How do we enable curriculum change that integrates sustainability, inclusion and ethics into engineering degrees in a shorter timescale?
This question has been on the minds of change makers from 20 universities who attended virtual workshops earlier this month as part of the Systems Change Lab, co-delivered by the Royal Academy of Engineering and Engineers Without Borders UK.
Their task was to take forward learnings from the opening in-person session of the Lab to understand the underlying challenges preventing change in engineering degrees and define the contours of possible solutions.
The challenges identified were many and wide-ranging, relating to multiple actors within universities and externally. These included slow procedures, limited support for innovation, lack of knowledge or capacity for educators to deliver effective change, and uncertainty around the changes required.
The need for change in the culture, hearts, and minds of individuals working within universities was identified as a crucial factor in shifting away from an ad hoc or add-on approach to an integrated approach.
This requires a shift from the educator as the “sage on the stage” to a facilitator working in partnership with students. Educators need to be equipped with the skills and knowledge to engage in discussions with students about sustainability, inclusion, and ethics, and need to be challenged to address issues that require systems thinking, which is often outside of their experience. Participants suggested that this can in part be addressed by inviting in more industry representatives who can bring real-world experience to the classroom.
Students also have a critical role to play in this shift. Change makers noted growing student demands for a greater focus on global responsibility in university courses. Educators need to hear student perspectives alongside those of employers, government, the professional bodies, and others. It was also noted that more emphasis should be placed on listening to the voices of international students, who would bring more diverse perspectives on global responsibility.
Navigating the landscape of educational reform in the UK is no easy feat, however. The stringent 18-month notice period mandated by the Competition and Markets Authority for curriculum adjustments adds a layer of complexity to academic evolution. Meanwhile, internally, processes for delivering change become further elongated by prolonged decision-making committee meetings, which contribute to delays in implementing both small yet impactful modifications and larger change programmes. Compounding these issues is the apparent inclination of the Office for Students towards “tried and tested” methods, which is believed to hinder the integration of innovative approaches in higher education.
Moving towards solutions requires creating ways to help educators lead and make change, and feel safe doing so. This is important to avoid “fragmented faculties” in which some educators embed sustainability while others don’t, resulting in a disjointed student experience.
Change makers explored ideas for achieving this, including creating a space for motivated students and final year students to influence their peers, educators, and first-year students in the form of people’s assemblies.
Outside of the universities themselves, the power of the professional engineering institutions to require curriculum change through course accreditation was identified as a potential solution. However, it was noted that this power is offset when the institutions fail to speak with one voice.
“The honest discussions and the passion that participants brought along – that’s inspiring for someone like me, who is interested in engineering education reform.”
– Change maker attending the virtual Lab
Between now and the next Lab on Monday 11 December, the Royal Academy of Engineering and Engineers Without Borders UK will continue to gather insights and use these to further refine the Reimagined Degree Map as the go-to guide for universities to reshape engineering degrees.
Engineers Without Borders UK is running a Systems Change Lab on behalf of the Royal Academy of Engineering’s wider project, Engineer 2030. Engineer 2030 aims to determine the foundational knowledge, skills and behaviours needed by engineers and technicians to meet 21st century global challenges and to understand the systems, cultures, and policies currently in place in the UK to deliver this.