CEE New Millennium Colloquium
March 20-21, 2000
Wong Auditorium, Tang Center, MIT Building E51
Priorities for Engineering Education
DAVID E. NEWLAND
Head of the Engineering Department, University of Cambridge
May I begin by thanking you for inviting me to take part in this very important Colloquium on the future of our subject and how we teach it. Not only do I come from the other Cambridge, I come as a mechanical engineer and a graduate of MIT Course II, that near neighbor and friendly rival of Civil and Environmental Engineering. But the paths of our two universities are now linked by the recent collaboration agreement and our two professional disciplines necessarily work side by side, so I believe that the priorities that we seek to respond to and the agenda we want to construct are essentially the same.
What do you remember and value about your own education? What was important to you? How has it mattered later?
Let me give you my answer.
What I remember most is the people. For example, I remember my PhD supervisor at MIT, Professor J. P. Den Hartog. He was an inspirational teacher and practitioner of engineering with the ability to see a good research topic and set his graduate students on fire with enthusiasm. I think of Emeritus Professor Steve Crandall. I was Steve's teaching assistant for a new graduate course. Each week I had to work out the problem assignments and prepare their solutions. Since Professor Crandall was on my thesis committee, I was reluctant to appear too stupid. I don't think I conferred with him once before producing my solutions! Before that, I was an undergraduate at Cambridge University. There I remember particularly working with my third-year supervisor, Professor Will Hawthorne, on the design of Dracone flexible barges to float oil on the sea. Our supervision classes dealt not at all with course material, but with how to find an engineering solution to a major world oil crisis.
I could have fun going on with reminiscences. But my purpose is not to remember the good old days. It is to look for the key features of a good education for the good new days.
The point is that I don't remember much about the details of my own education. I believe that the fundamentals have stuck with me, but not much of the training in techniques and methods remains. Not much about the moment distribution method of structural analysis, or stress relaxation or how analog computers work; not even much about the design of a pipe bridge, or a study of nuclear reactor technology, or even the nonlinear vibration theory of my PhD thesis. What I remember most is the people.
And I am sure that, just as we all remember our own teachers, present generations of students will remember us. We have a very important leadership role that I shall return to shortly. And it goes on throughout life. Education is not just a once-and-for-all experience early in a professional career, but a long continuing process. We all influence and teach each other in the university of life.
I want to talk first about creativity, because I believe we have underestimated the importance of encouraging and nurturing the creative instincts that exist in everybody, and particularly in those who aspire to the heights of engineering. The ability to seek a creative solution, to synthesize, to be imaginative, is a property we should cultivate.
Cambridge is proud of the achievement of Sir Frank Whittle, designer of the jet engine. Whittle was working out his ideas while an undergraduate engineering student in Cambridge in the early 1930s. Arguably his is the finest invention that has so far resulted from 125 years of engineering in Cambridge. Whittle thought of the idea of using a gas turbine for jet propulsion in 1928 but he says that :
"Nothing very much happened for a few years. I gave up hope of ever getting the idea to the practical stage, but continued to do paperwork at intervals, until, in May 1935, when I was at Cambridge as an Engineer Officer taking the Tripos Course, I was approached by two ex-RAF officers (Mr. R. D. Williams and Mr J. C. B. Tinling), who suggested that they should try to get something started. Though I had allowed the original patent to lapse through failure to pay the renewal fee, and though I regarded them as extremely optimistic, I agreed to co-operate. I thought that there was just a bare chance that something might come of it .".
The role of the two members of staff is crucial. Their encouragement and leadership came at a critical time for Whittle. We do not know why Whittle had the creativity and drive to see the jet engine succeed but his memoirs indicate the vital role of these two teachers in the process of taking an inventive idea through to successful conclusion. I shall return to that theme later.
Good design matters. If engineers don't address design issues, particularly civil engineering design, then architects will take over that function. Sadly, traditional engineering courses do not encourage creativity. There are many reasons for this which I will not go into here except to say that too great an emphasis on engineering science alone, both in the curriculum and in determining staff promotions, is a disincentive for the teaching faculty to recognise and respond to the creative challenge of engineering design.
