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.


Nicola Stacey said...

The CDIO initiative has been going for several years. The main champion is MIT, which I believe has a pretty good reputation for turning out good engineers? Their standards encourage or may even require Universities to set up an industrial liaison board. The purpose of this is to provide industry relevant content, context, projects, placements and ideas to enhance their teaching. CDIO is therefore an opportunity for industy to get involved and make things better. So why not get in touch with your local university, the higher education academy engineering point of contact or the engineering education centre base at the University of Liverpool to see how you could get involved to make the difference you are looking for. Or submit an abstract for the next CDIO or engineering education conference to tell them what you think and find out what the member insitutions are doing. The last one I went to devoted quite a lot of time to speakers from industry.

Sean Moran : Expertise Limited said...

Hi Nicola,

I've gone one better, I lecture at Nottingham University....