Should students dream of electric whizz-bangs?

Engineering students should be encouraged to dream, but not at the expense of learning practical project management skills, writes our anonymous blogger

I recently met up with a friend who is a lecturer in an engineering subject and, among other things, we got chatting about a course project that he was involved in. His students had decided to produce a digitally controlled whizz-bang (please excuse the vague terminology but one has to protect the identities of both the innocent and guilty).

Dear reader, the field of whizz-bang technology is well established and extremely lucrative. So if I tell you that industry sees a digitally controlled one to be needlessly complicated and expensive then you will understand that it was not considered a viable project outside of academia. My friend also commented on the fractured nature of the project team, this leading to a late submission mainly through lack of communication (although admittedly this may in some cases be the perfect experience for a life in our profession).

If our students find it fun and engaging then let’s not kill off their enthusiasm before they become controlled by financial necessity

There were two main issues that came out of this, the first being a propensity for students to “invent a problem suitable for a solution that’s already taken their fancy.” I initially became aware of this phenomenon when it was referenced with regard to the BMW Z1, a car where you open the doors by dropping them into the sill. A solution which when compared to the staid hinges of old is heavy, complicated and obstructive to entry and exit (the key functions of a door).

The BMW Z1 featured doors which dropped down into the sills. Credit: Karmann via Wikipedia

There are three reasons I can see for letting students pursue such flights of fancy. Firstly there is the possibility that this is a new insight that, even if not viable within the project, may provide a start point from which a new product or technology may be derived. Secondly, it may form a foundation for future projects that become viable as supporting technologies and expertises develop – a case of simply being “ahead of its time”. Thirdly, if our students find it fun and engaging then let’s not kill off their enthusiasm before they become controlled by financial necessity.

The second main issue is that there were never any “project management” type modules when I was ensconced within the educational environment, and as far as I’m aware there still aren’t. A problem that has an impact due to the perceived wisdom that graduates should either start further up the food chain than non-graduates, or at least should be accelerated out of the primordial soup at the bottom quicker.

You do learn a lot by simply “having a go with a bit of guidance” but by contrast, you wouldn’t just chuck a lump of steel at someone and point them at a lathe either. Of course, different companies have different practices but a defined grounding in the basics would, I am sure, help. Certainly it currently seems that projects are more focused on technical application than the activities in support of this.

When I’m looking to take on a freshly minted graduate I look kindly on an applicant if they present a project where they can demonstrate its viability, its potential for viability at the start (and explain why that didn’t prove to be the case) or the deep-rooted enthusiasm that it articulates. Equally, I am impressed by a demonstration of their positive management within a project, or at least the application of management techniques that they had been introduced to. Beyond that, it’s difficult to know what it tells me beyond what’s reflected in their results in individual modules – along with an unfocused inventiveness. This is fine, but it could be so much more.