Advances in technology and shifting societal attitudes, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, gave the impetus for a recent study, which aims to update practices and methods for educating Australia’s future engineers.
The two-year initiative, named the Engineering 2035 Project, was commissioned by the Australian Council of Engineering Deans, and has produced an evidence-based roadmap for educators and universities to respond to shifting paradigms in the role of an engineer.
The project comprised surveys of industry and academia, including analyses of perceptions and teaching practice, with calls to action for all relevant stakeholders.
Students beginning their primary education in 2018 will finish their university degrees in 2035, hence the title of the project.
One of the review’s key findings is the insufficient number of engineers in training to meet Australia’s needs going into the future. The report notes there were about 122,000 engineering students enrolled in 35 Australian public universities in 2019, with about 50,000 of those studying professional engineering degrees.
Growth in student numbers until 2020 were mainly in international enrolments, especially postgraduate programs, while domestic enrolments have remained unchanged for the last five years.
Industry desperate for diversity
The focus on enrolment reveals another weakness for the industry, that being the insufficient number of women and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students studying or planning to study engineering.
Women comprise only 17 per cent of Australian engineering students, making up 11 per cent in electrical and mechanical engineering and 45 per cent in biomedical engineering.
The lack of women exacerbates the industry’s dire need for graduates with broader skill sets, with the report stating: “The gender issue and the STEM pipeline in the school system is considered of fundamental importance to arrest an ongoing loss of talent for the profession and the nation.”
Engineering as an occupation plays an outsized role in supporting Australia’s economic development, with Australia ranking seventh in a 2016 global study that collated data from 99 countries to measure the value of engineering and its role in driving growth.
That study, undertaken by Cebr and published by the Royal Academy of Engineering, found every additional person employed in an engineering activity was projected to create an additional 1.74 jobs.
Using data from the last census, Engineers Australia found that between 2006 and 2016, Australia’s engineering labour force grew by 65 per cent from 200,000 to almost 330,000. Migration made an outsized contribution to this growth but has since declined.
Focus on human dimensions of engineering
Another dimension detailed by Engineering 2035 is a recognition of the broad range of areas and practices engineers face today, comprising specialisations and exposure to other disciplines.
The authors write: “Technical skills and expertise in new technologies will continue to be expected, but engineering will become increasingly diverse, complex and multi-disciplinary.
“Graduates will need to have high levels of technical knowledge and skills, as well as emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills.”
While the intake of women and people of different cultural backgrounds may alleviate this need for broader skill dimensions, the review outlines structural and societal trends which also need to be addressed.
Professional work in general but engineers specifically will be impacted by increased prevalence of artificial intelligence, innovative digital tools, the gig economy, analysis of large data sets and the internet of things.
Engineering work will also involve increasing collaborations and interactions with different groups, with the pandemic expected to accelerate all these changes.
“Expectations around trust and social licence to operate will increase; engineers will be expected to apply environmental stewardship, engage more with stakeholders (interpret and translate), and to recognise the human impact of their work.
“Consideration also needs to be given to programs that can address entrepreneurship and innovation.”
Developing future-oriented engineering programs
In the report’s survey of Australian engineering academics, common themes arose around their perception of what makes a strong ‘future-oriented’ engineering program.
These themes included strong relationships and increased collaborations across industry and the community; systematic use of student-centred active learning (including project-based learning); and the availability of enabling people, processes, systems, and resources.
“Expected graduate outcomes of the future will be delivered by programs that focus more on practice, address real world complexity, and integrate the development of technical and nontechnical competencies to provide real-world learning.”
The project also identifies potential barriers to pedagogical change, such as the cost of scaling up for large cohorts; limited access to industry partners and lack of availability of work placements; limited availability of qualified teaching staff with significant industrial practice; and programs targeting specific student cohorts rather than a diverse student intake.
Resistance to change is also noted as a barrier, along with organisational structures and accreditation of programs that challenge traditional methods.
While the project’s authors admit there is no single best practice model for future engineering education to follow, they identify many common features of programs that can facilitate links with industry and be implemented at scale, concluding there is now an opportunity for educators to maintain momentum and pursue innovation.
By Berkay Erkan
Sources: Australian Council of Engineering Deans, ‘Engineering change: The future of engineering education in Australia’, 2020; Cebr, ‘Engineering and economic growth: a global view’, Royal Academy of Engineering, 2016; Engineers Australia, ‘The engineering profession – a statistical overview’, 2016