Maths, music and inspiration: the grand challenge of learning

Features editor

A fascinating conversation at the Global Grand Challenge Summit focused attention on how engineering is taught and why it needs to change — with input from an unexpected, but eloquent, source

It’s a big week for science and technology in London, with the Technology Strategy Board’s InnovateUK event; the Big Bang Fair; and the Global Grand Challenge Summit, which I attended yesterday. Organised by the Royal Academy of Engineering and its American and Chinese counterparts, the Summit provided a platform for technologists at the cutting edge of several new sectors, along with the people who’s task it is to make sure that engineers are working in the best possible way to meet the challenges of the coming decades.

will.i.am
A most unexpected advocate for engineering

The point at which all three events meet is in engineering education, which was discussed in a session at the Summit yesterday, with a surprise guest — the musician Will.i.am. Before anyone starts smirking, he was there in his role as a persuasive and eloquent advocate for science and technology education, especially in underprivileged urban areas — he funds a foundation devoted to this in the US. He doesn’t like the term STEM (‘Put A for Arts in it! STEAM! Or TEAMS; we can build TEAMS’o’STEAM!’) and is particularly keen on work which crosses traditional boundaries.

It might seem odd for a showbusiness figure more familiar to us from Saturday night television to be sharing a stage with luminaries such as JPL director Charles Elachi and Cambridge University head of engineering Dame Ann Dowling, but why not? As a musician and producer at the electronics and IT-heavy end of the spectrum, he’s actually as much of a hands-on technologist as anyone at the conference.

The main thrust of the education panel was a plea for engineering education to match more closely the experience of working engineers. This, said John Hennessy, president of Stanford University in California, not only makes more sense in that it will produce graduates who are used to the practices and techniques of working engineers, but it will also help to keep students interested and motivated throughout their courses. Currently, he added, the first thing they are faced with is an intimidating barrage of maths and theory which, although undoubtedly the building blocks of engineering practice, are hardly representative of what engineers do every day. ‘A lot of people come to college not really knowing what it is that engineers do, and we present them with that,’ he said. ‘It’s no wonder that people drop out. We need to attract the best and the brightest — and we need to keep them.’

Will.i.am provided a pithy analogy. ‘When you’re teaching kids to play football.. I mean soccer,’ he said, ‘you don’t sit them down and make them learn all the rules, draw them diagrams of passes and stuff, for a year, then run them out on the field, give them a ball and expect them to know what to do. You put them on the field at the start and let them play!’

The idea of getting students involved in projects and working in multidisciplinary teams was a popular one. ‘Everything we do is project-based. Life is project-based,’ said Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway scooter among many other innovations. ‘The only thing that isn’t project-based is engineering school! And people say that it’s important to have sport in schools because it teaches teamwork. If teamwork is so important, why do they call it cheating when it happens in the classroom?’

Hennessy suggested focusing on the things which particularly inspire students and which will undoubtedly be needed in years to come. ‘We need to keep the idea of sustainability at the forefront of engineers’ minds,’ he said. ‘Getting them involved in sustainability projects will plant that seed.’ It will also be inspiring to students, showing them at an early stage that their work can really make a difference to the world.

The teaching of maths on engineering courses is a particularly contentious subjects. Traditionalists say that it’s the foundation on which all engineering is built and that all engineers must have a grasp of it. Modernisers, such as Prof Chris Wise, head of engineering design at UCL and founder of Expedition Engineering, the company behind the Olympic Velodrome, point out that most working engineers use computers to do maths and the hardcore theory isn’t necessary. ‘I’d much rather have one top mathematician on a project than six rubbish ones,’ he said. ‘And engineering courses tend to turn out rubbish mathematicians.’

For Wise, engineers are first and foremost designers and people who ask questions; the reductive process of solving the nuts and bolts of those solutions is best left to computers. For him, even the language of engineering can seem off-putting. ‘We talk about stress, strain, collapse and failure; we say we’re designing for collapse. Really?’ he said. ‘I want people to believe they’re creating something inspiring that will improve people’s lives, and those words don’t help.’

John Hennessy backed Wise up on the maths question, saying that it isn’t important for engineers to solve Maxwell’s equations, what they need to know is how to use Maxwell’s equations to design electronics. Even Will.i.am — by his own admission, no mathematician — agreed on this. ‘Math is the language of how the world works,’ he commented. ‘And when you combine math and art, you get music. We don’t even think of there being math there, but without it I couldn’t do what I do.’

The idea of changing the way engineering is taught to this degree is always going to be contentious. Maths is difficult and off-putting for many people (I’ll be honest here, it was one of the main reasons that I transferred off an engineering course in my undergraduate days) but it’s undoubtedly vital to engineering and it can’t possibly be taken out of engineering altogether, as even Chris Wise concedes.

Maybe the key is to change the way maths is taught, rather than removing it altogether — but the pedagogy of mathematics is even harder than the maths itself. If it helps keep the best and brightest people on the engineering courses when we need them, then it needs to be looked at. And the idea of making education echo more closely what students will encounter when they’re working makes even more sense; it’ll also help to keep them in the learning mindset, something that’s important to everyone. ‘I think we’d all agree that we didn’t learn the most important lessons in the lecture theatre or even the lab,’ said Hennessy. ‘We learned it when we were actually doing things.’