Modernising UK Engineering Education: A Q&A with NMiTE University’s Chief Academic Officer

2 months ago by Sam Holland

NMiTE (New Model in Technology and Engineering) is the UK’s first approach to a fully engineering-focused higher education institution. Martin Gillie, provost and chief academic officer at NMiTE, explains what the organisation is doing differently to traditional universities.

NMiTE is an up-and-coming university, whose creative, hands-on approaches to teaching remain unparalleled by traditional engineering higher education institutions. After all, to quote its website, its application process sees “candidates impress[ing] through their curiosity, ingenuity, and passion, as much as by a set of starred grades”.

Indeed, New Model is the first of its kind in a great many ways: as Martin Gillie, a structural engineer-turned provost and chief academic officer explains, NMITE’s avoidance of run-of-the-mill lectures, in favour of a much more project-based, professional development-focused education is just one example of the institution’s pioneering approaches.

As the university president, Professor Elena Rodríguez Falcon herself, says: “You won’t come here to study engineering; you’ll come here to be an engineer”.

Electronics Point’s Sam Holland had the pleasure of talking to Martin about such aspects as his role in NMiTE, its ideal candidates, and of course, its modernised engineering curriculum.

 

Martin Gillie, provost and chief academic officer at New Model in Technology and Engineering.

 

Sam Holland: Let’s start with an introduction of yourself, your role as provost and chief academic officer, and a little about New Model in Technology and Engineering itself.

Martin Gillie: I lead the academic side, namely academic development of NMiTE. So that means developing degree programs, deciding what goes into them, such as the content and the structure, as well as the lifelong learning and continuing professional development [CPD] offering that we're developing. Also, I help ensure that we have the right staff, the right recruitment of students, and a good student experience.

I've come from a fairly traditional academic engineering background: I'm a structural engineer. I've worked at universities in Edinburgh and Manchester. I arrived at NMiTE just after Christmas in 2018, to take on a very different experience—trying to do something that breaks the mould a little bit in engineering education.

For example, something which we're looking at closely at NMiTE is the whole lifelong learning and CPD outlook. Traditionally, students go to university at 18, graduate at, say, 22—and that's perhaps the end of their formal education. That probably doesn't make much sense anymore. We need to expand the range of students who are coming into engineering. And that could be people who are changing careers. So for example, consider people who've been in the Armed Forces, who are perhaps looking to pick up an engineering career; or, in fact, simply people who've had one career and now just want to do another.

We're definitely trying to make our programmes available to people who are looking to change, who are perhaps a little older than usual.

 

SH: What do you think are the ideal qualities of someone interested in pursuing an engineering career?

MG: It's the ability to solve problems: the ability to be curious, imaginative, resilient. Things don't work the first time very often. So I believe it's those attributes that are the key areas that we're looking for when it comes to the entrance to our programmes. And you'll notice that those said attributes are almost personality-based, rather than falling under specific areas that fall under the ‘hard’ skills approach to engineering knowledge. And we think it's better to look at skills in that sense, because those are things which will be relevant throughout someone's life. Whereas knowledge: knowledge comes and goes.

So we're essentially reframing the university application process to try to identify people who have those attributes, some of whom will also have—or otherwise have—the maths and physics, i.e. traditional, backgrounds. We think that that will lead to a much more diverse student body in terms of intellectual capabilities, which we think is a good thing: it will mean that, when it comes to solving problems, we'll have groups of people who have many different perspectives. And that will lead to better solutions to industry problems.

 

SH: Could you walk me through NMiTE’s curriculum?

MG: Yeah, this comes back to the idea that we're going for integrated engineering, so we're not treating engineering as a number of sub-disciplines. So when we count virtual engineering, for instance, we're looking at it as an integrative whole. And the reason we're doing that is because society's problems are increasingly interdisciplinary: we need people who are able to synthesise knowledge from a number of areas. And those areas aren’t just technical.

We need people who can interface with the aesthetics of engineering: consider human interests, such as legal and ethical considerations. And so, rather than coming up with a programme built around solely engineering, we're building a programme around what we're calling ‘grand challenges’.

At the moment we're looking at the topic of health, particularly the question of how can we apply engineering to health. Another one is energy: how to generate energy efficiently and cleanly. Security, which has a number of areas, of course; and infrastructure, i.e. roads, transport, utilities—all those sorts of areas.

And so we're building our curriculum around those said grand challenges, and each of the above areas. We can take, for example, infrastructure stress—which happens to be my background as a structural engineer. Previously though, infrastructure was all about stress and strain and materials; and while those factors are still essential, of course, these days we are also looking at aspects such as structural health monitoring, which really brings in the electronics. It brings in the data.

