Thursday, 31 January 2013

The Fellowship of the Ing..

I'm now a Fellow of the IChemE, as well as a Euro Engineer (Eur Ing), and I just heard I'm one of this year's Exxon Mobil Teaching Fellows 

These are what they call markers of status in academia. I have to admit I quite like it, though of course it doesn't make me any better than I was yesterday morning. Luckily I was pretty good yesterday morning...

Friday, 25 January 2013


...back in the real world, I've picked up what looks to be a nice job travelling the world for a major agrochemicals manufacturers troubleshooting their effluent treatment plants.

I'm also on a short-list for some municipal effluent treatment plant design consultancy for a larger consultancy, and I spoke to an Iraqi this week about some training opportunities over there.

Just need to make sure to programme in some holidays when I'm not working/travelling....

Unemployability II

There was a CV doing the rounds at the university today for someone who had been continuously in higher education since the late 20th century. They had done a broad range of qualifications in medicine, political science, teaching, and a couple of sciences. They had done pretty well in all of these subjects, but my impression on seeing this CV was that this was someone who didn't know what they wanted to be when they grew up.

Many in academia think this of engineering undergraduates. They are doing a degree in chemical / environmental engineering because they don't know what else to do. Highly numerate degrees are all much of a muchness, they can get a job in the city, or whatever with a good degree in Chemical Engineering.

In this model the degree is just a filtration mechanism, it hardly matters what we teach and assess them on, as long as it is intellectually challenging, and requires a high degree of numeracy, but strangely, when I ask undergraduates, the overwhelming majority tell me they came to be made into engineers. This is however more true of first and second years than it is of final year students, but less so for those who have done a year in industry.

A CV like a library ticket is far less impressive than the tightly focussed experience and qualifications of the person who went to university specifically to train for the job we are offering. Who wants to take on someone who is having to settle for their fallback career? Not me.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

The CDIO Initiative in Engineering Education

Recently there has been an initiative by engineering educators to realign engineering education with what engineers do for a living. They argue that world-wide and across all disciplines the link between engineering education and practice has been broken for some time.

Before the 1960s engineering departments were staffed and led by practitioners, providing a highly vocational training. In the 60s a golden age of engineering education was ushered in by an influx of engineering scientists, leading to a balanced engineering education teaching powerful scientific explanations alongside the practitioner’s experience based approaches.

Unfortunately for a number of reasons, (most notably a change of emphasis to excellence in scientific research ) the practitioners bled out of the system, until departments were filled almost entirely by the engineering scientists who had initially been so helpful. Engineering degrees had lost their way - no one in academia any longer really knew what practising engineers do.

The CDIO initiative looks to fix this: they say that engineers all do essentially the same thing:they Conceive, Design, Implement and Operate Solutions to engineering problems. CDIO enthusiasts say that this is the context in which we should teach everything.

Up this point I agree with them completely. Too many engineering degrees seem to be what one UK engineering professor has called rites of passage. We teach students things which are intellectually challenging, whether they are related to the profession our course is named after or not, in the name of intellectual rigour.

However, as this is a movement amongst educationalists, it is a little too interested in ideological purity for my taste. The movement is philosophically constructivist, an approach which sees problem based learning as the one true path of education, and unfortunately PBL has a terrible track record. Once we correct for the Hawthorne effect (the educationalist equivalent of the placebo effect) PBL is a very poor educational technique when measured by exam success. Furthermore is it very demanding on lecturers' time, requiring many more hours of preparation, execution and marking than didactic approaches.

Whist I am convinced by the CDIO initiative’s analysis of the problem, I think a naive implementation of an ideologically pure variant of its proposed solution might be disastrous. I think we should blend the practitioner's more intuitive approach with rigorous science, and that we should make use of PBL where it is appropriate.

I suspect that the terrible track record of PBL in the educational literature might be to do with who was applying it. Medicine and law have made heavy use of practitioner-led PBL for many years, and whilst not as effective as is commonly believed, the evidence suggests that it is an effective way to teach professional skills which are both hard to measure and to teach in a didactic way.