Design engineering requires skills that need fostering just as much, or more, than the analytical skills of engineering science and it is important that design is a key part of our curriculum.
At Cambridge, we have a four-year undergraduate engineering course. It has a first-year curriculum that is common to all the engineering disciplines. This includes a compulsory creative design course in which students tackle conceptually quite difficult design exercises in which they have to describe and sketch their suggestions. Also all first year students take an exposition course in which they are required to write and speak in public about engineering topics of the moment. After the first year, we set group and project activities including team design projects. Where possible, these are run in collaboration with professionals and industry on real tasks. The difficulty is the time and cost that this requires in staff and resources.
Student internships in industry, at home and overseas, provide a great opportunity. As well as providing splendid professional experience they also offer the opportunity for service in a meaningful way and allow responsibility to be taken early in a young person's career. My department has a full-time officer responsible for undergraduate placements in industry and proof of limited practical experience is required before a student may graduate. We also run a one-year Advanced Course in Design, Manufacture and Management for graduate students. This is essentially industry-based and consists of a structured sequence of projects in industry carried out under the joint supervision of university staff and industrial managers.
So we have made a start, and many other university engineering departments have done similar things and more. But I still believe that we need to give much greater attention to the design curriculum: what we teach, how it is organised, how successful it is, how effectively it nurtures basic (but probably repressed) creative skills, what proportion of the curriculum should be given to synthesizing rather than to analyzing, and how individual progress can be measured. Academics like to measure things. If something cannot be given a quantitative mark, it becomes questionable. We need to reconsider that attitude and change it.
In particular, I believe that we need to explore more carefully how to judge whether design teaching has been successful. Does it spark and then develop an individual's creative powers, or possibly have the reverse effect? Although research into design methodologies is a major field, research to assess the effectiveness of design teaching and the fostering of creativity has been relatively neglected. Its importance needs urgent recognition. We need to know what works and then change the curriculum to recognise that.
ENGINEERING FOR CHANGE
Our curriculum must allow for change. Change to itself and change to the technology it embraces. Much has already been said and written about the never ceasing development of technology, and particularly the rapid rate of development of information technology in recent years. But I am not sure that this is necessarily such a paradigm shift as is sometimes suggested. In the 20th century our parents and grandparents also experienced some rapid changes.
In 1900 the structure of matter was still a mystery. J. J. Thompson has only just discovered the electron. But by 1950 atomic power had been harnessed and by 2000 electronic chips can fit millions of transistors into each square centimetre of a microprocessor.
In 1900 Darwin's theory of evolution was still under debate. But by 1953 Crick and Watson had deciphered the structure of DNA and by 2000 a complete map of the 100,000 genes that compose a human being is within reach.
In 1900 there were only 8 known planets in the solar system. But the Russian space satellite Sputnik I was launched in 1957 and by 2003 an international space station the size of a football field will be complete.
So I do not think we can say that progress was slow in the 20th century. And of course the last century saw the development of automobiles and aircraft and the advent of radio, the telephone and television. The biggest effects have been and will continue to be felt where technology directly impinges on the consumer. The reason information technology in its broadest sense is now bringing such profound changes into our daily lives is because it is available directly to the consumer. The rate of development of e-commerce is indeed truly remarkable. But the present euphoria about the opportunities for IT development should not blind us to the seriousness and importance of other technological challenges.
I believe that we in the west neglect the rest of the world at our peril. Graduates in civil and environmental engineering have a particular responsibility to be aware of the big picture because they are the ones who will have to deal with it.
ENGINEERING FOR THE WORLD
The world's population is growing inexorably. By 2050 it will have increased by 50%. Most of this increase will occur in "under-developed" countries where many live in abject poverty, without sanitation or running water or electricity.
