How Can We Educate Our Youth to Face Tomorrow’s Engineering Challenges?
By PROF. (MRS.) NIRANJANIE RATNAYAKE
Engineering Education is broadly defined as “the activity of imparting knowledge and teaching principles to the professional practice of engineering”.
The typical path to become an engineer in Sri Lanka, as well as many other countries, is to have a strong educational base in science and mathematics at the secondary school level, gain admission to a ‘good’ engineering education program and graduate by completing all the requirement for graduation and work in the industry for several years as a graduate engineer to gain the required competence to perform as a Professional Engineer and demonstrate one’s competence at a Professional Review. Fig 1 depicts this path, as applicable to Sri Lanka.
Fig 1: The typical path to becoming a Practicing Engineer in Sri Lanka
It is important to note that the “Education” requirement for the practice of engineering is satisfied with the graduation from a recognized or accredited undergraduate program. Although one will need to engage in continuing professional development throughout the career, there is no requirement of further formal educational qualifications to be gained after becoming an Associate Member. As such, the undergraduate engineering program curriculum must provide all the educational requirements necessary for the student to practice as an engineer in his life. In other words, the graduate, at the time of graduating, should possess the ‘Graduate Attributes’ needed for professional practice in the specific field of engineering he/she will be practicing. Graduate Attributes are the knowledge, skills and attitudes that the industry expects from the fresh graduates entering the world of work. According to the International Engineering Alliance (IEA, 2013), Graduate attributes form a set of individually assessable outcomes that are the components indicative of the graduate's potential to acquire competence to practice at the appropriate level. While these would certainly vary among the different disciplines of the industry as well as specific organizations, Professional Institutions like the IESL have stipulated the “Generic Graduate Attributes”, which is a set of abilities that are expected from ANY engineering graduate entering the industry (See below for details). Any engineering degree program that is meant to produce graduates to the local engineering industry should be able to provide an educational program, on successful completion of which the graduates can demonstrate the possession of these generic graduate attributes. In Outcome-Based Education (OBE) parlance, the ‘Program Outcomes’, which are the tasks that a student can do as soon as he/she graduates, should be designed in such a way that they match the graduate attributes required for meeting the expectations of the industry. This means that the engineering education program should provide a curriculum and deliver it, so that any person aspiring to become an engineer can demonstrate that he/she has acquired sufficient knowledge, skills, and attitude to fit into the industry on successful completion of the program. Thus, the Program Outcomes are inherent and built-in characteristics of the educational program, rather than the graduate. I have tried to show this in Fig. 2. The Curriculum, Staff, Facilities, Assessments and Quality Assurance systems all form parts of the program, and all of them contribute to making a good program.
Fig 2: A Good Engineering Education Program
This brings us to the question of whom we can define as ‘good students’ and why we need ‘good students’ to produce engineers.
We all know that a sound basis of science and mathematics at an advanced level is necessary to understand the engineering principles and applications essential for engineering. The training of the mind acquired by solving mathematical problems is indispensable in engineering. The inquiring mind developed by learning through scientific experimenting and interpreting of experimental results along with the knowledge acquired by studying science subjects like Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Mathematics gives the student the background necessary to understand natural phenomena and move into the arena of design and implementation. These are skills expected to be available to the student who embarks on a study program in engineering. Thus a ‘good student’ is a student who has gone through primary and secondary education for at least 12 years, and been assessed at entry-level, and has the correct background to continue into the engineering study program without any educational setbacks at entry.
Theoretically, this would mean that if the education program can be made flexible enough to suit individual students, irrespective of the educational background of the students entering the program, those who achieve the Program Outcomes after successful completion of the engineering program can be considered as suitable for joining the workforce as engineers.
This is the case for ‘Foundation Courses’, where the students who have not been successful at achieving the minimum standards required for engineering programs were deemed to be acceptable after successful completion of such courses, which vary in duration anywhere from a few months up to a year.
While the acceptability of such foundation courses to gain admission to the programs conducted by the higher education Institutes conducting the programs is not within the scope of the IESL, there is a concern about the acceptability of such programs as an alternative for the GCE Advanced Level as the entry qualification for engineering degree programs at the point of entry to Associate Membership.
Is GCE A/L a necessity?
