by Shola Adenekan
For Sarah Musa Adam, the problems with being an engineering student centre on the shortage of new books, crowded classrooms and a lack of good teaching methods. She has tried talking to a few of her tutors but the response she gets is that the budget allocation for engineering faculties is low and there is not enough time for teachers to devote to their many students.
Ms Adam believes tutors and universities should arrange open days on-campus so that young people can gain an insight into the various engineering disciplines. She also thinks they should use the internet more often.
"Things like placing syllabus online and the chance for students to submit their homework online, or even download lectures. Actually, there were couple of ideas over here about E-learning, but they were not fully implemented," she points out. "They could also make the curriculum a little bit flexible. There're lots of subjects that we don't like to study, which also will not have any impact on our future career prospects, but we're forced to take them anyway, because if we don't, our GPA will be lowered."
Ms Adam is an engineering student at Sudan University of Science and Technology, Khartoum, Sudan, one of the leading engineering institutions in central and northern Africa. She is also what many engineering faculties across the world need - a woman with a keen interest in the discipline.
Ms Adam echoes some of the concerns of students and stakeholders the world over. Many argue that engineering schools are slow to change. Employers and internet-savvy students alike complain that engineering courses are too theoretical and not hands-on enough. They also warn that faculties need to take the issue of diversity and reform more seriously.
In America, a 2009 study by the Carnegie Foundation concludes that a widespread emphasis on theory over practice is prevalent in many of America's 1,740 university-level engineering programmes. This discourages many potential students and gives graduates little insight into real-world problems and ethical dilemmas.
In India, a report by McKinsey & Company, the leading consulting firm, suggests that only a fourth of the country's engineers could compete successfully for outsourced jobs from countries like the UK and the United States. In addition, despite the fact that there is a growing demand for engineers, India has close to a million unemployed engineering graduates.
Women and ethnic minorities in engineering
In the UK and America, experts warn that engineering faculties need to be more aggressive in their pursuit of ethnic minorities and women. These groups are currently underserved as increases in tuition fees, the high cost of text books and the economic downturn are making engineering education out of reach for these potential students.
Studies have also shown that, contrary to popular belief, women do just as well as men on engineering programmes. The view that women and ethnic minorities are less well-equipped to excel in mathematics-based fields is a myth. The problem of few women and ethnic minorities in engineering, therefore, is one of recruitment, not retention. Besides which, women constitute only a small minority of engineering faculty staff around the world. A critical step in attracting these groups is to accept them as they are, and to be excited about what diversity can bring into the discipline and profession.
"Education lore has always told us that students - particularly women - drop out of undergraduate engineering programs more often than students in other fields," says Matthew Ohland, an associate professor at Purdue University's School of Engineering Education, Indiana, USA. "Well, it turns out that neither is true. Engineering programs, on average, retain just as many students as other programs, and once women get to college, they're just as likely to stick around in engineering as are their male counterparts."
Dr Ohland says that at the postgraduate level moving to engineering from another major subject is a step rarely taken. While students are 40 percent more likely to move from other disciplines into the sciences , a study he carried out on behalf of the US National Science Foundation suggests the figure is a miserable 7 percent for engineering.
Attracting new students
Here in the UK, faculties say that the blame should not be put entirely on their doorsteps. They say one of the major problems facing the discipline is that students expect more because they now pay tuition fees.
"I have been teaching for 20 years and what you now see is that students are now more demanding on materials being delivered before lectures are given," says Prof Andrew Gibson, head of School of Electrical & Electronic Engineering at the University of Manchester. "In the past, students used to take notes from the blackboard, which brought about interaction between the tutor and his students, even though it slowed down the lecture. But now, it is about powerpoint, slides and projectors. Thus, there's less interaction and less learning going on than before. These expectations have meant less activity in the learning process and students can become disengaged because of that."
Prof Gibson warns that the content of A-levels is not what it used to be, and that engineering tutors now have to do extra work in preparing new students for undergraduate modules. Some new students come into university having been pampered by their parents, he says, and after a few weeks of independent living, some will give up trying.
"What we've found out is that students who make progress on engineering courses are those who attend lectures and seminars regularly, no matter their A-Level result. And when we looked at the correlation between secondary school grades and progression at university, there is none. So attendance needs to be compulsory for all students."
New teaching techniques
Faculties say governments the world over need to increase their investment in engineering education in order to increase diversity and innovation. On their part, they say they are introducing new concepts and diversifying the discipline, despite limited resources.
Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, Terre Haute, Indiana, USA, has introduced hands-on learning in studio settings in order to encourage team work among students.
“The laboratory and hands-on activities should be the spine of the profession to which other teaching methods should be an appendix,” says Professor Richard Layton, head of mechanical engineering. “Now our students work hands-on through sensory-based learning rather than text-based or lecture-based learning.”
New relevant courses
Many academics admit that the pace of change in engineering education needs to increase so that students can compete economically and solve some of the world's pressing problems. Dr Kaspar Althoefer, a senior tutor in mechanical engineering at King's College, University of London, urges engineering faculties to diversify their programmes.
"At King's College, we now run new programmes like engineering with business management, engineering with finance, intelligent system and nano-technology, these are very attractive to potential postgraduate and undergraduate students. We are moving into new areas outside of traditional mechanical engineering," he says.