World population: 1950-2050 
Massive additional energy demands will be created as the less-developed countries strive to reach western standards and a vast army of people demand electricity for the first time. Official estimates by the EIA (US Energy Information Agency)  suggest that the world's demand for energy will rapidly outpace the increase in population, increasing by 50% within 20 years. Energy demand in India may be 3 times its present level, while demand in China could multiply 2_ times by 2020.
Countries ranked by population: 2000 
Carbon emissions are likely to increase roughly in proportion to the rise in energy consumption. This is because burning fossil fuels will remain the predominant energy source. Although renewable energy sources are predicted to increase by about 60% by 2020 (over half of the increase coming from new hydroelectric projects), they are still expected to contribute only 6-7% of the overall energy burden. Unless there are technological breakthroughs in energy generation or in the efficiency of energy-using equipment, carbon emissions to the atmosphere will grow very substantially. We cannot be confident that the combination of efficiency improvements, conservation measures and renewable energy sources will be enough to mitigate the threat of drastic climate change caused by the unrestrained emission of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide.
We are left with possibly the greatest technological challenge on earth. To relieve poverty, to provide food, to prevent disease, to provide housing and to provide the means for education, all require energy. But we cannot yet provide this energy without polluting the atmosphere we breathe with all the consequences for global warming about which we know so much.
Nuclear energy provides a possible solution. It is an unpopular solution because of the inherently hazardous nature of nuclear power production But the developed world requires energy, in the form of electricity, to be available on demand, to every user, every minute of the year, at an affordable price. This demand has to be tempered by the perceived environmental and political problems of satisfying it. As more countries experience the benefits of instantly-available energy, the demand will intensify. Therefore we have to assume that, for the purposes of long-term planning, new nuclear plant will be required. For that, public confidence is necessary.
"Such confidence cannot be demanded: it must be won by a mixture of openness on the part of industry, acceptance of a degree of responsibility by the public, recognition of long-term self-interest, and clear leadership by politicians." 
Governments face a major challenge to balance the benefits of industrial and economic development, which are driven by the consumption of energy, with the impact of that development on the environment.
Our students must be educated to address an environmental agenda and to approach technology in a holistic way. Because they can understand and assess the issues, they will have a unique responsibility to contribute to these debates. Civil engineers must work on the world stage. They must be prepared to address the ethical and moral issues of their work as well as the purely technological.
WHAT SHOULD EDUCATORS DO?
We must provide educational programmes which recognise the world agenda. Inter-disciplinary teaching, not just across the engineering front, but with our colleagues in other disciplines, is the only way of properly addressing these great issues.
That does not mean abandoning the hard science which is the bedrock of a sound basis in engineering principles. It means supplementing this with a broader spectrum of material to cover a wider canvas.
We are helped by the development of distance and web-based learning technologies which provide new teaching tools and new opportunities which I shall say more about shortly. But these new methods of provision in no way usurp the role of the skilled teacher. I do not think that education is a commodity that can be boxed up and sold. Students want to do more than sit passively in front of VDU screens. Education remains a social as well as a cognitive experience. The notion that teachers are providers and students consumers of education seems to me to miss the essential point.
The word education stems from its Latin root educere, to lead out. And that, I believe, is our main task as educators. Our function is to lead. Good students can teach themselves almost anything. Good teachers lead by providing the framework and motivation for their students' learning. And it is to encourage and advise during the learning process, to provide by our example the incentives and role models for our students, and to demonstrate the opportunities and responsibilities of professional engineers, that is the function of a teacher. You will have noticed the very important role of two of his teachers in encouraging Whittle to persist with his ideas for a jet engine. Without them he would probably have given up. So I want to emphasize the importance of faculty/student interaction. The tradition that the teacher leads and the student follows can only work if there is the time and the opportunity for faculty and students to work together in small group teaching so that each may influence and guide the other.
