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Creative Engineers – Myth or Reality?

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Engineering was key to the transformation of an agrarian and artisan economy to that dominated by machine power for manufacturing, agriculture and extracting natural resources; automation replaced labour intensive systems for improved health, sanitation and mobility, writes Prof Rao Bhamidimarri, President, The Institute of Advanced Research, Gandhinagar, for Elets News Network (ENN).

Engineering played a central role in advancing civilization throughout human history. In the modern era, we have made unprecedented economic and social gains through advances in acquiring and applying knowledge.

However, this progress came at a cost to our planet and the environment. The global grand challenges of the 21st century are profound and wide-ranging. Health and wellness, climate change, resource depletion, poverty and social inequalities are amongst the challenges we confront, as the population approaches 10 billion by the middle of this century. Today, the benefits of economic and social progress are not distributed evenly. A billion people without access to safe drinking water and 2.5 billion without sanitation. Some 4 billion people have no access to internet, placing them on the wrong side of the digital divide.

Addressing these challenges will require creative and innovative engineering talent and leadership to develop solutions to these complex problems. These solutions need to be sustainable, equitable and safe.

Role of Engineering

Whether it is the Egyptian pyramids or the International Space Station, the Great Wall of China or Artificial Intelligence, they reflect the creativity and technical knowledge of engineers.

Engineering education dates back to medieval times and focused on apprenticeships in trades, which originally focused on traditional trades such as construction, metal working and paper-making. This expanded as industrialisation progressed to include engineering, mining, shipbuilding and textiles by the late nineteenth century. It was not until early 19th century that degree level education began at universities. By the end of the 19th century, as knowledge in sciences and mathematics accelerated, the initial emphasis on shop floor experience in engineering education shifted towards classroom instruction.

Successful engineers have a strong knowledge of engineering science while gaining a holistic approach to engineering application. This allows them to develop creative and innovative solutions to real world problems. Great engineering entrepreneurs over the last two centuries have not only been masters of scientific and technical knowledge, but also have excelled in non-technical factors such as environmental, ethical and social factors, to translate innovative ideas into reality.

With the increased specialism and academic focus, engineering graduates have proved themselves to be excellent in modelling and analysis in recent decades. But employers have had increasing concerns about the disconnection between engineering education and real world context. Therefore, employers also recognise what are commonly described as soft skills such as communication skills, ability to work in a team, commitment, organizational skills and flexibility.

The 21st Century Engineer

“We educate engineers for the 21st century using 20th century curriculum in 19th century universities” — Vincent Wiegel, professor, HAN University of Applied Science

There has been increasing awareness that the engineering graduates in general, while technically competent, lack the following professional skills:

  1. Communication Skills,
  2. Organisational Skills
  3. Interpersonal Skills,
  4. Commitment
  5. Ability to work in a team and
  6. Time management

While enhancing these skills and attributes can enable graduates to secure employment and to operate effectively in the world of work today, addressing the unprecedented global challenges, engineering education needs to undergo a fundamental change. Creativity driven problem solving skills in the real world context are increasingly important along with the following higher value skills:

  1. Critical Thinking,
  2. Creativity,
  3. Empathy,
  4. Collaboration,
  5. Motivation,
  6. Cultural Sensitivity and
  7. Flexibility

In addition to these future engineering graduates also will need to be equipped with the 3Rs of Reflection, Relationships and Resilience.

The Creative Engineer

Engineering is an intensely creative profession. Creativity is a process – not a Eureka moment, nor is it a mysterious process, but an ability to disassemble knowledge and reassemble it in new ways. Curiosity, motivation and knowledge are the key ingredients of creativity.

Often creativity in engineering is underrepresented in engineering including by the engineering profession itself. While complex problems demand creative solutions, engineers are constrained in practice by the need to minimize risk to public, investors and the environment. This together with increased academic focus, the current engineering education has become an antithesis of creativity.

The traditional engineering curricula and pedagogies used equip the graduates with technical competence, but do not foster attributes necessary for creativity. Engineers of the 21st century will need to be creative in order to develop solutions to new and emerging challenges. Embedding creativity in engineering education continues remain a challenge.

A curriculum that embraces a multidisciplinary focus with emphasis on design thinking and self-determined learning, undertaken in a real world context, will help foster confidence and creativity in graduates.

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