This is a question that many of us who think rationally tend to ask ourselves, I am sure. There is so much criticism on the way the students are being sent through a mill in preparation for the A/L exams; the examination itself not being a good assessment of students’ capability, the poor correlation between the A/L performance and university performance, and many other reasons why it should not be considered as the yardstick for assessing the aptitude for engineering. At a meeting that the IESL held, with the Engineering Deans in 2018, to convey the Council decision to impose the requirement of 2-C’s and 1-S in the GCE A/L examination as a prerequisite for engineering education for those who were commencing degree programs after 2018/05/01, after lengthy deliberation, the Deans, while emphasizing the fact that it is important to have an assessment at the entry to a program of study, and that high level of Mathematics and Science is key, agreed to accept it, though not at all ideal, as there is no alternative standard to assess the quality of students at the entry to a program. I am fully aware that there are many excellent practicing engineers who have qualified in engineering without this requirement and many students who have not performed well after getting excellent A/L results in the mathematics stream. With the clamouring for places in the limited engineering programs in the state sector, the cutoff marks for engineering have been increasing, and the minimum results for admission to state Engineering Faculties through the UGC had not fallen below 2-C’s and 1-S for at least the five previous years, at the time the decision was taken. A strong case for introducing the minimum entry criteria was made by members that a number of mushrooming institutes were misleading the students and parents by admitting students for engineering courses without the basic educational background for continuing the programs (e.g., conducting improperly designed foundation courses as a substitution for A/L), and the students were getting stranded, after investing heavily. The IESL’s stand was that a student should embark on a study program to become an engineer only after making sure that he would be able to continue with the program and practice as an engineer.
There are engineering programs that do not insist on the entry requirements in the mathematics stream, but the students have to make up for the missing knowledge during the program by taking extra credits. Looking at the international scenario, it is sometimes mind-boggling to make a judgement on how to judge a good student for engineering and what is a good education program to produce good engineers!
We can get some help in this regard by closely looking at the Accreditation and Recognition of Engineering degrees.
Recognition and Accreditation of Engineering Degrees
Through the process of accreditation and recognition, the degree accreditation bodies will ensure that graduates from an accredited or recognized programme of study have acquired the required generic attributes for the practice of engineering as a graduate engineer and are thus adequately prepared to enter the profession and continue to practise. Since the processes of Accreditation and Recognition merits a lengthy discussion on their own, I will not get into such details in this article, except to skim the subject in respect of the process practised by the IESL, to help in the flow of this article.
Graduate Attributes, Program Outcomes and Program Educational Objectives
As discussed in the early part of this article, and shown in Fig.2, the IESL has defined twelve generic graduate attributes as the industry’s expectation from fresh graduates, which shall be used to define the Program Outcomes for an engineering degree program. These are listed below:
TWELVE GENERIC GRADUATE ATTRIBUTES (ABILITIES)
- Engineering Knowledge
- Problem Analysis
- Design/development of solutions
- Modern Tool Usage
- The Engineer and Society
- Environment and Sustainability
- Individual and Teamwork
- Project Management and Finance
- Lifelong learning
In selecting the above graduate attributes, the developing level statements that describe the knowledge profile required with respect to each attribute and the complexity of problems to be solved, and engineering activities to be undertaken, the IESL was guided by the IEA Graduate Attribute Exemplars (IEA, 2013). The requirements for Recognition and Accreditation by the IESL have slight variations, and the current IESL requirement is that any new study program shall obtain the IESL Recognition before applying for Accreditation under the Washington Accord.
Program Educational Objectives, on the other hand, are defined by the institute offering the program, with its vision on the expected role of their engineering graduates in the industry in about 5 years after graduation.
Learning Outcomes and Assessment – Outcome-Based Education (OBE)
The curriculum is the framework that forms the education program that is expected to transform a school leaver to be an engineer. The curriculum is built up by fitting together modules or subjects that make sure that the graduate who successfully completes the program is fit to enter the workforce as an engineer. The selection of modules, that form the curriculum and the level at which it is assessed is vital to produce a graduate who can perform as an engineer. Each module should contribute towards achieving one or several Program Outcomes, and the contribution is measured by the intended Learning Outcomes of the module assessed with a test at the appropriate level (in the Bloom’s or SOLO taxonomy). One of the fundamentals in the teaching-learning process in OBE is that there is no guarantee that the student has gained the intended Learning Outcome unless it is assessed (tested), and he/she passes the assessment. Another is that repeated attempts at the same test where help is given after failing a test, though it may be good for improving the knowledge of the student, cannot be counted as achieving the intended Learning Outcome. In cumulative assessments where several assessments are made to make up a module’s overall assessment, giving feedback to improve the student’s understanding is important, and the lecturer may correct several versions of the answer to help the student to improve, but the marks achieved for the first submission will be the result of the assessment, unless otherwise a new test is given as an assessment of the Learning Outcome.