So I would argue that PBL has its place, which is to begin the professional formation of engineers. The materials used should be real materials, and the educator should be a practitioner. Assessment procedures should be based on the production of real professional deliverables, assessed by experienced professionals, and with as detailed feedback as is practical to students.

There are other aspects of professional practice which require a body of rote learned knowledge. Professional engineers carry in their heads certain equations, facts, notations, rules of thumb and so on - these need to be memorised. They can be taught didactically, or better still by means of example classes by any competent educator. They can be assessed by traditional exam, even computer marked exam, as they are things you either know or you do not. Whilst they may be low on an educational taxonomy, they are essential to making engineers.

The placing in context of the engineering science we teach or students which the CDIO movement advocates is also an excellent discipline. If we are to avoid our courses being a trial by ordeal more or less unaligned with the profession of engineering, we need to stop worrying so much about the intellectual rigour appropriate to pure disciplines, and worry a bit more about whether we are teaching something which genuinely underpins the CDIO process of professional practice. Where would an engineer use the thing we are teaching? How would they use it? How would it help them conceive, design, implement or operate an engineering product?

We need not to develop some vague and plausible post-hoc rationalisation for this, but to start from an understanding of why an engineer needs to know the thing we are teaching. We need to spell this out to the students whilst we are teaching it. If we are honest with ourselves, we may discover we are teaching something engineers will never use under any plausible set of circumstances. I would suggest in this case that we consider stopping teaching that thing and replacing it with something useful to engineers. A certain amount of breadth is acceptable, but until we have a strong core tightly aligned to engineering practice, our course will lack both relevance and coherence.

If our staff  lack professional engineering experience, they should ask a practitioner (not another researcher) these questions. If we are to be rigorous, this is where our rigour should be applied. Let us be rigorously honest with ourselves about how relevant our area of expertise is to practitioners.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Engineering and Un-employability

I've got a couple of proper engineering enquiries to deal with this weekend, as well as yet more overseas training enquiries.

At the University, I'm putting the finishing touches to a new course in process design for the second years, and I'm now leading the Careers and Industry team. Naturally people are asking me to tell them what industry wants of our graduates, and I ended up having quite a vague conversation with someone about this on Thursday.

I used to think I knew what employability was about - I ran a module intended to enhance employability at Nottingham Trent University, but I wasn't that convinced in the end of the value of attempts to formally teach "soft skills". All of the textbooks were written by people who'd never had a job outside higher education. The research was pretty flaky, and there was an assumption that there was such a thing as generic employability skills, which had substantial crossover with entrepreneurship.

Firstly entrepreneurship - I'm not convinced that you can teach entrepreneurship at all. You can teach skills useful to entrepreneurs, but that's not the thing itself. Then there's the issue of whether entrepreneurs are good employees. I suspect many entrepreneurs are people you wouldn't like working for you, and you wouldn't like to work for. They can employ man-managers if they are successful, but they can be successful if their people-management skills are limited to bullying and manipulation, as long as their business idea is sound. Psychopaths and narcissists are far more likely to be successful entrepreneurs than successful employees.Good employees are generally speaking less self-reliant, less convinced of their own rightness, more compliant, and more empathic than good entrepreneurs. So, I think that teaching entrepreneurship may well run counter to teaching employability, assuming it is possible to teach either.

Then there is employability - Is there a consistent set of skills and attitudes which support employability across all possible jobs and careers? In engineering, people skills are far less important than they are in hairdressing. A compliant and pleasant nature is not always an asset in engineering, though it may well be before one's technical skills are developed. Seeing deadlines as absolute is the norm in a way which would be considered ludicrously inflexible in academia. Clock-watching is considered working to rule in the sort of private sector companies I used to work for, whereas in my experience in the the public sector it is normal to finish a little ahead of time to make sure you are out of the door at the stroke of your finish time.

There are certain traits which make for general unemployability, but these are essentially disabilities. Intelligence lower than a certain threshold will make it very difficult to do useful work. Many mental illnesses, especially personality disorders will tend to be associated with a poor work record. Criminal records tend to hinder employment opportunities. Personality traits less severe than these which are not considered illnesses may cause employability problems too, but these may not be general. A slight lack of empathy may be desirable in a surgeon or a soldier.

What am I looking for when I interview an early career engineer for a job?

