Friday, July 3, 2009

Engineering in Context Symposium

I spoke this afternoon at this symposium, on the topic of "Engineering Engineers". I reproduce my text below.

I set the speech in the context of the "Shift Happens" videos, and you'll see some text in italics from those slidesets. Also, the content of some of the talk has come from some of my earlier presentations.

There were many non professional engineers in the audience, and amongst the other speakers. So, my contents were (deliberately :-) controversial and stimulated debate....

"The ancient Masters didn't try to educate the people, but patiently taught them to not-know. When they think they know the answers, people are difficult to guide. When they know that they don't know, people can then find their way"--- from Lao Tzu's "Tao Te Ching" - the Book of the Way.

Teaching is about not-knowing. Educating is about fostering self-awareness. Learning is about finding.

Being an educator is the most privileged profession. In knowing herself, an educator imprints on the next generation a way to understand themselves and thus to find their way.

Today, the most well known, most recognised internationally, most loved engineer in the public eye must surely be....Homer Simpson. It is clear that in many western societies, including Ireland, that the engineering professional has lost control of the title "engineer". Instead, in my view, we should focus on the title "professional engineer".

There are 31 billion searches every month on Google: to whom where these questions asked before Google ?

I went to (high) school here in Dublin, finishing in 1974. I was so fortunate to have many fine teachers. And I believe in every case, all those years ago, I viewed each of these teachers as a prime source of information and knowledge. They knew, and I didn't.

Today, I think many of us accept that the situation has irrevocably changed. Teachers are of course still fine people, but many students no longer accept their teachers as the prime source of information and knowledge. The internet, and in particular Google, is now the primary way to find out and learn. Wikipedia - an online encyclopedia - is a chief reference and authority. Twitter - an online headline broadcast service - is a rapid access to what's happening. Facebook and Bebo - online social communities - are a quick way to find and share what's cool. Youtube - an online video clip service - is a quick way to humour. iTunes - an online music and "podcasting" service - is a quick way to music and interesting interviews.

Ten years ago, I used to worry about the 'digital divide' -- that the wealthy had access to the internet, and those of limited means did not. I remember the Ennis Information Age project here in Ireland in which we asked ourselves what would happen if an entire community was trained on how to use a PC and had access to the internet. Over the last decade I believe that, in Ireland at least, there is considerably greater uptake and affordable access to the internet. There are of course still digitally impoverished communities in Ireland, but the situation is improving. The convergence of mobile phone technology with broadband internet access, is a further catalyst.

Matthew Wisnioski noted in his speed that technology and society move at different rates, and mentioned Simon Ramo's work. Now I worry, maybe unnecessarily, about the separate rate of adoption of technology within and across the society, for example the digital divide of the generations. Most of us know how to book an airline seat online. Most of us know how to send an email, or access our bank account. But how many of us know how to upload a video to Youtube, or to make a podcast, or how to contribute to the wisdom of the crowd ? Meanwhile, for the younger generation there is no divide between virtual reality and the real world: for them this would be an unnecessary and unnatural distinction, and for them the internet is an intrinsic part of the real world as much as the telephone, the radio or even the weather.

Therefore today, what role should a teacher and educator now play ? It's now clear to many students that their teachers don't know as much about their chosen subject as Google or Wolfram-Alpha or Bing do. Louis Bucciarelli in his talk this morning noted that "we teach students the correct equations to plug into" - but I content that now perhaps Wolfram-Alpha does this for them. It's also clear to many students that traditional classroom teaching isn't particularly interesting or stimulating. Instead, on the internet, you can quickly browse from headline to headline, quickly learn, quickly find out what's happening, quickly participate and quickly share with your friends and community. It's not that today's students have attention deficit, and are incapable of absorption or focus: on the contrary, they immerse themselves deeply - for hours sometimes - in what they find interesting, such as specific games and challenges. The difference today is that students have found a way - the internet - to so much more easily quickly find out what is really interesting for them, and to rapidly filter out and discard what they find mundane.

The amount of unique information created this year (about 4 x 10^19 bytes) exceeds the total amount of information created over the last 5,000 years - including last year.