THE TUTORIAL APPROACH
The tradition of small group teaching is a long one. Long before there was any thought of engineering as a profession, indeed before the word engineer had been coined, the apprenticeship principle had become established. It was not possible to practice a craft or trade without having served an apprenticeship first. Pupil and teacher worked together for several years before the pupil was judged fit to work unsupervised. Although this custom has largely died out in the engineering profession, the same traditions still linger. In the UK, lawyers, accountants and doctors are all apprenticed to fully-qualified professionals before they can themselves receive full accreditation. And, in the ancient and many other universities, every student has a personal tutor and one or more supervisors charged with overseeing their academic progress.
The provision of personal tuition as an integral part of university courses is expensive and is vulnerable whenever cost-saving studies are made. In the UK, where government funds still contribute a large proportion of the costs of university education, tuition fees are under attack. We are encouraged to move to larger classes and reduce staff involvement wherever savings can be made. In different ways, and for different reasons, there is the same pressure to cut costs in whatever country a university works.
In his Report for MIT's Centennial Year 1961, President Julius Stratton devoted a complete section to The Tutorial Approach. He explained how a number of engineering departments had experimented with tutorial groups of four or five students each.
"The results of this approach have been dramatic, especially in values other than grades: in stimulating deeper thinking, in promoting meaningful student-faculty discussion, in generating student enthusiasm, in helping students become articulate and expressive, in developing in our students a sense of belonging."
President Stratton went on to note how costly the tutorial approach is in faculty time and energy. He ended by reminding his readers that the Second Century Fund was striving to raise $66 million to help fund such developments.
The Campaign for MIT, just launched by President Vest, has a goal of $1.5 billion. Huge as it seems, this target is only a little more than one full year's operating costs for the Institute.
I believe that the leading universities must ensure that their faculty have the ability, the resources and the time to educate their students, and that means exercising a leadership and mentoring role with small-group teaching as the first prerequisite. Although this is immensely costly, there are huge compensatory savings ahead as we adopt more effective and cheaper methods of teaching and grading routine material than by using the old world "chalk, talk and textbooks".
THE ROLE OF LEARNING TECHNOLOGY
Over forty years ago, MIT's Electrical Engineering department was studying "teaching machines". These were machines to grade homework exercises and "provide immediate feedback as to the nature of errors".
Perhaps we may be surprised that ideas promoted in the 1960s for automating routine teaching have not made a big impression at university level. But the role of multiple-choice questioning and exercises with straightforward numerical answers is a limited one. It has not been possible to judge whether a student has got the gist of an argument, only whether a numerical answer is right or wrong. Now software breakthroughs will allow unstructured information to be processed intelligently. One approach developed in Cambridge is to use statistical Bayesian methods of pattern-matching to recognise key concepts in written material and encode them by identifying signatures. The design of this software goes way beyond simple Boolean keyword technologies and appears to offer potentially very great benefits. I think it will provide an effective means of extending automatic grading methods for student exercises, thereby reducing the great burden of individual assessment time currently needed .
Educational material is increasingly offered over the internet. You will know that some major universities, including UC Berkeley, Michigan, and Columbia have linked up with major information and entertainment providers in the private sector such as Time Warner, Disney Corporation, Microsoft and Cisco. These partnerships will be attacking the global market in higher education. Universities provide most of the academic expertise and the "branding"; commercial partners provide the production, distribution and marketing facilities. And many major corporations are using the distance learning and on-line model of education for their own management and business training. Their objective is to develop a learning culture by providing job-relevant training within their companies.
Here I believe that there is an essential difference between the provision of training and the provision of education. It is not yet clear to me how successfully the human element can be incorporated into web-based teaching. The essential element of a university is that teachers and students work together. The very name university means a corporation of teachers and scholars working together. I believe that the tutorial approach lies at its heart. Whether that element of human interaction is possible in an e-university remains to be proven. Within limits I believe that it may be. We all know how immediate e-mail communication is and how rapidly a friendly exchange can be begun between two people who have never met. The difficult task for educators is to work out how the tutorial approach can be adapted to long-distance learning.
