How important is STEM education?

Recent reports have highlighted Australia’s declining results in PISA testing of maths, science and reading capabilities of children. Some in particular have drawn attention to Australia’s relatively weak performance compared with China and Singapore. I am unsure what this means. Should we invest more in maths and science education?

The Singaporean government is making it harder for foreigners to work there. International company people I meet in Singapore complain that young Singaporeans cannot perform as well as foreigners and demand too much pay, and the government is trying to force companies to employ more locals.

Read more: I argue that STEM is not the most important priority

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.

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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.

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A Bright Energy Future for Pakistan

Despite current on-going energy shortages and load shedding, Pakistan has energy wealth that could be unlocked just by thinking differently about electricity distribution.

Electricity distribution

Electricity distribution systems are large engineering enterprises (photo from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electric_power_transmission)

Electricity supply is capital intensive engineering. Pakistan built the existing electricity supply network with the help of large loans on favourable terms from the World Bank and other international institutions.

In addition, Pakistan has benefited from the generosity of Saudi Arabia in providing low-cost fuel.

Pakistan has reaped the benefits of large hydroelectric generating plants at Mangla, Tarbela and other dams: they generate electricity with no ongoing fuel costs.

As fuel and capital borrowing costs rose for Pakistan in the last 20 years, and the proportion of cheap hydro power reduced, Pakistan governments shielded people from the real cost of electricity generation with generous subsidies but these cannot continue.

Another factor that frustrates efforts to find energy solutions is the high cost of engineering in Pakistan. Through research we have identified many factors that Pakistan engineers struggle to overcome, such as the deep social divides that inhibit effective collaboration and knowledge sharing between engineers, investors and labour. Given the same requirements for product availability and service quality, the cost is almost invariably higher in Pakistan than in industrialised economies like Europe and the USA. Just as an example, when indirect costs are taken into account, the cost of safe drinking water ranges from US$50 to $150 per tonne in Pakistan while the cost in Australia, the driest continent, is US$3 per tonne.

(This is an updated and extended version of an article published in The News, Pakistan, 31st May 2013)

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What does the Paris Climate Change Treaty mean for engineers?

The Paris climate change agreement has received rather more praise than detailed explanations.  Public discussion during the meeting seemed remarkably muted, perhaps for fear of reawakening ghosts of acrimonious disagreement from Copenhagen, 6 years earlier. I was in Paris on leave for the last few days of the meeting and far more media attention focused on European immigration, Syrian refugees, and the widely expected resurgence of the far-right National Front in local elections.  The National Front lost, the Paris agreement was applauded: everyone sighed with relief and switched attention to Christmas and Star Wars 8. Climate Change quickly vanished as exhausted delegations left Paris.

Galleries-Lafayette-Window 151212

Galleries Lafayette had this stunning Christmas play on Star Wars among
elaborately decorated windows to draw crowds of shoppers.

I believe that the Paris Agreement will soon re-emerge as one of the most significant developments influencing engineering in this century.  It may not have received much media attention yet, but it demands close attention from all of us.

This agreement places enormous responsibilities on us as engineers and the world’s expectations are daunting. Continue reading

Opportunities for Pakistan Engineers

In my last piece I pointed out some of the challenges for engineers in Pakistan.  Yet each of those challenges is an opportunity for any engineer who is prepared to take advantage of them.  Yes, water and power are far too expensive. However, reliably supplying water and power at a lower cost represents a huge commercial opportunity because ordinary people will happily pay for a high quality service that provides real economic value over the alternatives.  Given that water is the equivalent of US$50-$150 per tonne today, supplying safe drinking water at $10 per tonne is a huge improvement.

Here’s an example, my own personal invention, mentioned in the book (Ch13). Air conditioning is unaffordable for the vast majority of Pakistan people because most Pakistan buildings are not insulated. Conventional air conditioning consumes large amounts of electricity. Too many people are using conventional air conditioners, leading to electricity load shedding. Continuous air conditioning requires a generator and the electricity cost (with fuel) for a typical room air conditioner is about 20,000 Rs or US$190 for one month.

Take a look at www.closecomfort.com.

This technology can provide similar comfort, running continuously through load shedding on a UPS, for about 1,200 Rs or US$12 monthly electricity cost which is much more affordable. The first production units will be on sale in Islamabad and Lahore in a couple of months time.

Challenges like climate change also represent a huge opportunity for engineers.  Engineers can do more than almost any other occupational group, and can earn high rewards from grateful people at the same time.

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A moratorium on new coal mines: a hypocritical Australian gesture

Recently there has been an Australian move to propose a moratorium on new coal mines.

For several years I have researched energy supplies on the ground in India and Pakistan.  I have also researched how engineers respond to the challenges of energy and water supplies there, and also in Australia.

I strongly disagree with this moratorium proposal.

Why?

First, it will be seen as hypocritical and selfish in countries like India and Pakistan because we Australians, more than many countries, have grown rich and prosperous by burning vast quantities of coal in the past and continue to do so today.

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