Exploring sustainable engineering education

October 7th, 2015, Published in Articles: EE Publishers, Articles: Energize, Articles: Vector


“The best time to do something is 20 years ago; If you missed that, the second best time is probably to do it now,” Prof. Saurabh Sinha told members of the SAIEE at the 64th annual Bernard Price memorial lecture, where he discussed the changes required for sustainable engineering education.

The memorial lecture is a joint meeting between the South African Institute of Electrical Engineers (SAIEE) and the University of the Witwatersrand, and celebrates the legacy of Dr. Bernard Price, specifically his contribution to the power supply industry in South Africa. This year a series of six lectures took place across the country, the last one taking place at Wits University on 30 September 2015.

Engineers are instrumental to development Prof. Sinha said. While the Millennium Development Goals achieved a lot, the recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals focus on the “last mile challenge” of goals such as eradicating extreme poverty, providing access to drinking water and so on, in all of which engineers are needed to realise it.

SAIEE Bernard Price lecture 2015 (1)

Prof. Saurabh Sinha (middle) with SAIEE president Andre Hoffman (left) and Prof. Zeblon Vilakazi, Wits Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Post-grad Affairs (right).

Yet, with a technical skills ratio of 1:3166 in South Africa, and with engineering-related disciplines featuring prominently on scarce-skills lists, engineering education requires attention. The thin throughput of engineering graduates only adds to the challenges. Part of the problem is the public perception of the engineering field, Prof. Sihna said, and he suggested an active approach of improving the public perception of engineering by focusing on the impact of engineering in improving everyone’s quality of life.

Further more, engineering education is changing due rising education costs, newer technologies, as well as by global trends such as changing expectations, urbanisation, changing demographics, and importantly, the need for sustainable development. The actual engineering programmes and curricula hence also require change, he said, using a graph of student concentration in class to illustrate their complete lack of interest as a urgent reason for the needed change.

Policy alone is not enough if implantation falls short. In exploring new approaches Prof. Sinha looked at the engineering programmes of leading higher education institutions worldwide. New approaches in engineering education include a greater emphasis on teamwork, more hands-on and building-things approaches, closer alignment of engineering with fields like medicine and the humanities, a future-focused approach with curricula aligned to development goals, and engineering courses with a focus on social commitment and contributing to civilisation.

SAIEE Bernard Price lecture 2015 (2)

Prof. Saurahb Sinha with Michael Price, the great-grandson of Dr. Bernard Price.

Prof. Sinha further suggested that more attention should be placed on effective knowledge transfer, and not only efficient knowledge transfer. Education can continue focussing on local relevance while remaining globally competitive he added, stating that the concepts are not disconnected.

A common-sense approach is also lacking in engineering education. While many students know theoretical concepts such as electrical units, few students know the price per kWh electricity, or the price of a litre of water. To drive economic development, such an understanding is important.

Future solutions should also focus on vertical integration, and hybrid decentralised solutions (such as self-power-generation for example) might well be the way of forward. But technological development independent of people is also problematic, Sinha emphasised, reiterating the SAIEE’s motto of “Technologies for a better world,”  and not “a better world for technologies”.

Prof. Saurabh Sinha is a well-established and respected academic in engineer, and an authority in engineering education. He is the executive dean of the University of Johannesburg’s faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment. Among a long list of his achievements, he was recently re-elected as the 2015 Institute for Electric and Electronic Engineering Board of Director and Vice President: Educational Activities. The Bernard Price memorial lectures have a long history of focusing on advances in the engineering field and a future-conscious approach, with education of engineers featuring increasingly more in recent years.

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