Friday, 28 June 2013

Expert Witness: Water and Wastewater: Duty to the Court

I had a conference call today with a legal team with respect to an issue which required expertise in both water and wastewater treatment.

I am relatively unusual in having a lot of experience in both areas, due to my background in industrial effluent treatment, which borrows from both approaches, as well as my early career working in the proposals departments of design-and-build water and waste-water process contractors.

My report with respect to problems with a package plant in a restaurant application is complete, and undergoing extensive checking prior to submission to the court.

I see some other expert witnesses boast on their websites about the number of cases in which they were on the winning side, but I think that this betrays a misunderstanding of their responsibility to the court. The expert witness's job is not to twist the facts in their client's favour, but to educate the court and explain the issues such that a informed and just decision can be made.

We aim to make our reports clear, accurate, logical, readable, unbiased, and to the point. If we were going to boast about anything, it would be that.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Teaching Soft Skills: Creativity

In a recent issue of The Chemical Engineer, the IChemE's magazine for members, Jamie Cleaver wrote an article with similar content to this one, which was brought to my attention again in comments from one of the Chartered Engineers who review our Year 3 design projects. Dr Cleaver specialises in teaching soft skills courses for engineers, so he presumably thinks that they are teachable, but personally I'm not so sure with many of them.

I'm pretty sure from personal experience than entrepreneurship isn't really teachable, and that it may well be diametrically opposed to employability, but I'm still exploring the skills which impact upon employability for Chemical and Environmental Engineers. The main problem here for anyone wishing to base such an attempt on empirical evidence is that there are no real social sciences - standards of proof in the things which are referred to by that name are pitifully low. Then there is the fact that the commonly held understanding of these subjects relies upon the popularity of books aimed at the general public - take for example "Emotional Intelligence". The idea that there might be such a thing as Emotional Intelligence, and that this might be a predictor of success in the workplace may be thought uncontentious truth by many outside psychology as a result of the best-selling book of that name, but it is just one theory of many within its field, and not widely considered the best.

Then there is the Myers-Briggs Index, which many in human resources circles think a solid way of understanding an applicant's personality and potential value to an organisation. The index was devised by an mother and daughter without relevant experience or qualifications, based on their amateur understanding of Jung's personality types, in turn based on nothing more than the intuition of Jung, an hallucinating psychotic.
The least contentious idea in this area is that of there being a big five personality traits : openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Whilst the idea that an individual has a persistent ranking in each of these things throughout life is extremely well supported (by social science standards) by empirical evidence, there are a number of problems with attempting to use even these broad measures to help us to teach employability.

1. The vast majority of variability in these traits between individuals is a combination of genetics, and early life experience, including birth order.We are teachers, not gene- or psycho- therapists.

2. Whilst one might think initially that for each of these parameters there might be a good - bad continuum, this does not follow. For example, low agreeableness amongst men is linked to high earning power, but it may be that extremes of all of these traits are more or less as bad as each other. 

3. Against the background of a relatively fixed personal set of traits, there is a common trend for agreeableness and conscientiousness to increase with time, and extraversion, neuroticism, and openness to decrease. If we trained students over a year with a view to making them more agreeable and conscientious, and had a reliable way of measuring these traits, how would we know if it was simple maturation which had caused any improvement we saw?

4. These traits for which we have some evidence are too broad to be able to be useful in either screening or training. The things other than technical ability which make a good engineer are not on the list.

5. The idea that there are limited number of sets of personality traits which make a person a good employee in general, or a good engineer in particular is without factual basis.  

So as engineers, we have a problem. In order to control something, we need a reliable measure of the thing we want to change, but there are no reliable set of parameters to measure here, and no agreement on what would constitute a good or bad set of scores.

Neither are there any reliable ways to intervene to alter any scores which we thought required such intervention. All kinds of things are done to try to do this, bit no-one has actually proved that they have improved matters relative to no intervention, or relative to a standard intervention (in teaching there is a tendency for all interventions to improve matters slightly, known as the Hawthorne effect).