Our young people should be able to reason, to deduce and derive, to correlate and spot patterns, to explore and to be inquisitive, and to be articulate and confident. In my humble view, these are more life centric skills than learning facts and perspectives by rote: knowing something off by heart, but not understanding why, why not, and so what. Skills taught in schools should be for life. There are many things which can be learnt during adulthood, but some skills which are difficult to learn without a solid foundation during the teens and 20s.

In my view, and I admit as an elderly grey traditionalist, mathematics is a critical catalyst to careful reasoning and deduction. Mathematics is too vast to be learnt by rote and instead requires insightful thinking and intellectual clarity. Taught well, it enables core intellectual skills for life. It also makes learning easier, not just for mathematics, but many other subjects, since understanding comes from reasoning, rather than learning by rote.

The decline in the Irish attainment of mathematics and core sciences has been gradual. It has perhaps gone unnoticed by many, but major employers across a range of business sectors of strategic importance to Ireland are seriously concerned to see substantial decreases in the number of our students taking technology courses, and in particular the fall off in those taking mathematics. If we all aspire to build a future for our young people as outlined above, then competence in mathematics is a cornerstone. Competence in mathematics underpins not just engineering and the physical sciences, but also sectors such as alternative energy and green systems, financial services, medical research, and cross disciplinary areas such as bio-engineering. For so many areas of our potential national prosperity and quality of society, competence in mathematics is critical.

With further government budget cuts imminent, there is a very serious risk that teaching in mathematics and the core sciences will dramatically suffer further. This is especially so at secondary school (high school, in Ireland) level, since these subjects are perceived as resource intensive and difficult to teach. The Principals of eleven secondary schools of one Irish county have recently jointly written an open letter to all the parents of all their students stating that in view of Government cutbacks, they may no longer be in a position to teach honours mathematics and sciences at all in their schools. Incredibly, almost 20% of the secondary schools in Ireland no longer offer honours mathematics to their students. In 2007, only 14% of Irish university applicants to honours degrees had achieved honours mathematics capability in school.

Teachers should be encouraged to foster reasoning, deduction, derivation, correlation, exploration and curiosity, intellectual clarity and insight, fluency and confidence. Mathematics and the core sciences are clear catalysts. Teachers who achieve consistent success in their students in these subjects should not only be acclaimed but also receive fiscal reward - if this cannot be done through Government pay, it may be possible to do via industry sponsored competitions. Teachers whose own core skills are weak should be offered re-skilling and professional development. Considerably more use should be made of the web - including podcasts and vidcasts to complement the music on students' personal players - to cultivate dynamic, current, interesting course material: social free educational networking can compensate to some extent weaknesses in any specific teacher in a particular school.

Our country needs to get back to basics: core skills taught well, rather than nebulous "up skills". Mathematics and the core sciences are one critical foundation.

The former US Secretary of Education Richard Riley has claimed that the top ten in-demand job categories next year in 2010 didn't exist in 2004. We're preparing students for jobs that don't yet exist using technologies that haven't been invented in order to solve problems that we don't even know are problems yet.

In my own career with computers and software, my industry not only changes its technologies, but also rapidly changes its perspective as new applications appear. A professional engineer today, regardless of his or her background, must have a multi-disciplinary philosophy. That has two complementary aspects: the intra-engineering and external. Multi-discipline, in the intra-engineering sense, implies an understanding and training across multiple engineering specializations, understanding the application of mathematical and scientific results to civil, mechanical, electrical, electronic, software, manufacturing engineering, and so on. By the external multi-disciplinary aspect, I mean the ability to discuss articulately with line of business managers, product marketing, corporate marketing, corporate lawyers, human resource professionals, and of course financial analysts.

But today, forgive me, in this country, I wonder have our colleagues in our engineering academies – both universities and institutes of technology – lost the plot ? One of their concerns I guess – and I speak as a past university lecturer – is the usually desperate quest to achieve recognition by their peer academics in other departments across the rest of the organisation. As an engineering department struggles to achieve recognition, and of course financial resources, amongst perhaps stronger groups in the pure sciences, the medics, the department of law, the business studies department, all of the various departments of humanities and so on, there is a natural tendency to play the game: “publish or perish”. And in publishing, and researching, more and more esoteric niched topics are addressed, in which one may have a reasonable chance of obtaining international recognition as an accomplished researcher but in what may be a very narrow field indeed.

