presently are Tarmac, Black and Veatch (TBV) and the Carl Bro Group; the universities are Heriot-Watt University and the Czech Technical University (CVUT) in Prague. The Carl Bro Group are based in Denmark; TBV are a British-US group with interests in Europe.

The Czech Republic is not a full member of the European Union (EU) and therefore there is no student mobility funding available from the EU. The equivalent eastern European funding for mobility does not include student mobility, yet. A student exchange agreement had existed for 3 years between Heriot-Watt University and CVUT, but the differences in the cost of living have meant that only one Czech student has been able to study in the UK and only as a result of funding from an industrial research contract.

The model of the Partnership for Heriot-Watt University and CVUT students is that the most able will be invited onto a two year programme over the final two years of their course. For M.Eng. students at Heriot-Watt University, the invitation will be based on assessed potential professional ability, along with proven academic ability. The companies, along with their subsidiaries in Europe, will guarantee a minimum of two 3 month work placements over the two years; the placements should be in two different European countries. During the placements students will carry out work of commercial interest to a company. The work undertaken will be paid for, as with any work commissioned by a company. A student will work within a company, for the company. The money earned by a student will be used to fund their study period abroad. The placements may occur at the end of years 4 and 5. Alternatively, the two 3 month work periods will be formed into one 6 month period. The project, or projects, carried out during the work placements will be accepted as part of the curriculum in each institution. With such a scheme a student will earn money for a 6 month period during the final two years of their course. It is unlikely that the funding will fully cover a study period abroad but it should cover a substantial portion. The two year programme will develop with time, but for Heriot-Watt University students the programme will initially fit into the current style of course operation: industrial project at the end of year 4, in the UK; location in Europe in year 5 which will include a minimum of a three month placement and second industrial project.

The future

All parties benefit from a Joint Venture model.

The model is European by design, but retaining the strengths in the diversity of engineering curricula in individual institutions within different countries forming Europe. It is intended that the Joint Venture Partnership will grow, in number of universities and companies. But, growth will be based on experience. Growth has the potential to encompass North America and South East Asia.

The model is not a template for a general form of initial education for professional civil engineers in Europe. Places on the course will be limited by company placements. Student ability on the course should be of the highest potential professional standard. Not all students will aspire to this type of course, some students will go into research, some students will wish to remain in their home country.

The future will lie in the ability of individuals to spend more time in industry in the final stages of a course but maintain their academic studies through the use, for example, of the World Wide Web and electronic communication. This will allow students access to specialised knowledge on an international scale; a Åbaseå university will facilitate the learning through providing expert support. This has the potential to divide the initial education of engineers into two elements: an initial element which is spent within an institution to develop core knowledge, skills and experience of the nature of professional life, followed by a second stage in employment with learning continuing using electronic knowledge-based systems accompanied by a learning and development support network. This period of learning may be at an international level on short term (training) contracts with companies.

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