Let’s move on from climate debates

The recent weeks of “climate action” and “extinction rebellion” protests around the world have highlighted one thing: politicians have few responses other than “addressing the problem” (which means talking about it).

Why?

Mostly, it’s up to engineers to provide options, and we could all do a little more.

I will say more about this at the coming World Engineering Convention in Melbourne, November 21-24.

Continue reading

Webinar: Engineering and the UN Sustainable Development Goals

The productivity difference or relative wealth gap between rich and poor countries has hardly shifted in decades. I will explain why neglecting engineering as a critical input has undermined efforts to close this gap.

Engineering educators have inadvertently contributed to this failure.

New research results point to solutions that could empower engineers to deliver long anticipated social and economic development in countries like India, Indonesia, Nigeria and China.

I will explain why implementing the global UN Sustainable Development goals like halting CO2 emissions requires these transformations in engineering and engineering education.

Wednesday, September 25 at 8 pm West Australian time; 5:30 pm India Standard Time; 12 pm GMT; 8 am US EDT.

Here is the recording: http://www.ifees.net/engineering-unsdgs/

(Photo credit: Bill Wegener at unsplash.com)

Continue reading

We can educate better leaders!

How often do hear people saying we need better leaders?

We blame our slow responses to climate change on populist leaders. Thanks in part to populist leaders, women still face the same barriers as they did two or three decades ago. We are consuming earth’s irreplaceable resources, mineral and biological, far too fast to ensure future generations share the lifestyle we have today. We can change… but we need good leaders!

We hear time and again how people are losing their trust in leaders, politicians, institutions, and journalists. Where, they ask, are the Roosevelts, Kennedys, Churchills, Ghandis, and Mandelas who could lead us through these challenges?

We have run out of time to sit and wait for a phalanx of talented and inspiring leaders to emerge and rescue us.

I think we can make good leaders emerge much sooner. Universities could do that, but they need some new ideas.

In my research I have tried to understand what engineers do and why they do what they do… or not.

Engineers have to be leaders, no matter how inadequate their people skills. Contrary to what you might think, engineers never build anything themselves. They only achieve results by persuading other people to do their work differently. This is how I came to understand much more about leadership, and how we could develop more effective leaders.

Our education institutions, schools and universities alike, mostly rely on written assessments: exams, or quizzes. Students are rewarded with grades, good or bad. Every time this reinforces a connection between writing and rewards. It is never stated, but deep in students’ subconscious minds, writing grows ever more important while face to face social skills are easily neglected. It’s called the hidden curriculum, what schools teach without ever saying so.

No matter how often teachers and professors tell students that soft skills and emotional intelligence are vital, the hidden curriculum is telling them something else at a much deeper instinctive level.

The same assessments also reinforce another connection. Students are nearly always assessed on their individual performances in exams and tests where collaboration is seen as cheating, and explicitly prohibited. Occasionally group reports carry marks, but students still have to show they contributed individually, and were not free-riding on others’ efforts. The connection between rewards and individual work is reinforced nearly every time.

And thirdly, emotions are seen in school and universities as attributes to be suppressed. Logic should triumph over emotions, evidence over perceptions… surely yes, every time.

Yet, when it comes to leadership, collaboration, social skills and emotional awareness are everything. Good leaders relate to people in emotional spaces, gain their trust and respect, and they hone their face to face social skills.

Of course, universities have used exams for generations. So, why have perceptions on leadership changed so much in the last two to three decades?

I argue that the advent of email and instant text messaging has (again inadvertently) swayed our social interactions because text communication has become fast, free, and easy. Before these innovations, writing letters or documents took much more time, and effort, and we had to pay the post office to send them. Even though educated leaders had an instinctive preference for communicating in writing, time and convenience favoured face to face socialising and phone calls.

Once text messaging became ubiquitous, a new generation of leaders, no more predisposed to writing than their forebears, suddenly embraced the speed and convenience of text without realising perhaps that trust would be an early casualty (also spelling!). We know from decades of psychology research that trust is more strained and fragile when people write to each other instead of meeting face to face.

These influences are accidental. They are by-products of efforts to make assessments as fair and objective as possible, and written communication as fast and convenient as possible. Also to educate students as rational critical thinkers who can develop and analyse arguments for themselves.

So how can we reshape our students’ unconscious instincts that would make it so much easier for them to gain our trust as future leaders? It’s important to understand just how strong this accidental conditioning can be, that favours writing, individual achievement, and suppressing emotions. Persuasion will not work as long as the hidden curriculum is repeatedly reinforcing opposing instincts.

I have some suggestions.

In the short term, particularly with engineers, there’s an opportunity to reshape their instincts in the first few months at work. Many endure a challenging transition from school. Even getting a job can be a soul-destroying experience until they realise that most jobs are never advertised and networking is the only way to find them.

My former students have told me how surprised they were to find that many people just don’t read emails, or misunderstand them. Of course, I enjoy reminding them about all the emails and handouts that they never read as students. This troublesome transition provides a fertile moment of disorientation when instincts can be challenged and reshaped before habits harden with time.  In an environment that favours collaboration, change is easier.

In universities, faculty complain about teaching workloads that make research a weekend or night time hobby. With appropriate instruction in teaching methods, students could learn to teach much of the curriculum. Not only would this relieve faculty, shifting their role to a source of inspiration, and necessary quality assurance, but this change would also promote much more face to face interaction between students, reinforcing their knowledge at the same time.  It is often said that one only really comes to understand ideas when you have to teach them to others.