However a consequence of this may be a tendency to over-specialise undergraduate courses. In a national market in Ireland, where there are few enough Leaving Certificate students obtaining honours standards in mathematics – which of course is the usual standard for entrance into courses leading to professional engineering accreditation – does it really make sense to have proliferation of undergraduate courses ? Let me give you some idea, from the list of undergraduate courses nationwide which are accredited by Engineers Ireland as giving a foundation to become a Member of our organization: Chemical and Process Engineering; Electronic Engineering; Electrical Engineering; Microelectronic Engineering; Mechanical Engineering; Materials Engineering; Process Engineering; Process and Chemical Engineering; Structural Engineering; Civil Engineering; Environmental Engineering; Civil, Structural and Environment Engineering; Manufacturing Engineering; Production Engineering; Computer-Aided and Manufacturing Engineering; Industrial Engineering and Information Systems; Aeronautical Engineering; Digital Media Engineering; Information and Communication Engineering; Manufacturing Engineering with Business Studies; Mechatronic Engineering; Medical Mechanical Engineering; Biosystems Engineering; Computer Engineering; Building Services Engineering; Agricultural and Food Engineering. I know that all the academics involved in offering this wonderful diversity are sincere in their disciplines, but isn’t it time we stood back and asked ourselves is there a better way to help students select Engineering as a profession ? And ensure that they have a very solid, multi-disciplinary approach to Engineering as a profession ? And leave at least some of the specialization, when and as necessary, to their continued professional development during their career ?

Before 1990, there was no such thing as surfing the web. Before 2000, a phone was something attached to a cable in your house. The first commercial text message was sent in December 1992: now the total number of text messages sent and received every day exceeds the population of the planet. It took radio 38 years to get to a market audience of 50 million; TV 13 years; internet 4 years; iPod 3 years; Facebook 2 years.

Yesterday at this symposium, Bill Grimson stated that "life does not change that rapidly" - my contention is in fact the opposite. Today, email is dying as a tool for many of the younger generation: is is prone to spam, is poor for collaboration and sharing of documents and works, and is not a good tool for building conversations and discourse. Twitter and Facebook provide a better basis, along with shared documents such as Google documents, Flickr and Slideshare.

In the face of such rapid technology change, how should we improve the preparation of young engineers to manage their careers ?

If one of my family ever were to pursue a career in surgery, I and they would expect to learn from practicing surgeons. If I were ever to take lessons to become an aircraft pilot, I would like lessons from a qualified professional pilot. In my business career, whenever requiring professional legal or financial advice, I have sought the necessary qualified professional individuals.

In each of these professions, mentoring by an established and accredited professional is critical. Young surgeons are coached by established consultants. Young pilots are watched over by experienced captains who monitor the flight. Senior lawyers instruct their juniors.

In each of these professions, regular training throughout a career is critical. Surgeons are trained in new operations. Pilots are regularly re-certified on the aircraft they wish to fly. Lawyers are required to track the evolution of laws and case histories.

And so, surely we would expect our young aspiring engineers to be taught by professionals. Professional Engineers. And surely we would expect, no require, that our young engineers would be mentored and coached by established professional engineers. And surely we would expect, no require, that professional engineers remain current with changes in engineering practice.

Professional engineers engage with many people outside of their profession: HR professionals, senior executives, financiers, public relations, business development, regulators, the media, policy makers and politicians. To my knowledge, few academics do so.

In preparing today’s talk, I browsed the web sites of the Irish universities and institutes offering those courses I alluded to above, and examined the credentials of the academics of the various engineering departments concerned – at least, as published on their web sites. It was very very interesting, and I encourage you to try the exercise yourself.

For example: one department: six full time academic staff, only one of them – the head of Department – listed C.Eng. as amongst his accomplishments. Another: four academics, no C.Eng listed. Another: twenty academics, one Fellow, four C.Engs. And so on.

Now there are many PhDs. And a few Professors. But why so few Chartered Engineers (or Fellows) ? I suspect that perhaps the various web pages aren’t always accurate, and C.Eng qualifications aren’t always listed. However, that in turn is indicative: why would an Engineering academic not be much more proud of the fact that he or she was a Chartered Engineer, or Fellow, and advertise that fact, ahead of being a Dr. or Professor ??...

