Diversity in the face of unpredictability
Laura Leyland from Birmingham City University explains why people need to understand that engineering isn’t just about hard hats and greasy engines.
I remember a student who was an experienced engineer. He’d spent 20 years sitting at a desk working for a mining company and had never considered how his engineering knowledge could be used to make the world a better place.
He graduated saying: “Wow, I can see that just by applying what I know in a different way I can make such a difference”. He was going to form new relationships and do different things, instead of just returning to his job. That’s pretty cool.
Lots of people get into engineering to make cars go faster. Then they realise that it’s about understanding people, context and sustainability. Engineering isn’t just about hard hats and greasy engines; it’s about problem solving to make the world a better place.
In the past, students looked purely at how strong something needed to be, how light something needed to be. Globally responsible engineering is introducing our students to the wider world, so that they put people first: investigating context, understanding exactly what the problem is, defining the problem in a human way.
We’re helping students investigate global supply chains, sustainability, ethics and politics.
Laura is an senior lecturer at Birmingham City University and has been innovating in engineering education for over 10 years. She has delivered the Engineering for People Design Challenge to her students for over 6 years.
Opening up a world of engineering
As a result of my connection with Engineers Without Borders UK, a world has opened up to me. They’ve shaped my understanding of how important it is that we make the world a better place and I’ve started research projects on that basis.
When I rewrote our engineering curriculum I included humanitarian engineering as a stream of thinking, getting the Engineering for People Design Challenge in. It leads onto other modules where we continue our people-centred focus in engineering education.
From a humanitarian starting point we have a new focus on women in engineering. Each year we use challenges based on humanitarian engineering principles with a hundred year eight girls as we celebrate International Women in Engineering Day. Using those challenges helps us show how engineering makes the world a better place.
The Engineering for People Design Challenge encourages a more diverse cohort of students. That means different conversations, different perspectives and solutions that are better for everyone. If only men are solving a problem or only women are solving a problem they’re unlikely to come up with the best-fit solution. It’s only when we’re all working together that the best ideas happen.
These days, engineers have a much wider outlook, rather than just looking at the design and making it lighter. That’s a great thing.
Expect the unexpected
Equity is going to become more and more important. I’ve been working with a community in South Africa, 95 percent of whom are unemployed. People are poor, but everybody’s got a television and everybody’s seeing what’s happening in the rest of the world.
And they’re saying: “I want to have a house that’s heated, and I want to have a tablet, and I want to have clothes that look like this, I want all this stuff that I can see on the telly”.
In order for us to have global equity, some of the world is going to have to give things up. We need to reduce the load we’re putting on the planet; we need to take notice of global sustainability. We can’t continue for everybody to grow in the way in which we’ve grown in the past; there isn’t enough planet left.
The only thing we really know about the future is that it’s going to be unpredictable. We know we’re going to have unpredictable careers, unpredictable technology developments, unpredictable political situations, unpredictable everything.
We need to educate engineers who can cope with that unpredictability. They need to be able to work with technical uncertainty and in a changing political context. They need to be able to communicate effectively at the right levels to move things forward in a positive manner to support global development.
Understanding the impact that what we’re doing here in the UK is going to have in the rest of the world is so important.
Technical competence is not enough. We need people that can communicate impact. We need people that can work in teams and learn and adapt.
Employers are asking graduates: “Have you done the Engineering for People Design Challenge?” That’s a really good sign.
We need flexible, forward-thinking engineers, who may look quite different from the engineers that we’ve spat out of our degree courses over the last few decades.