Nor is it even that plausible that we can alter people's personalities to our liking when the best evidence we have suggests that almost all of the variability on the most reliable parameters is other genetic or based on early life experience. Even if we had the requisite knowledge and power to alter people's personalities to suit potential future employers, do we have the right to require students to sign up for personality surgery? To return to the issue of creativity, many extraordinarily creative people have been highly neurotic. Assuming we could train students in creativity, what if it also increased neuroticism? Would this be ethical?

But it isn't really our job to alter students personalities, and I'm glad that it isn't in our power to do so. Kathryn Eccleston's "The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education"addresses this issue in a broader context, and is well worth a read. It isn't in our power to help students in this area, but we may harm them with our cack-handed attempts to do things outside our professional competence.

In the HR field things are particular complicated: HR staff cannot admit the truth (that there are no reliable means to predict someone's performance in a job) or people will start wondering why they hire HR people. Pseudo-science like the MBTI may come to their rescue, but engineers generally have little time for ill-founded nonsense.

Engineering as a profession has places for people at the extreme end of every one of the big five personality traits. There are jobs for highly creative neurotics in design, the most nitpickingly conscientious in QA, extraverted agreeable salesmen as well as introverted, disagreeeable commissioning engineers. There is no wrong personality type, and if there were, we would have to consider it a disability, and let them in too. So my job in this area is not to try to measure or change students personalities, but to help them discover for themselves what they are, and learn their own ways of coping with working with others with different personalities in an often stressful high-stakes environment where measurable outcomes are more important that harmonious relationships.

My approach is to put students in groups which I choose randomly (and strongly resist changing), and set them very challenging tasks with short and inflexible deadlines, with a close watch via peer assessment over group dynamics. Students are given an opportunity to learn for themselves in an academic setting how to work with other engineers to get a job done. This methodology simply replicates the situation many young engineers find themselves in at the start of their careers. It is my observation that the best products do not always come from the most harmonious, democratic, or well-balanced groups, and engineering is all about the product.

And as for creativity? I might try out some of the structured methods to facilitate creativity in my design courses, most likely the Adapted McMaster 5-point strategy which Jamie Cleaver highlights, which was developed by Chemical Engineers. This isn't an attempt to teach creativity. Such methodologies do not alter the properties of participants, but they might provide a formalised way of maximising the efficiently of their interaction. Unlike amateur personality surgery, this seems possible, and worth a try. If nothing else, such exercises at the start of a course can be fun, and can give nascent teams something soft to cut their teeth on. Even if they are only a bit of fun, some engineers like fun. Here's an engineer joke to prove it:

A man in a hot air balloon realized he was lost. He reduced altitude and spotted a man below. He descended a bit more and shouted, "Excuse me, can you help me? I promised a friend I would meet him half an hour ago, but I don't know where I am."

The man below replied, "You are in a hot air balloon hovering approximately 30 feet about the ground. You are at approximately 42 degrees north latitude and 83 degrees west longitude." "You must be an engineer," said the balloonist. "I am," replied the man, "but how did you know?" "Well," answered the balloonist, "everything you told me is technically correct, but I have no idea what to make of your information, and the fact is I am still lost."

The man below responded, "You must be a manager." "I am," replied the balloonist, "how did you know?" "Well," said the man, "you don't know where you are or where you are going. You made a promise which you have no idea how to keep, and you expect me to solve your problem. The fact is you are exactly in the same position you were in before we met, but now, somehow, it's my fault."

There are other supposed "soft skills" such as communication and critical thinking which don't look to me like soft skills at all, as they have a great deal of hard fact behind them in an engineering context, allowing performance in these areas to be measured, and plausibly improved. I'll save them for another post.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Who's an Engineer?

Recently the issue of who or what an engineer is has come up in discussions I have been having within the IChemE, the University, and in a legal case where I am an expert witness.

The discussion within the IChemE is to do with legally reserving the title "Engineer" for Chartered Engineers, as is done in other countries. If you hear me describe someone as an engineer, that it what I personally mean by the term. A fellow professional engineer, with a UK-accredited degree in Engineering, at least four years of experience working as an engineer in the design or technical supervision of full scale-engineering projects, and the letters CEng after their name.