In the medical profession, a simple Mr, Ms or Mrs as a title commands great respect: the individual in question is likely to be a highly qualified surgeon or consultant, rather than a simple General Practitioner Doctor, or an esoteric academic Professor. A highly qualified practitioner gains respect. Why are our own Engineering academics not as proud of practical professional experiences ? Why is it acceptable to have a majority of non Chartered Engineer teaching professional engineering ? Should it be acceptable ? Why do engineering departments not insist on a C.Eng. recruitment policy for most of their staff, and why do they not demand that the majority of their younger staff achieve C.Eng. status as rapidly as possible, if necessary ahead of achieving professorial status ? Why do our engineering students not question – no, demand – that the majority of their teaching comes from professional engineers ?

Why are our junior engineers, at the start of their professional careers, not required to have a professional engineer as a mentor and coach - or rather, why is it that our professional engineers are not required by nature of their status and title, to coach and mentor at least one junior ? Anders Buchs this morning observed the anxiety that a student may have on "who is capable of judging my work?". Thus in fact, a mentor may provide more value and be more important than any academic with whom a young engineer encounters at university. Professional engineers routinely engage with people outside the profession of engineering: many academics do not need to do so. Professional engineers frequently track changes in practice in technology and regulation in their areas f expertise: many academics do not need to do so.

Perhaps the tenure system which operates in most western universities is detrimental to the teaching of engineering. If the majority of engineering academics had to continue to practice in order to maintain their status as professional engineers, perhaps the teaching of engineering would improve. Rotation between academia and practice, and continued professional development of professional engineering academics both may be enhancements to the teaching of engineering.

"The ancient Masters didn't try to educate the people, but patiently taught them to not-know. When they think they know the answers, people are difficult to guide. When they know that they don't know, people can then find their way"--- from Lao Tzu's "Tao Te Ching" - the Book of the Way.


  1. Hi Chris, along with some other young architects, I am trying to establish a mentoring system within the RIAI, whereby a young architect (or architectural practice) is assigned a senior, more experienced architect, (and perhaps one with the appropriate experience level of the aspiring younger generation, eg. sustainable building practices)who is then available on the phone, or in person to advise when something comes up that the young architect is unsure of. Perhaps a similar mentoring system could take place within the Institute of Engineers of Ireland?

    Thanks for the post, Joan.

  2. I'm outa college many years (have grey hair) but even then I only came across 1-2 lecturers that had working in the industry.

    Those I respected as they brought some 'common sense' on what they were teaching. The others were all academic's and just 're-teached' what was in a book. No perspective, no context to the real world we were going out into, no respect...

    I do agree the 'play the game' and in-fighting of depts within a univ takes away from 'teaching'.

    However the specalization is good and bad - don't see any real way around it.
    The market will dictate when they have gone too far and their graduates don't find jobs but the realisation of that takes far too long in this 'real-time' world.

    You would think a univ's tie-in's to the local industry (bio-science, business, technology etc..) would give them this insight ahread of time?


  3. Joan,

    I wasn't aware of your initiative within the RIAI, sounds very interesting, and I'ld like to follow up with you. I envisage something similar for Engineers Ireland, particularly in the context of some imminent changes to our membership criteria to broaden our membership.

    Thanks for the comment

  4. Lal,

    I argue for a general engineering approach followed by specialisation appropriate for professional engineering.

    The move by Engineers Ireland that from 2013, professsional engineers will require a Masters level of attainment, rather than Bachelors, or appropriate experience equivalent to Masters level, gives the profession a chance to re-visit the structure of our education of Engineers in Ireland...

    I do believe that many Engineering faculty in Ireland now do have quite good links with industry, which does bring insight. However in my view, that should result in faculty who are even more keen to themselves achieve professional engineering status.

    Thanks for the comment!

  5. Hi Chris,

    I'll keep you posted on progress with the mentoring program within the RIAI. It's yet to be decided how it will be run.

    Most likely the volunteer mentor will be assigned an architect and they will work out between themselves how best it will suit.

    If you wish to contact me directly, you can get me at Thanks again.