Successful engineers need to identify and analyse problems, conceive and design potential solutions, liaise with and present to clients, and work with and direct colleagues. They need to do these things efficiently, ethically, professionally, and competently, and, often, they need to do them quickly.
Although it is possible to learn these skills ‘by osmosis’, this can take years—even decades—of trial and error. Our goal is to provide the students with tools at the start of their degrees that will make them more effective during their university career. We will enable them to work as competent professionals not just when they graduate, but when they do student projects and internships.
To begin with, we give students formal training in the subjects we know they’ll need. We start in the first year introducing them to the basics: the design cycle, communication, teamwork and leadership, ideation, critical thinking, ethical and professional decision making, entrepreneurship, and drawing. In the second year we’ll move onto more sophisticated topics like cross- functional teams, risk, sustainability, manufacturability and cost, health and safety, and legal topics such as IP, privacy, and liability.
Crucially, we will not only be teaching the students about these skills, but giving them a chance to practice and develop them in classroom discussions and exercises, projects, challenges, and scenarios.
We take communication very seriously: it’s the number one skill that employers say graduates lack. For engineering students, the problem is often that students pay so much attention to the technical side of what they are writing or presenting that they forget to think about their audience.
Good communication is not a question of niceties, of course, but pragmatism. Engineers have to get their message across to a given set of people to serve their own purposes. We teach them technical argument and explanation, visualisation, writing and presentation, all from the perspective of a technical person and what he or she is trying to achieve.
To make sure that students pay attention to both form and technical content, we provide authentic engineering assignments where the assessment criteria — which, crucially, they see in advance — address both sides of this equation. We reinforce this by using the same criteria across different assignments so that the students internalise good practice over time.
Also, because it’s often so hard to identify the flaws in our own work, we use an element of peer-review to develop students’ skills as editors and critics, especially early on. This teaches them that what they think of as everyday language, others trip over as jargon. What they think everyone knows, others have never heard of. Explanations that they think are succinct and clear, others find woolly and confusing. By learning to analyse what does, and what doesn’t, work in others’ communications, the students can not only help their colleagues, but develop good instincts of their own.
Students will explore leadership skills from their first year and develop an Intentional Learning Plan to reflect and target their own development in leading groups and projects.
UCL Engineering led the HE STEM Set to Lead project to explore how leadership is introduced to engineering students, and worked with three leading employers of engineering graduates to create case studies. We know that not everyone can be a CEO. We also know that ‘Leaders listen’ and ‘Leaders are always learning.’
An important part of developing leaders and leadership is to give students exposure to those who are doing it and the roles they are playing within their organisations and within a technological context.
Students will start thinking about leadership and taking responsibility beyond authority during their problem-based learning activities. Our aim is to introduce students to leadership styles, qualities and frameworks, and a variety of leaders in the engineering environment. Students will explore their differences.