Today is National Engineering Day [see ‘My Engineering Day’ on November 4th, 2021] whose purpose is to highlight to society how engineers improve lives. I would like to celebrate the success of two engineers who are amongst the seventy-two engineers elected to the fellowship of the Royal Academy of Engineering this year. Chris Waldon is leading the design and delivery of a prototype fusion energy plant, targeting 2040, and a path to the commercial viability of fusion. This is a hugely ambitious undertaking that has the potential to transform our energy supply. He is the first chief engineer to move the delivery date to within twenty years rather than pushing it further into the future. My other featured engineer is Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, a leading advocate of innovations in engineering education that focus on encouraging enterprising and socially-conscious approaches to designing and delivering engineering solutions. These are important developments because we urgently need a more holistic, sustainable and liberal engineering education that produces engineers equipped to tackle the complex challenges facing society. Of course I am biased having worked and published with both of them. However, I am not alone in my regard for them and will be joining other Fellows of the Royal Academy of Engineering at a dinner in London next week to celebrate their achievements.
Fredrik Sjoberg points out how the lives of Darwin and Linnaeus have become models for generations of natural scientists. Youthful travels followed by years of patient, narrowly focussed research and finally the revolutionary ideas and great books. Very many scientists have followed the first two steps but missed out on the last one, leaving them trapped in ‘the tunnel vision of specialised research’. As our society and its accompanying technology has become more complex, more and more tunnels or silos of specialised knowledge and research have been created. This has led specialists to focus on solving issues that they understand best and communicating little or not at all with others in related fields. At the same time, our society and technologies are becoming more interconnected, making it more appropriate to cross the cultural divides between specialisms.
One of the pleasures of teaching my current MOOC is the diversity of learners in terms of gender, geography and educational background who are willing to cross the cultural divides. We have people following the MOOC in places as diverse as Iceland, Mexico, Nigeria and Syria. We have coffee bean growers, retired humanities academics, physical chemists and social historians. In most of the western world, engineering is taught to male-dominated classes and this has remained a stubborn constant despite strenous efforts to bring about change. So it is a pleasure to interact with such a diverse cohort of people seeking to liberate their minds from habit and convention.
The original meaning of the term ‘liberal studies’ was studies that liberated students’ minds from habit and convention. Recently, Vinod Khosla has suggested that we should focus on teaching our students ‘liberal sciences’. This seems to connect with the ’emotive traits’ that David Brooks has proposed will be required for success in the future, when machines can do most of what humans do now (see my post entitled ‘Smart Machines‘ on February 26th, 2014). These emotive traits are a voracious lust of understanding, an enthusiasm for work, the ability to grasp the gist and an empathetic sensitivity for what will attract attention. We don’t teach much of any of these in traditional engineering degrees which is perhaps why we can’t recruit a more diverse student population. We need to incorporate them into our degree programmes, reduce much of the esoteric brain-twisting analysis and encourage our students to grapple with concepts and their broader implications. This would become a liberal engineering education.