Thursday, 17 April 2008

Engineering at University

On Wednesaday (16th April) I was at a meeting organised by the Education Group of the Institute of Physics. The purpose was to inform physics teachers about what engineering and materials science courses are like and what the universities are looking for. After all, most physics teachers studied physics, not engineering (with some noteworthy exceptions!) so don't really know what engineers are looking for.

The answer appears to be three things:
  1. Maths
  2. Teamwork
  3. Problem solving
If engineering could be summed up in a nutshell (it can't, nothing can except perhaps the kernels of nuts) it would be that it is about developing adequate models of systems given insufficient information and the possibility that the maths is not solvable. The model has to do the job of being sufficiently applicable to the real world to solve a real problem.

What the lecturer from Oxford pointed out was that engineering is not plumbing, wiring and tinkering with motors. Nor is it repairing TVs or operating lathes. It's a profession. And if there's a problem with A levels at the moment it is that the link between maths and physics has disappeared - and physics has become too hand waving.

Engineers are clearly vital for our future and unemployment amongst them is near enough the square root of diddlysquat but we cannot fulfill the need without teachers knowing what universities are looking for.

In another talk it was pointed out than in Birmingham alone there are 151 different schemes about engineering for school kids. How are you meant to sort, select and know which are useful?

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