What you do with all that information is also about reducing embodied carbon. So that brings in all the societal aspects of climate change, as well as costs and legal aspects. And that's true for those other grand challenges as well: security, energy, and health.

We're going to have significant projects in each of those areas and there may be further ones added in due course.

 

SH: What do you think that traditional higher education is doing for UK engineering that could be improved, and how do you think NMiTE have addressed those shortcomings?

MG: While I don't want to seem overly critical of what's going on elsewhere, I think there are certainly areas where there's scope for a wider offering; and I think the areas that we at NMiTE are looking at concern the question of who comes into engineering: the question of what sort of person will make a good engineer. We're rethinking that.

I think, when it comes to university education on the whole, there is a need to engage employers much more deeply: while most universities will engage with employers, a fairly high level of them have an industrial advisory board that meets once a quarter, and has a quick chat. That’s not a hands-on engagement with education: we, contrastingly, want employers to be right there helping us, working with us, delivering the education and developing it in real time. There's an ongoing conversation around that.

And so even though we're not actually fully up and running yet, we've got well over a hundred employers working with us who are interested in what we're doing.

What we're doing at NMiTE is opening up an engineering degree to a much larger range in society than that seen in many traditional universities. And, as a result, we hope that that will actually help fill the skills gap, partly just by expanding the number of people who can do engineering. But, perhaps more than that, by also expanding the range of thinking, the range of personalities, and the range of attributes of graduates with an engineering degree, to best reflect the skills that are needed in the workforce.

I think we also need to look at the range of backgrounds that we are recruiting from. Traditionally, engineering has been seen pretty much as engineering science at universities. So the UK certainly have lots of Russell Group-style universities, for which you're expected to have an A in maths and an A in physics. And without those grades, all the doors are pretty much shut.

We're questioning that philosophy, and we're thinking that, actually, successful engineers are the kind of people who are going to be good at problem-solving and have imagination and curiosity—all those sorts of rather less ‘hard’ skills. They’re in fact attributes that are sprinkled around the whole population: not just people who are of a maths and physics background.

If we can identify the people who have those areas of expertise, namely those ‘soft’ skills, then, once they’re at NMITE, we'll then be able to bring their ‘hard’, maths and physics-based, skills, up to speed. You can blend those sorts of qualities together, after all.

 

SH: What are your main concerns in regards to the UK engineering skills gap?

MG: NMiTE is being set up partly in response to that widely reported insufficiency of engineers. There are more UK engineers retiring than there are aspiring engineers entering our universities. But, what’s more, a further issue lies in the types of engineers that we're producing, in terms of knowledge and abilities.

So what we're trying to do at NMiTE is respond to all of those issues, particularly by expanding the supply of engineers; but also, by trying to see to the graduation of engineers who have the skills, general outlook, and knowledge that are going to be needed for future practice. So we think there's ‘a gap in the market’, if you like. And we're going to be introducing engineers who are a little different, to fill some of the gaps that we see.

So there's a number of topics that you could comment on in that regard: I think one is the fact that silos between disciplines are beginning to break down a fair bit; and after all, future problems do tend to be inherently interdisciplinary, as discussed. So again, we're looking to graduate engineers who are able to synthesise knowledge from across disciplines, both technical and non-technical.

We're also recognising that the world's changing, and increasingly quickly. So, perhaps 30 years ago you'd learn your engineering knowledge at university, and then you spent 30 years working your practice and you'd be fine. But now, the problems faced, and the knowledge that's needed, will be different—even in 5 to 10 years’ time. So we tried to equip engineers with the skills that allow them to be adaptable, and update their knowledge and live by it: altogether, to be productive in the rapidly changing world that we live in.

 

SH: What aspects in particular do you think the UK should improve upon in the interest of closing the skills gap?

MG: We need to think about what it means to be an engineer, and what skills are going to be required from engineers in the future. And some of that simply concerns the ability to pick up new knowledge rapidly and be able to deploy it rapidly. Think of things like being able to synthesise knowledge from different areas, team working, communication—all those sorts of things that have traditionally been seen, in the past, as peripheral to engineering: I think they are absolutely core to it.

So yeah, sure, engineering is a technical subject, you need technical knowledge, but that's not going to be sufficient in isolation. You're going to have to be able to communicate that knowledge clearly and know how to deal with it in a variety of areas.

 

SH: What are some of your proudest projects going on at NMiTE at the moment?

MG: I think what we're particularly proud of right now is the approach that we're taking to teaching. So we're moving away from the idea of university teaching being based primarily on the lecture hall, where you have 200 people come in and sit there for 50 minutes, and leave—and then do the same with another lecture, and another one, and another one, during the week. It's pretty well known that that doesn't work very well. Yet it's still the central model in most universities when it comes to engineering.

