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ENGINEERS AUSTRALIA | OCTOBER 2015 71
the Dean of
What’s the best way to create a learning
environment to benefit engineering students?
When I look at engineering programs in Australia
and compare them to other areas of the world, I
am struck by the fact that so many of our courses
are aligned more to the sciences than they are to
the design disciplines. The primary function of an
engineer is to design and innovate.
It’s really important that we align our teaching,
our undergraduate and post graduate teaching
much more towards the design disciplines than
to the science disciplines. The approach we
have taken at Deakin is to come up with a new
General Chair of the 2015
for Engineering Education
Professor Guy Littlefair
talks to Kevin Gomez
about the challenges
ENGINEERS AUSTRALIA | OCTOBER 2015 73
curriculum framework. This is a design-based
framework, where students, right from day one of
their program, have the opportunity to get involved
in collaborative industry-focused projects.
The curriculum is supported by the
underpinning of science and maths. I am not
getting away from that being a really important
feature. The primary focus is on the design projects
and how the design projects can be supported by
the maths and the sciences.
How can we better engage engineering
students and reduce dropout rates?
When I look at the more traditional engineering
programs, I see a curriculum which has very little to
do with engineering in the first two years.
If I was an 18-year-old thinking about becoming
an engineer and wanted to go to university, I would
expect to be dealing with engineering problems
right from the very beginning.
If we have an education program and an
environment which really grasps the student,
makes their learning exciting and relevant, then we
are going to see much lower attrition rates in the
future and many more successful graduates going
into the industry.
What do you aim to get out of the
I would really like to redefine engineering
education. Let’s draw a line under the past and
focus on the future. How are we going to educate
How are we going to make sure that when our
students graduate, they’re ready for industry?
How can we engage with industry all the way
through our programs to make sure the product the
universities produce is going to be of use?
If we can achieve a very forward-looking
universal view of what engineering education is
going to look like, then we will have achieved an
awful lot from the conference.
What kind of support will you need from
government or other institutions to make
that a reality?
Governments of both sides talk about the
importance of engineering, the importance of
innovation and the importance of providing a
scaffold to make sure that Australia can be an
innovative economy, an economy that’s built on
To do that, having an independent advocate,
similar to the chief scientist, who can talk about the
big challenges facing Australia around engineering,
around infrastructure, around manufacturing, will
actually make a difference.
I think that the science community in Australia
has been very successful in becoming very
visible. I think society at large understands the
importance of science. I don’t see society at large
understanding the importance and the relevance of
the engineering profession.
What can be done to address the declining
number of students taking science and maths
in high school?
It is a problem. I think we need to portray
engineering as a profession very much for what it is
rather than for what people think it is.
The connotation in Australia is that if you are an
engineer, you’ve got dirty hands, you wear a blue
coat, you make mundane decisions. The reality is
that you probably wear a white shirt and a suit.
You are making decisions that affect not just
those around you, but society at large. If we can
portray engineering for what it is, I think that will
assure parents that engineering is a good path to
follow. That should impact on school students.
The Centre for
The other thing that we
are doing at Deakin is trying
to engage with the students
in primary and in high
school. We are supporting
the F1 in Schools challenge.
[F1 in Schools is an
international competition for
children aged 11 to 16 years.
Groups of students have to
design and manufacture
a miniature car out of the
official F1 Model Block using
CAD/CAM tools.] We are the
Victorian hub for that and
using our new building as an
environment to assist high
school teachers in delivering
on some of the sciences.
We’ve devised some
specific primary and high
school programs where
students experience what
a modern university is like.
If we concentrate more
and more on the primary
end of things then there is
good hope for the future that you can have a good
amount of students who will come into tertiary
education through the maths and sciences and
What can we learn from leading
In the US there are some real standouts. Olin
College comes to my mind where they’ve really
done away with the traditional lecturer – it’s much
more student-based education. The staff act as
facilitators. They guide the students through
In the UK, Coventry University has a similar
model. Another new university in the UK is The
JCB Academy, which focuses on design and
engineering. James Dyson in the UK has been very
vocal about how engineers and designers need to
come together much more closely.
There are things happening across the world. To
some extent we are a little bit stuck in the past in
Australia. It reminds me of New Zealand, where I
spent six years before coming to Australia.
In New Zealand, the focus is export, it’s all
about the external environment. I compare that to
Australia and there seems to be much more of a
focus on the internal market.
It’s almost a closed domestic view of the world.
I think that that also transposes across into the
engineering education sphere. We concentrate too
much on the past. We concentrate too much on
producing students for our own local industries
rather than having that global view of the world.
Trying to educate students who become graduates
who can go and support industries not only in
Australia, but right across the world.
The boom in the resources industry has certainly
driven up interest in civil engineering over the
past few years. However, advanced manufacturing
has been in a bit of a decline and numbers in
mechanical engineering are probably down across
the sector, although this year they so do seem to
have bucked the trend and have moved up slightly.
When we look towards advanced manufacturing
driving a smarts-based economy, we need to be
careful that we are producing the right type of
graduates who will fill those jobs in the future.
Let’s draw a line under
the past and focus on
access to high-