We all play a crucial role in stewarding humanity’s future. Your part is even more powerful if you are going into a career in engineering or educating engineers. In September 2022 and January 2023, Engineers Without Borders UK worked with the Institution of Structural Engineers (IStructE) and over 90 educators to reflect deeply and develop ways to advocate for and embrace new ways of educating civil engineers. 

This blog summarises the critical reflections from the 5 hours we spent in workshops online with (primarily civil engineering) educators and invites you to be part of the continued reshaping of engineering education. 

A look at the past and present

Higher education achieved its modern forms in the 19th century. Yet the world these forms were made for – a world of order, obedience, repetition and hierarchy – is disappearing. Our educational systems need to evolve quickly (and continuously) to be most relevant to addressing the critical challenges of our age. 

In the past, the purpose of educating civil engineers was to use the Earth’s resources and to apply science obediently to build transport and energy systems, water and sewage systems, houses, structures and our built environment. This system was beneficial because it had enormous gains in human life expectancy, opportunities and quality of life. 

Today, our natural global systems are moving towards terrifying tipping points that would destabilise our climate and ecological systems. Not only does engineering not benefit everyone, but the sector is producing escalating greenhouse gas emissions and pushing our life-supporting systems to the limit. Critically reflecting on how well this system operates, with today’s knowledge and values, is therefore essential. 

Nick Francis provides a fascinating 10-minute overview of this history, and Emma Crichton explains tipping points here

A look to the future 

Imagine your life or the life of those you love in 27 years. What future would you like to see? It’s sometimes easier to imagine our future in terms of change in decades, and perhaps easier to do this in a place you are familiar with whilst encouraging longer-term thinking and bringing in global perspectives. 

To kick off the 2022 IStructE Academic Conference, James Norman, a current educator (who will be 72 years old in 2050) and Cleo Parker, an engineering student (who will be 49 in 2050), shared their perspectives on life in the city of Bath and village of Port Sunlight respectively. 

James shares how you can run this exercise with students here

James imagined working in a job where re-using existing buildings (instead of a new build) was the only starting point for projects. Both imagined a future where communities were more connected, with greater use of renewable energy (Cleo imagined nuclear fusion being used), more communal and shared facilities and integrated transport systems where active transport dominated. They imagined using technology (including artificial intelligence) as part of daily life, creating time for people to slow their pace and reflect more frequently on what matters most.  

Cleo described the hope of meeting ambitious global targets like the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the pride of working and shaping integrity-driven companies where daily choices were determined by delivering on their international responsibility. In these companies, inclusive practices were everyday norms and attracted many more people to work in engineering, while participatory methods were fundamental to how projects were run. 

What future are you helping to create? 

Future possibilities are shaped by decisions today. This decade is a pivotal moment to shape future engineering capability to act in a globally responsible way. During the 2022 conference, attendees created the following vision for engineering education: 

Chris Wise explores regenerative education in practice here.

What are the challenges to improving education? 

Not all engineering educators were themselves educated with a core cultural feature of learning to act sustainably and equitably. Yet they are being asked to deliver this as part of the education of others. The graph below identifies the confidence gap felt by many educators: 

Educators cited the top barriers to them taking action to ensure teaching has a core focus on global responsibility as: 

  1. The pace of change needed and the stress this places on individuals. 
  2. Hesitance in managing the change well with the time available while keeping accreditation and improving student satisfaction. 
  3. Access to globally relevant (as well as up-to-date and diverse) expertise to support teaching about sustainability that is motivational to students  

Educators have a challenging role and if you can help address the barriers above, please do so. 

Educators as advocates for change 

Educators have enormous potential to be strong advocates for change. Alongside utilising valuable tools, it’s critical to develop a practice – the practical skillset to persuade and make changes last. 

The key steps for achieving this are:  

  1. Ask what change is needed. 
  2. Get informed. Explore what would help.
  3. Get motivated. Make time. 
  4. Act.
  5. Reflect and repeat (back to 1).

Emma shares more on how you can advocate for change here

Education helps people help themselves and prioritise making responsible choices.  Education should, above all, cultivate a love of learning and shape the understanding of the responsibilities of an engineer to enable sustainable, ethical and equitable outcomes. The faster the world changes, the more important this becomes. 

Let’s act now to shape and improve education. Join a network of people doing just that. Engineers Without Borders UK invites all members of the IStructE to join a race to reach a positive tipping point to put global responsibility at the heart of how engineering is taught and practised.

Emma Crichton, Head of Engineering at Engineers Without Borders UK

Global Responsibility Competency Compass. The Global Responsibility Compass is an introductory and action-orientated tool for anyone in the engineering sector looking for ways to respond effectively to the complexity, uncertainty and challenges of our age. 

Reimagined Degree Map. Engineers Without Borders UK are working with the Royal Academy of Engineering to produce a Reimagined Degree Map that provides further helpful guidance and strategies to support and steer universities.

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