For many years, Cambridge University has collaborated informally with MIT. Last year plans were announced for a formal alliance  and we are now working to bring those plans to fruition. Our collaboration will be essentially on four levels:
We anticipate that there will be benefits to both sides on many different fronts, but, above all, this collaboration will provide the opportunity and the incentive to broaden our faculty interests and connections and to introduce a truly international dimension into our teaching and our academic affairs.
The key objectives are to remove the obstacles of time and place that separate us; to deliver more cost-effective learning opportunities; and to develop new approaches to learning and assessment. As custodians of part of the knowledge base, we have a responsibility to share this knowledge and the opportunities that go with it. I hope that we shall be able to address the agenda I have referred to. In particular, sharing a design curriculum on-line is a particular challenge. Developing and releasing creative talent and ensuring that this receives a proper allocation of time and encouragement is another. Multi-disciplinary teaching across the broad canvas of world technological need is a very important third objective.
I believe that the agreement between MIT and Cambridge University is the beginning of a wider collaboration, not just between our two great institutions, but within a network of other of the world's leading universities. The ability to use modern telecommunication links to interact over long distances provides an opportunity that I believe we have yet to grasp. I hope that we shall now be able to do that.
As our students mature and address the great issues that face humanity as this century unfolds: poverty, food, disease, housing, education, environment, energy, we have to make education available not just to our own constituencies but to the wider world. How can we do that? A world network of affiliated universities may be the solution. Getting on-line is the easy part. Our challenge is to provide ways of offering academic leadership to individual students, wherever they may be. We have to work out how to do that.
Students as well as teachers have a part to play. As I have mentioned, undergraduate programmes may include an internship semester with the opportunity for practical work abroad. Graduate courses can encourage professional activities overseas when these are relevant to educational objectives. Students no longer need to be out of day-to-day contact with their course supervisors while carrying out this work. And while extending their own horizons, they may also contribute directly to the local society in which they find themselves. Many medical courses have provision for clinical training overseas when young doctors are encouraged to spend a semester in the under-developed world working in unfamiliar surroundings alongside an experienced doctor. This is a feature of medical education which deserves to be more widely adopted.
In April 1949, Winston Churchill addressed MIT's Mid-Century Convocation.
"This vast expansion [of technology in the 20th century] was unhappily not accompanied by any noticeable advance in the stature of man, either in his mental faculties, or his moral character. Our codes of honour, morals and manners, the passionate convictions which so many hundreds of millions share together of the principles of freedom and justice, are far more precious to us than anything which scientific discoveries can bestow."
In the half-century that has elapsed since that speech, science and technology have bestowed immense new powers on humanity, but humanity has not changed.
The gap between the incomes of rich and poor is widening. With unskilled labour in the Third World willing to work for $1 per day, new realms of inequality are unfolding. There were similar circumstances at the start of the 20th century. Then the resulting instabilities proved ungovernable and were the underlying driver of war and depression.
Our students have to practice their professions in an unequal and unstable world. How successful they are will have immense consequences for humanity. When, like us, they have become alumni and alumnae of great universities, what will they treasure and remember at the peak of their careers? I suggest that, like us, they will remember most the people who guided and inspired them. Our task is to ensure that inspirational leadership remains a hallmark of the educational process, at whatever level. Our challenge is to ensure that the human spirit can still shine through.
1. The early history of the Whittle jet propulsion gas turbine, Sir Frank Whittle, Proc. IMechE, London, Vol. 152, 1945. http://www2.eng.cam.ac.uk/~bcb/whittle/whitt-intro.htm
2. World population data http://www.census.gov/ipc/www/
3. World energy data http://www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/ieo99/
4. Royal Society Report: Nuclear Energy - the future climate, London, June 1999. http://www.royalsoc.ac.uk/
5. Autonomy software http://www.autonomy.com/tech/index.html
6. MIT alliance: Cambridge University Reporter, No. 5803, 1 March 2000, 491-495. http://www.admin.cam.ac.uk/reporter/
This paper is currently available at http://www2.eng.cam.ac.uk/~den/priorities.html
© D. E. Newland, March 2000
Return to Speakers page
Return to the Colloquium main page.