Beyond Competencies

Is it possible that much of the engineering education research community, myself included, has misunderstood the notion of competency? With many others, I think, I was unaware of literature drawing attention to some of the mistakes that can easily be made when talking about competency. I conclude by suggesting a way forward, beyond ‘competencies’.

How did I reach this position?

Continue reading (15 mins)

What we know, and mostly don’t know about engineering practices

This is the script for my REES-AAEE-2021 Keynote. The video is here, and the powerpoint slides are available on request if you would like to use them for education purposes.

For a sustainable future, we need large productivity improvements. Engineers are critical contributors, but we need deeper understandings of engineering practices and how education influences them to make the necessary improvements. Without this, education reform arguments are fragile at best.

Read the Script of the presentation (30 mins)

Winners of the Global Cooling Prize announced

I rarely stay up late to watch serious TV. However, this announcement, three years in the making, was something that I just couldn’t miss.

At Close Comfort, we sincerely congratulate the Global Cooling Prize 2021 winners along with all the judges and participating teams! Everyone involved in the Prize helped develop new green technologies that can cool people around the world without warming or harming our planet.

Continue reading

A Big Question

How are we going to adapt engineering education to prepare coming generations of engineers for climate warming and the need to protect people and infrastructure? How can we prepare them to re-engineer almost our entire civilisation to eliminate greenhouse and other harmful emissions in 25 years?

As you would know, I often write about engineers and engineering, and education issues. However, I have usually stopped short of specific recommendations, relying on my books and articles to convey ideas that educators can use.

Next week I am speaking at a panel discussion at Engineers Australia Perth on Wednesday March 31, 5:30 – 8pm. Register here to join in the discussion and contribute your ideas, or if you cannot join us then, reply to this post.

Continue reading

Changing notions of comfort

I am so thankful I don’t have to work all the time in an air-conditioned office building. Especially since Covid-19, our entire Close Comfort team works part of the time at home. We’re happier and feel healthier too.
Of course, I have a Close Comfort personal air conditioner with me. Our team members each have at least one at home as well.
Lee Kuan Yew, honoured as Singapore’s founding father, loved to tell everyone how air conditioning enabled today’s Singapore by providing a comfortable working and sleeping environment. However, there’s a dark side that comes with 20th-century air conditioning systems.
It is well established that people who live most of the time in constant temperature air-conditioned buildings lose their natural thermal acclimatization. As a result, they only feel comfortable at about 23 °C.
Recently I hailed a Singapore cab and climbed into the shiny black refrigerator on wheels, feeling so glad I remembered to bring a cardigan tied around my shoulders. The driver exclaimed, “Ah, it’s so hot today, la!”
“What’s the temperature?” I asked.
“33, it’s really hot, la”.
“But, yesterday it was 32”.
“Yeah, 33, it’s so hot today, la!”

Continue reading

Productivity isn’t everything, but…

No wonder Trump can easily still command rustbelt supporters. Stagnation in the US manufacturing industry is killing prospects for wage rises. Bureau of Labor Statistics data released two weeks ago shows that while productivity increased by about 3% annually from the 1980s till 2007, annual growth since has been only 0.4%. Most of that, and more, is needed for sustainability improvements like changing to clean energy.

Labor productivity depends on engineered tools, machines and materials, so engineers are the key people to restart productivity growth. While economics and labor saving solutions were the priority for engineers in the 1950s, as evidenced by the ASEE Grinter report, now that seems to have been forgotten. Our research is revealing that today’s engineers have limited understanding on how to generate commercial value.

Students need to learn the fundamental purpose of engineering. Distilled from our research on hundreds of engineers in several countries, that purpose is to enable people to be more productive.

“Engineers are people with technical knowledge and foresight who conceive, plan and organise delivery, operation and sustainment of artificial objects, processes and systems. These enable productivity improvements so people can do more with less effort, time, materials, energy, uncertainty, health risk and environmental disturbances.”

Sustainability depends on similar improvements.

As Paul Krugman wrote more than 30 years ago,

“Productivity isn’t everything, but in the long run it is almost everything. A country’s ability to improve its standard of living over time depends almost entirely on its ability to raise its output per worker.”

Economists are hoping that the digital economy will restore productivity growth. It might. But in a world where information supply is exponentially increasing, its value must be exponentially decreasing.

Continue reading

New book “Learning Engineering Practice”

If you are a member of Engineers Australia you can order with a 30% discount here. If you’re not a member of Engineers Australia, email me for a discount voucher.

Why buy this book?

Cover design for Learning Engineering Practice

If you’re a student or recent graduate, the book will help you get ahead in the search for paid employment, and the more you work at it, the more attractive you will be for employers.

If you’re an early career engineer, this book will help you navigate the complexities and frustrations of engineering workplaces, and get your career advancing more rapidly. You will soon be far more valuable for your enterprise. As one recent reader wrote “if only I had access to this book earlier in my career I could have avoided so many difficulties”.

Lots of companies struggle with on-boarding graduate and early career engineers – this book will help them and their supervisors. They may not hit the ground running, but they soon will be, and generating greater value for their employers.

Want to know more?

Here is the contents summary.

How is the book different from “The Making of an Expert Engineer”?

a) About one fifth the price (paperback), and one third the length;

b) Short, easy to read chapters for students and early-career engineers;

c) Includes guidance on commercial and social value generation that came from more recent research;

d) Includes a detailed curriculum and performance checklist for early career workplace learning;

e) Updated material on sustainability and work in low-income countries.

Naturally, as an introductory book, there are many references to “The Making of an Expert Engineer” for a more advanced treatment of topics such as engineering financial decision-making.

Invisible engineers … again!

This week televised ceremonies announced the Australian Engineering Excellence Award winners.  Once again, the engineers and engineering were invisible. Just like the tunnel photograph. Tunnels are invisible from the outside, and we pass through them in darkness.

Here is the Create Magazine article that announced the winners. I read it and immediately noticed that both the engineers and the engineering were absent from the stories and photographs. None of the photographs of the winning achievements show any people, let alone the engineers whose efforts we are supposed to celebrate. There is little about the value generated by these achievements. None of the descriptions tell us inspiring inside stories from the inside. Other than the implication that these were recently completed projects, there is not even much we can discern about the reasons these achievements were chosen ahead of others.

These awards could be such an amazing opportunity to engage with our community, especially the opportunity to inspire school children thinking about engineering as a career. Naturally, with some achievements representing combined efforts by perhaps hundreds or thousands of engineers, it’s not possible to tell the full story in a series of online articles for short attention spans.

Most of the real challenges in these achievements were just as much about people and relationships as finding technical solutions, the stuff of fascinating human stories. Stories waiting to be told.

Think of the money spent on video presentations for every division, and how much more benefit we as a profession could have gained if only we had seized the opportunity to inspire a new generation of young Australian engineers. Well, there’s always next year….

Image Credit: Ricard Gomez Angel – Unsplash.com

Has Engineering Divorced?

I came across this report on the economic contributions of engineering prepared by PWC for Engineering New Zealand. In preparing the report, PWC and Engineering New Zealand assembled about 20 senior engineers from a representative sample of industries and asked them to write a brief description of engineering.

Fascinating.

Here’s a word cloud summarising the result.

Now, what’s gone missing?

Remember that this was an exercise in assessing the economic significance of engineering in New Zealand…

Still wondering?

Read more to see what I think is missing