The Secret Engineer: What do they teach them these days?

Our anonymous blogger questions the quality of a modern engineering education

Summer is here, the Sun has shone for at least two days in a row, mittens and scarves have finally been discarded, and engineering students are looking for “fill in” jobs to help provide beer money during the holiday. Thus my mind turns to a fresh faced hopeful who briefly joined me a year ago to help out with general drawing work.

Sam came to us after completing his first year of an engineering design degree at Red Brick University PLC, backing this up with a strong initial showing in DT at school. Bright and personable, willing to put the time in and make the effort – Sam was alright. However, when he started to take on small work packages the wheels soon fell off the wagon.

I admit that I was basing my expectations on my dim memory of college courses in the past, but even so I was not prepared for the stunning lack of knowledge regarding what I consider to be the fundamental basics of engineering. Sam’s response after I’d spoon-fed him yet another nugget of information would invariably be that he had not been educated regarding this particular aspect before. Personally I have no reason to doubt him and felt he had been let down by the educational establishment.

It is hard to imagine that without the most basic grasp of standardisation and economy of scale anyone could stand the slimmest of chances for starting a career in engineering

To pick one example, I was startled to hear that he had no idea about standardisation of fasteners. I am not talking about keeping the number of different fasteners for any given product down to a minmum here. Rather it was literally the concept of there being a set number of thread types and sizes readily available, from which to choose the one best suited for any given application. I have wracked my brain to try to remember when I first became aware of this and to be fair it was probably around age 14 when I started messing about with cars. Around the time I realised you could completely dismantle an Austin Cambridge with just a 1/2″ and a 9/16″ spanner.

Even given such extra curricular activities I am fairly sure we covered the basics of these things in the first year of my ONC course.

It is hard to imagine that without the most basic grasp of standardisation and economy of scale anyone could stand the slimmest of chances for starting a career in engineering – let alone engineering design. If you dissect this further it means that without the knowledge of standard, tightly defined, thread sizes he cannot even have had the instinctive understanding that says “a nut of thread X will always fit with a bolt of thread X”. I would suggest you take a moment to consider how fundamental that is, and that this is after completing 1 year of an engineering degree.

I wonder how “fit for purpose” our enthusiastic graduates are once they’ve left the the halls of academia

I quizzed young Sam on what he had covered, both at school and at university, and this revealed that he had done some drawings on CAD and created rendered images. He had also completed a project making a hand tool and covered basic dynamic and stress calculations. These are all important areas but,to use a civil engineering based similie, it struck me as being like constructing the first floor of a tower block without making sure the foundations were in place.

Admittedly this is from a sample size of one but if I am to speak as I find then, although I am no academic, this structure to the education of our up and coming engineers worries me. Firstly, and most importantly, I feel it lets them down. It may be that he covered such things in his next year, certainly he left us with a much greater knowledge of them. However there was a massive hinterland that he could have drawn upon whilst learning about the more in depth stuff (like stress calcs), and thus built up an inherent understanding of the practical applications and consequences of what he was learning. Secondly, I wonder how “fit for purpose” our enthusiastic graduates are once they’ve left the the halls of academia? Still, on the up side, at least it doesn’t look like I’ll have to retire anytime soon.