Their paper qualifications tell me that they have been assessed in an academic exercise as likely to be intellectually capable of the tasks I am going to ask them to carry out, so that tells me that so far as hard skills are concerned, they are likely to be educable, but the content of academic exercises can be very far removed from the real skills they are intended to teach. Making our academic exercises as realistic as possible, as we are doing at Nottingham can give reassurance in this area. Hard skills may in fact be be easy to enhance.

Soft Skills? I don't want them to be an enormous administrative burden. I want them to turn up on time every day, do as they are asked by superiors, take responsibility for their own actions, understand what I tell them, communicate with other staff clearly, and know what they do not know.

I have taken on some graduates and interns who have fallen down on this last point in the past. Knowing what you do not know is an essential skill at every point in a engineers career.

I have generic skills, such as process design, commissioning and troubleshooting. I am happy to teach these at a general level to all process industries. I also have a higher level of these skills, at which level I am a water and environmental specialist. I do not design bridges, aircraft, or consumer goods. If I need such expertise, I bring in a specialist. I know my limitations.

There have been some very serious industrial accidents in the past caused ultimately by engineers operating outside their area of expertise, or non-engineers operating as engineers. The non-engineers can be forgiven, but part of the skill-set of the professional engineers is a very practical kind of humility. We know that we don't know everything. Some undergrads and new graduates think they do. Not only do they not know, they can't be taught because they think they do. Barring disability, this is a thing which creates unemployability in my book, but that may just be me.

The problem with employability is that the really effective soft skill is being like your interviewers, and/or being liked by them. People employ people whose faces fit, and often simply people who seem like them.

This matters in early- career interviews more than technical skill, or qualifications. Interviewers have been shown for example to prefer employing convicted thieves to fatties. Tall people earn more than shorties. Physically attractive people get more job offers than the aesthetically challenged.

We may prevent people discriminating on grounds of skin colour, sexual orientation, and so on, but we don't stop people discriminating on the grounds of identification, feelings of comfort, and whether they want people who look like the candidate to work with. How are we supposed to teach that?

Friday, 4 January 2013

Training Courses - Now Booking for June!

A firm booking for a course on practical open channel hydraulics relevant to sewage treatment plant design has come in, and we are at the initial stages of planning courses in Oman and Saudi for later in the year.

Training is becoming a very important part of Expertise's workload, but I am very keen to continue with the hands-on engineering which still forms 75% of our order book. The practicality and relevance of my training and teaching relies upon me keeping current with practice.

Things fill up quickly nowadays, with only the University holiday periods to carry out any longer jobs which I have to do in person. We have more or less booked the Easter period with courses in the Far and possibly Middle East, and are now looking to book the summer vacation period.

We do however have a number of associates who can stand in for, or supplement me on the teaching side as well as on-site. We are negotiating the booking of four courses for a client in Bahrain which will mostly be delivered by associates.

I'm still available to carry out site visits and troubleshooting during term time for a day or two at a time, but it isn't fair to the Nottingham students to be away for much longer than this in term time.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Groupwork Session: Oman Training Course

Training Course Water Engineer Oman desalination hab red tide harmful algal bloom
Group-work session, HABs and Desalination course, Oman December 2012. Good group-work is the key to an effective and enjoyable course.

Our client said of this course:

"I have worked with Sean on 4 different courses over the last six months but happened to witness his work only during my previous course. I must say that i have worked with several trainers but Sean has stood out from rest. The one thing that I must mention is about his patience to handle the delegates. He definitely excels in people management. He has the ability to adapt to any situation and can deliver best results even under pressure. He has immense knowledge on water sector. Sean is among those, who believes in "Client Satisfaction"."

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year to all.

We have had a productive break so far, with a well-received course in Muscat a few weeks ago. A rerun is planned in Oman for March next year. We are also likely to be offering our first course in Malaysia around the same time.

I'm now planning next year's design teaching at Nottingham, and a few bits and bobs of design work to complete before teaching restarts on the 14th.

We are integrating my social media sites over the break:

Linked In is here
Facebook is here
Flickr here

The confidential nature of much of our business is not such that we are going to be able to provide interesting tweets, so I'm not bothering with twitter for Expertise Limited.