My investigations during the legal case disclosed that British Water accredit a two day, zero-entry-qualification course which allows you to describe yourself as a "British Water accredited service engineer" for £200. But even this is not required-anyone can call themselves an engineer in the UK.

So, in the UK at present, someone like myself  recognised by the IChemE as "an engineering professional of distinction" (the requirement to be a Fellow of the Institution), and as a professional engineer by the European accrediting body covering jurisdictions where the term is protected (FEANI) has the same professional title as someone with no relevant qualifications or experience. No wonder people are confused.

Then there are the people who have degrees in engineering but never practice as engineers, (designing or providing technical supervision of full scale-engineering projects). Are they engineers? Sure - the guy who unplugs your drains is an "engineer". Can they do what I can do, do they know what I know? - mostly not.

A UK degree in chemical engineering meets "the academic requirement for the formation of a chartered chemical engineer". That doesn't make you an engineer - that make you someone who can be made into an engineer by other engineers. The IChemE think that the minimum period of practice as an engineer (based on a definition functionally identical to mine above), required to understand what the academic foundation means in context, and have a basic level of understanding of professional practice is four years.

It's the difference between someone with a law degree and a barrister, or someone with a medical degree and a doctor, though the Engineer's minimum period of professional training is longer than a barrister's pupillage, and a doctor's internship put together. I completed this process eighteen years ago, and have practiced continuously as an engineer ever since. Who's an Engineer? I am.

Who else is an "engineer"? It depends what you mean by "engineer". Here is how professional engineers around the world see the hierarchy (though we are often too polite to point it out unless pushed):

"Engineer" =  CEng/ PE/ EUR ING = Accredited Master's degree and 4 years + of specified professional experience - governed by the Washington Accord

"Engineering Technologist" = IEng = Apprenticeship / Bachelor's degree + specified experience - governed by the Sydney Accord

"Engineering Technician" = EngTech = Apprenticeship / Bachelor's degree/diploma + specified experience - governed by the Dublin Accord

"Monkey" = everyone else, in an engineering context

So what about the people who teach and research in HE Engineering departments? They are members of a different profession, that of "academic". I am also a member of this profession, so I know as a member of both that they have very little to do with one another, though there is a polite fiction that all of those who work in academic engineering departments can consider themselves engineers.

This is not to say that there are no Engineers in Universities - just as I am an Engineer who is also an Associate Professor, there are some academics who are engineers, and even a few who are Engineers. Note however that just as the University refuses to use my professional titles in the academic setting, academic titles do not map onto the hierarchy above. A "Professor of Engineering" may be a "Monkey" from a Professional Engineer's point of view - though again it would be impolite to say so.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Enquiries - Busy Summer Forecast

We have lots of new enquiries-for training work in the UK and Middle East, for expert witness work, and increasing numbers of jobs as an international consultant, overseeing engineering projects in India. We haven't lost a bid so far this year, so the HAZOP job and so on are still in play.

We are finishing up a CPR Part 35 compliant expert witness report, which is an opportunity to practice my recent training in producing such reports to the highest standards.

The Indian industrial effluent job is also being wrapped up, with a consideration of vacuum evaporation/distillation technology for disposal of RO concentrates.

Other than that I'm just doing all of the little jobs which  have to be set aside during teaching term-time. Nice to get them off my desk.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Expert Witness Training

I attended a CPD course on writing Part 35 compliant expert witness reports yesterday, which was helpful with respect to all sorts of easy-to-overlook details. I shall be incorporating its insights into the report I'm writing at the moment.

Quite a few other enquiries on the go, another expert witness proposal in the UK, a HAZOP in Saudi, training in Qatar, and oversight of design, construction and commissioning in India,  as well as a few other bits and bobs.

University teaching has finished, other than some post-grad work, and I'm going to drop my teaching hours next term to allow time for me to do more proper engineering work via Expertise Limited.  

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Expert Witness: Part 35 Report: Waste Water Treatment

I drafted the part 35 report for the latest expert witness job yesterday and today. It's to do with package sewage treatment plants and reedbeds for waste-water containing fats,oils and greases.

It's the usual story - poor specification, poor design, poor installation, poor maintenance, and poor operation all feature. 

I'll put it on my package plant problems page when the dust has settled.