Biomimetics and Biomimicry in Engineering

New academic year and the opportunities ahead

In Comment, Knowledge Transfer on 2010/09/05 at 7:32 pm

Even when recession is still in full swing for the Scottish industry, we are already starting to envision what tomorrow will bring. The current shortage of technical placements, apprenticeships and engineering graduate jobs will start showing its impact in only a couple of years down the line. Companies are not only having to make skilled engineers and technical staff redundant, sending their know-how to waste; they are also losing the opportunity to hire bright, energetic, highly motivated newly graduates who have to apply to jobs in a different industry or sector (e.g. banking). I have nothing against bankers (sarcasm) but they are really enticing our brightest, best of the best students and taking them to the City.

Universities have to work hard to attract good students. In the present climate of budget cuts and limited places up for grabs, we face the painful task of cherry-picking those who we think will take full advantage of their academic degree training, and offer them a place in our courses and programmes. Going back to the banking simile, it is the closest thing to buying shares, and trying to invest with a low degree of risk. But, how to be sure? We are certainly missing out some brilliant individuals. And once those ‘stars of tomorrow’ join us, we have to make sure their academic experience is really worth-while and enriching, and they become fully equipped for the best graduate jobs in engineering and technology.

The enhancement of employability skills is a two-way road. On one hand, Universities need to make sure that the students are exposed to relevant experiences, real-life situations that encourage creative thinking, original problem-solving, and teamwork. In that way, we are not only teaching them the first principles of Thermodynamics or the governing rules of Fluid Mechanics; we are inviting them to develop lifelong learning skills, teaching them how to learn, as we don’t know what we are training them for. Technology moves so fast that what is cutting-edge now will be obsolete even before their graduation ceremony. Heriot-Watt University, with her ethos for ‘applied knowledge’, has always been pioneer in this academic style of teaching. In particular, the new initiative for company-led engineering design projects for Mechanical Engineering students epitomises Heriot-Watt’s character as ‘useful knowledge’ entity. In these projects, students work get to put into practice their theoretical knowledge by assisting R&D activities carried out by Scottish SMEs, experiencing real-life situations and having to behave like professional engineers before they complete their degrees.
Simultaneously, those companies benefit from this program by interacting with the students and coming closer to the skills and knowledge available in academia. In the larger scheme of things, the Scottish economy benefits from this ‘win-win’ situation: our students improve their skills, and the companies obtain a piece of useful research, tailor-made to their business, that can assist to their competitiveness in the market.

However, this is not possible if our students (current or prospective candidates) are not up to the challenge. I said that employability skills are a ‘meal for two’. Universities carefully prepare their curriculum, in consultation with the employers and learned bodies (e.g. Institute of Mechanical Engineers, Chemical Engineers, or Civil Engineers, etc).  No matter how delicious that meal might be, if the students are not hungry, not even the best roast dinner will turn them on. We need proactive, enthusiastic, open-minded students who are ready to take on those challenges, who are willing to learn and be taught. It is our job, as academics and lecturers, to make sure they have a broad variety of experiences that will help them become rounded, highly-skilled engineer. And it is their job as a student to make use of all those opportunities. I always say that University is like a gym: you pay a flat-rate membership fee so you can use all the services available. You end up paying the same money whether you go 3 days a week to exercise, or you only go once a month. University, like the gym, has so much to offer, but it is up to the student to make the most of it.

The academic year is about to start and we are so looking forward to welcoming back our returning students and see the faces of our freshers. Because they are the engineers of tomorrow and the world is in their hands. It is a great honour to us to be part of that exciting journey. I can’t wait to get it started.

(An article based on these thoughts was published on 26th August 2010 in the Scotsman. It can be found here: Scotsman Platform CTS 260810.)

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