Irshaad Vawda

Raw Thoughts

Raw thoughts are ideas / relfections that I’ve had, that I’ve not researched much, but that I still would like to note and share. These ideas are easier to share on Twitter, but I find Twitter threads inelegent for long term record.

Engineering Education in SA

2018-11-19

I’ve had the privilege this year of teaching in Engineering at Wits, as well as supervising honours level (4th year) projects. Some reflections:

First, I’m a product of the same system, so the following is true for me too. Also, while I’ve come to many of the conclusions myself, I’m currently reading A New U, by Ryan Craig, which has influenced my thinking.

Secondly, controversially, an Engineering degree does not actually teach any real technical skill. Yip, that’s right.

Sure, you supposedly learn how to solve differential equations, but my experience is that students neither understand what a differential equation really is, nor are capable of solving them outside of a maths exam. This is true for almost all areas: thermos, fluids, mechanics, etc.

What you do learn, is how to pass exams, which is very different from how to actually apply the content. You look at past exam papers, look at model solutions, memorise the equations, study the pattern that earns marks, and pass the exam.

Thirdly, Engineering schools like to claim that they teach problem solving, via this approach. Again, I’m unconvinced. Thinking back to when I left and looking at my current students, the limited problem solving abilities we have/had are due to other experiences in life, not due to the curriculum. Real world problems don’t have past papers.

The current curriculum enables perhaps 1% of engineering students to develop exceptional problem solving skills. This 1% are the exceptionally smart students, with few financial /social constraints which allows them time and energy to independently join the dots of the curriculum1 As a result, the current curriculum probably works better at the Ivy League universities of the world than at other places, where most students are exceptionally smart and have few financial/social pressures. However, I would still argue that even at these institutions, change is necessary (and they will probably embrace it sooner than others)

Fourthly: The lack of technical ability means you cannot actually design or build anything when you’re done with your degree. It’s worth watching this video on the engineering curriculum and it’s relationship to design.

Now the argument could be that an undergrad degree is not intended to enable you to design anything when you leave, but gives you the tools and base from which to go and specialise in some application. And that might be acceptable2 If acceptable, then we need more paths into the engineering world. I’m not sure society can afford to let all our engineers spend four years and not know how to actually make anything. if it were true, but from the above points it’s not

Fifthly: An engineering degree DOES teach soft skills. It does teach how to work in a group, handle conflict, deal with difference of opinion etc.

Sixthly: A university is also a fantastic place to meet people from different walks-of-life3 An advantage of South African universities seems to me to be that there is more diversity than most other places. Wealthy kids study side-by-side with really poor kids (the implications of that are another matter)., albeit all selected for some supposed intellectual ability.

Seventhly: Some other related points: the curriculum is incredibly unintegrated4 Special efforts are currently required put in place to simply require two people who teach the same year to talk to each other about their course content. It’s not a natural integration. Even then, the Engineering department often does not know who teaches the Maths course, etc., assessment is highly variable, often misleading process5 It very rarely provides an accurate assessment of competence, and is highly subjective. All sorts of bias creeps in. The size of classes creates a consistency problem. And so on..

So why still do an engineering degree? For the credential. The market still values the credential, but I would argue that this gap (between real skills taught and the demonstration of that skill) will close quickly (in relative terms) and the market will value a university certificate less and less.

Now what does this all mean? For one, engineering curricula need to change urgently. If not, given the many years required at University, and the crippling debt, Universities could find themselves struggling to attract students in 15 years.

Then we also need more diverse paths into the engineering field. Software engineering is pioneering in this. These different paths need to offer options that are faster, cheaper, more open and more diverse in terms of skills than the traditional engineering degree.