By contrast, we do know that the sort of social learning, studio-based learning practice—the more ‘hands-on’—education style, is highly effective. And yet these have always been very small parts of engineering education. We're turning that on its head. We're not having formal lectures: what we're doing is building a university around studio space, around social learning. We're developing all that.

We have a group of what we call our ‘Design Cohort’ students at the moment, who are with us to help basically build the institution essentially. And so we've run a couple of ‘trial sprints’, as we call them, which are basically modules where we take such a new approach to learning. And the trials have gone very well. We've learned a lot. We believe the students have learned a lot. We think this is really quite pioneering: the fact that we're going to develop this new form of engineering education, which is very different and also very much more effective than the model that's used broadly in current, higher education.

Another area we're doing differently is that, rather than having, say, 5 or 6 modules running at the same time, you have 5 or 6 exams at the end of the semester: fundamentally, we're going for block teaching so students can focus on one area, one challenge at a time.

We think that's a good idea: these students can focus very much on whatever they're studying at the time, rather than trying to balance 5 or 6 competing areas of study. And this block teaching approach is also very good for engaging employers—because if you ask an employer to come in every Thursday at four o'clock for 12 weeks, that's difficult. Whereas, if you ask for a specific commitment of time over a period of two or three weeks, that tends to be much easier.

I’ve talked about employers quite a lot, but we are also linking a lot with the community. The thinking being that engineering doesn't happen in isolation from the rest of the world. And so, we may not always be talking to people who are themselves engineers—it could be people from Heritage Cathedral, for example, who we’re working closely with, or it could be other charitable organisations who could benefit from engineering We're working very closely with those sorts of groups, to try to bring them into the curriculum and interface with them closely through our teaching.

 

SH: While I appreciate that it’s in the early stages, could you describe the economic/business approaches to NMiTE’s education?

MG: While we're still in development as you mention, so we probably haven't had an effect yet, what we're aiming at is the right combination of valuable graduates in the West Midlands, coupled with our offer of lifelong learning and CPD. This will mean that the workforce in the West Midlands population has a higher level of skills than seen previously.

We're also looking at things such as linking the university with business incubation offerings. So, consider having spaces where people with ideas can meet people from the university, have formal conversations, exchange ideas, and hopefully spark possibilities for business and/or recruitment.

 

SH: Are there any future plans that NMiTE have that you'd like to share?

MG: We talk quite a lot about our undergraduate programme and our integrated engineering. That's our first priority, we're well advanced with that; but we have other areas we're looking at as well: we're going to be developing a degree apprenticeship, or possibly several degree apprenticeships, in areas of engineering. We haven't finalised the curriculum, but it is quite likely to be in the broad area of digital skills.

And because we're not just about the formal degrees, we're also developing a lifelong, CPD learning aspect. And a nice element of our teaching, namely of having a block teaching-based approach to modules is that they're very open to people who want to come in and gain or develop skills in specific areas.

So we're looking to offer a range of CPD activities, which will expand over time. There’ll be some in tech engineering, but also the broader future skills area, some of which we've discussed. They’ll be about students being able to synthesise knowledge; being able to communicate; being able to gain knowledge rapidly. So we're developing that side of our offering as well.

And we're planning some years ahead. Altogether, we hope to expand to become a very significant university—to offer that broad range of education, but also be a key player in the economy for the West Midlands, to try to build the economy using engineering.

Indeed, a closing point here is that, as well as the pure educational offering, we're very much trying to develop the economy in the West Midlands as well, as an engine for economic growth. And so it’s ultimately about aiding employers broadly: not just through education.

 

SH: Is there anything else that you'd like to add about NMiTE or the industry at large? Perhaps even something you'd like to share directly with our electronics engineering readership?

MG: I think a key one is that we want to have deep engagement with employers. So if anything I've said is of interest to Electronics Point’s readers, be they students or employers, then do get in touch with us. We want to talk to you. And again, there are many opportunities. We are a start-up university—which aren't words that often go together!

So if anyone would like to contact us with a great idea, we're flexible, we're agile, we want to work with you. I think that’s my main message.

 


Many thanks indeed to Martin for his introduction to New Model in Technology and Engineering, as well as his thoughts on education itself. With the UK engineering skills gap proving ever more prominent, it is refreshing to see New Model take on a much-needed, modernised approach to industry education.

Here’s hoping that the recent inauguration of NMiTE marks a turning point: indeed, a ‘new model’ for other STEM education institutions to follow.

 

For more information on the education side of engineering, visit the second part of Electronics Point’s interview with PCB company (Newbury Innovation) director, Jon Hawkins, which also covers the skills gap and recruitment.

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