Creative educational initiatives such as Formula Student put their participants on the fast track to careers in engineering, says Christoph Hahn, technical education specialist at MathWorks
A striking finding of the 2016 Royal Academy of Engineering report, The UK STEM Education Landscape, is that fewer than half of engineering students in the UK enter professional engineering occupations after leaving higher education.
To address this, the report calls for the development of more innovative teaching techniques and increasing employer engagement methods in higher education. However, higher education institutions just don’t have the funding, or appropriate teaching methods, to help solve this problem.
Cardiff University uses project-based learning throughout its engineering courses to help remedy this issue. Project-based learning is a classroom approach that uses active learning techniques and gives students direct exposure to hardware and software.
To help students further apply their knowledge in real-world examples, Cardiff University participates in Formula Student, an engineering competition sponsored by MathWorks and others, where teams are challenged to design, build and race a single-seat racing car in one year.
But does project-based learning really help inspire the engineers of the future, and do competitions such as Formula Student actually stimulate the skills and imaginations of students, to encourage them into careers in STEM?
Dewi Griffiths, a postgraduate finishing his PhD at Cardiff University, was one of the many students who participated in the racing-car contest last year. As a member of the Cardiff University team, Dewi helped take their car, Gwyneth (named after the mother of famous Welsh Formula One driver, Tom Pryce), to overall victory.
Having been involved with Formula Student since the start of his degree in mechanical engineering, through to his final year when his course project was the design and creation of one of the cars, Dewi has seen the advantages of project-based learning.
During the race itself, students relied on software to manage the huge amount of data generated from the cars. Like all the Formula Student cars, Gwyneth was dotted with sensors, as well as having wi-fi, so information could be transmitted to the pits. From that, the Cardiff team could make data-driven decisions during the races about whether to keep the car going, whether to adjust the controller settings, and so on.
This served as proof for Dewi of how project-based learning can move from classroom to competition. He says: “I remember in my first-year learning MATLAB
I thought, ‘I’m not a computer scientist, I’m an engineer. When am I going to use this?’ Then I got to my third-year and fourth-year projects where I was generating huge amounts of data. And then I saw how all the skills we were learning could really cut down on the amount of time I spend on basic tasks, freeing my time for hands-on practical engineering.”
We know that the UK needs to develop more home-grown engineering talent, but can project-based learning help fill the skills gap?
In Dewi’s case – absolutely. He is currently focused on completing his PhD, secure in the knowledge that his hands-on expertise in the automotive domain, strong data analytics skills, and mechanical engineering foundation will give him a choice of careers across industries and types of jobs.
Christoph Hahn is Technical Education Specialist, MathWorks