Students would then be assessed in two dimensions. First on their collaborative efforts, being graded on how well they teach, lead and inspire other students. And second on the equally necessary individual learning that ensures they acquire knowledge and wisdom to make sense of it.

Just think how much easier it could be for young leaders to engage those people in our societies who respond more in emotional spaces, and read reluctantly at best. But that can only happen if emotional awareness and social skills are reinforced through their education. Politicians would not have to resort to populism to build respect and popularity. Instead they would have the skills to help people understand the huge changes we all need to make.

Even today’s leaders could learn a thing or two. Though it could be harder for them to appreciate, later in life, how they have been seduced into text messaging, a habit which inevitably weakens trust and respect.

If you’re a young engineer, or leader reading this, ask yourself before you next send that text. Could I talk face to face instead? If not, could I call? Could we make a time to talk?

And, as always, remember not all people are alike. Some relationships work best through writing. My grandfather and great uncle ran our family business and communicated by letter through their secretaries for decades even though they had adjacent offices!

Read more: Trevelyan, J. P. (2010, October 27-30). Engineering Students Need to Learn to Teach. Paper presented at the 40th ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference, Washington, DC.  Available from IEEE Xplore or myself.

30-Second Engineering: the book is in print at last

A new way to understand engineers and engineering.

A big thank you to all the contributors: without their efforts as well, it would not have been possible.

Andrew McVeigh, Colin Brown, Donglu Shi, Doug Cooper, George Catalano, Gong Ke, Hung Nguyen, James Trevelyan, Jan Hayes, Jenn Stroud Rossman, John Blake, John Krupczak, Jonathon Scott, Jorge Spitalnik, Julia Lamborn, Kate Disney, Marlene Kanga, Matt Smith, Neill Stansbury, Paul Newman, Paul Shearing, Raj Kurup, Roger Hadgraft, Roma Agrawal, Sally Male, Sean Moran, Tim Sercombe, Tomás A. Sancho, Veena Sahajwalla.

Also thanks to Katie Crous, the copy editor, Elizabeth Clinton, and Kate Shanahan and their colleagues at Quarto Press.

The book goes on sale in four languages in October: English, Spanish, French and German.  Hopefully more will follow.

A new book: Engineering Practice in (about) 50 Steps

“The Making of an Expert Engineer” was published nearly five years ago in 2014. I have received lots of complimentary feedback for which I am very grateful.

An early review on Amazon claimed the book could have been written with 100 pages. Maybe. However the book could not have been complete without the research evidence to substantiate its claims. And I think, with respect, that the content that engineers need occupies more than 100 pages, while agreeing that it can be presented in less than 600 pages.

So here are the early drafts of my new book which is shorter and designed to help novice engineers in the first three to five years. The book is designed to be read over 2-3 years, and is presented as a series of short chapters with practice exercises. Ideally the book should also be read by supervisors and mentors so that they can help novices assess their progress.

Continue reading

Australian Election Surprise

Some of you may be disappointed with the Australian federal election result last Saturday. Especially if you think like I do, that we need to take stronger action to reduce greenhouse emissions and also to prepare people for much warmer weather to come.

Actually, there’s not much politicians can really do. Think about it. Pretty much everything we need to do to reduce greenhouse emissions relies on engineering and that in turn relies on private finance.

Continue reading

Redefining Engineering

Maybe you guessed I spent much of my “free” time last year writing and editing a new book “30-Second Engineering” (available at Amazon from October 1). You can see a preview here.

This was a challenge: how to describe every major field of engineering, common methods and ideas, with interesting new aspects of engineering in 50 pages with just 180 words for each. I had to learn how to write extremely compact prose and edit pieces from 28 other contributors into a consistent style. Katie Crous, the copy editor, was such a great help in this.

The book starts with an introduction and, in writing that, I realised that I had to redefine engineering to recapture its essence. I have been researching engineering practice, what engineers actually do, for nearly twenty years, and perhaps the short definition below brings all that research into two sentences.

Continue reading

Will registration of engineers prevent failures like the Opal Towers in Sydney?

Happy Australia Day!

Happy India Republic Day!

Engineers Australia is pushing for mandatory registration of engineers and other key professionals in the Australian construction industry, following recommendations from a report by Peter Shergold and Bronwyn Weir prepared for the Building Minister’s Forum.

Despite welcome recommendations in the report to improve the standard of documentation and formal checking, our research showed that engineers are disinclined to perform rigorous checking of design documents, even when they are required to in the context of strict quality assurance systems for hazardous installations.

Continue reading

Close Comfort can disrupt the air conditioning industry and help save the planet

Richard Branson has helped publicize the recently announced Global Cooling Prize on his blog, calling for disruption of the air conditioning industry. It’s nice to have forward thinking confirmed by others because Close Comfort already meets or exceeds most of the prize requirements!

Close Comfort can help save the planet by eliminating one of the largest predicted sources of greenhouse emissions, and this could be done soon enough to help avoid a climate catastrophe.

Continue reading

Has Paul Romer missed something in development economics?

Paul Romer, chief economist at the World Bank until earlier this year, is certainly worthy of the recognition that comes with sharing the Nobel Prize for economics.

But, has he missed something, along with many others?

His famous 1990 paper on endogenous growth theory explained the success of Western economies in leveraging the power of ideas, creating enormous prosperity, and elevating the notion of “technology” as the key for economic growth. For the last decade, much of his effort has been focused on promoting economic development for the world’s poor, most of whom live in less developed countries.

Continue reading