There is so much knowledge on any topic under the sun that you can get by searching the internet nowadays, one tends to wonder whether formal undergraduate education is really necessary to become an engineer. Although the role of the academic has changed over the years, from the traditional one way imparting of knowledge by the lecturer to student-centered learning, where the lecturer is playing the facilitator role for the student who is expected to learn, formal engineering education is not likely to go away any time soon. Perhaps formalized education programs are more important now than earlier, as the correct guidance on the contents of a program of study has to be carefully selected in the light of the overwhelming amount of knowledge available.
During the last few years that I was lecturing at University of Moratuwa, I heavily depended on the internet – for getting material for my lectures and assignments. Why not make use of the vast amount of knowledge available to us, letting a search engine do the searching for us, rather than laboriously going through hard copies of textbooks and periodicals? The visual aids such as diagrams and photos, videos and simulation models make the classroom more interesting, making imparting of knowledge much easier for the lecturer, while the students get a better understanding of the subject matter, and motivation to learn more from the sources that are freely available. Most of us upload the notes, PowerPoint presentations and other material used during the lectures before or after the lectures, for students to use for studying.
There is hardly any ‘new knowledge’ in the undergraduate teaching/learning process, except perhaps some unpublished research findings that a lecturer wishes to share with the students. The lecturer and students have access to the same educational resources, with the advent of the internet. The role of the lecturer has changed from ‘imparting knowledge’ to directing the students to learn what is needed to achieve the outcomes needed, to perform as an engineer at the end of the program. The challenge for the lecturer is to design the assessments to evaluate the students’ achievement of learning outcomes - so that each individual student is assessed for the intended learning outcomes. This demands much more time and effort from the lecturer, than the conventional setting of examination papers, where the students were given an examination paper with a pass mark set at 40 or 50%. If the paper consists of five questions, if he correctly answers two and a half questions, or three, four or all five questions partially correctly, there is a good chance that he/she will pass the examination. The chances of passing with much less knowledge on the subject matter tested are more if the question paper has a choice of dropping some questions, such as answer five out of seven or eight given questions. Designing the assessment of Learning Outcomes and Program Outcomes is probably as difficult as engineering design and needs input that can only be understood by another academic!
Education to Face Tomorrow’s Engineering Challenges
According to Albert Einstein, “Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think”. Although this statement would have been made by the Genius in the early 20th century, its validity in the present day cannot be argued.
With the fast-changing knowledge and vast amounts of facts and data that keeps accumulating over time, with the added uncertainties in the future due to Climate Change impacts and the current pandemic situation, it is not practical to teach the undergraduates the attribute ‘Engineering Knowledge’ other than the science, mathematics and engineering fundamentals, that is expected to be valid for more than five or six years after graduation. It is impossible to predict the demands on the skills required from the engineers, especially in the post-COVID 19 world.
Therefore, it is very important that we give the students a very good grounding on these fundamentals and give them the training of the mind through the development of some of the other attributes such as skills for Problem Analysis, Design and Development of Solutions, Investigation and Modern Tool Usage, and Lifelong Learning, so that they will be in a better wicket to face the challenges that come up in their careers. The other attributes such as The Engineer and Society, Environment and Sustainability, Ethics, Individual and Teamwork, Communication and Project Management and Finance will always be important in an engineer’s career and will not become outdated.
I would like to end this with quoting some words spoken by Prof. Kenneth Siegel in his Convocation Address at the University of Moratuwa convocation in 2018 – “The keys to survive in the fast-changing world with severe resource constraints are having a broad educational background, flexibility, innovation and identity (authenticity).”
IEA (2013), “Graduate Attributes and Professional Competencies Version 3: 21 June 2013” This document is available through the IEA website: http://www.ieagreements.org.
Professor (Mrs.) Niranjanie Ratnayake
The Institution of Engineers, Sri Lanka
Department of Civil Engineering
University of Moratuwa
Moratuwa, Sri Lanka