News, Teaching Stories

The Office: Episode 9

Emerging Engineers

So before we go any further, a serious health warning, if you are the sort of person who feels the need to reach for the sick bucket whenever you hear self-congratulation then you may prefer to skip this episode all together, because over the next few paragraphs there is going to be A LOT of trumpet blowing. I am not kidding.

You have been warned.

Our students are amazing. I mean my students, my Civil Engineering students[1]. Incredible. Just this year Amy won the regional heats of the Women in Property Student Awards and Grace won the regional heats of the ICE (Institute of Civil Engineers) Emerging Engineers award and was runner-up in the final against two graduates who had been working for a few years (and she was a finalist in another award, along with yet another of our students). And neither of them have graduated.

If you think this is a blip, you’re wrong, our graduates had such an amazing run of winning the NCE graduate of the year award[2] that I fear that subsequent, also just-as-amazing, graduates may have been overlooked.

But it’s not just the odd student, it’s all of them. Bristol Civil Engineering graduates are amazing. I know this because I have a long list of employers who tell me. One was recently telling me how impressed they were by the recent Bristol Graduate they had employed and how seamlessly they had moved into the role of graduate engineer, successfully taking on jobs he would expect an engineer with a few years’ experience to do.

And this has nothing to do with ‘The Office’- not a sausage- because all of these things have already happened. They happened before I started The Office project.

I was having a really interesting conversation with Stuart (who is the Director of Careers Services), and it struck me how I had presented The Office as something different, maybe even something special. That it was possible to read all the blog posts and think that it exists in isolation. It was possible to think it worked because of my hard work and enthusiasm and not realise everyone else in my department (and school) is similarly hard-working and enthusiastic. That when my students enter The Office, they are ready. They have learnt to work in teams. They have become self-motivated and self-actuated learners. They know what it means to take on a wicked problem, to consider options, to put their new found learning into a context.

A few months ago, I emailed a graduate and asked them to finish the following sentence as part of updating our website.

“In my current job…”

Their response is very telling…

“In my current job… as a structural engineer, I have been feeling no difference than working on design project in the university but in more detail.”

That their work in industry, at a professional practice, where they are being employed, feels like a continuation of working on the final design project on their Civil Engineering degree. A project that has been running for years, involves numerous industrial supervisors, and is a credit to our staff and students.

In Jenni Case’s “Education Theories on Learning: an informal guide for the engineering education scholar” tool 4 is all about ‘communities of practice’[3]. Communities of practice started off as an education theory where educators and older students are at the centre of the community and that newer students are at the edge but they are moving into the community. Jenni Case argues that in an engineering sense industry and ‘practice’ is at the centre and students are at the edge. That there is a language, a set of behaviours, a series of tools[4], and that as students learn, they become more able to access the community, that they are better prepared for practice.

I really like this idea. And I think that we have been embedding this practice in our teaching in Civil Engineering for years. Whether in our surveying field trip, or our professional practice unit, or our labs, or our different design-focussed units, or our two programme-level assessments – one that draws all that students have learnt and challenges them to go much deeper, by carrying out a research project, presenting at a conference and writing a journal paper[5] – the other that draws on all that students have learnt and challenges them to work in mutli-disciplinary teams to take large and complex problems and solve them both creatively and safely (this is the traditional engineering bit) – with the projects mostly taken from engineering practices.

I also think that to try and teach, sorry, I mean lecture, on the things students need to know to become more engaged with the community of practice, is the wrong approach, that it’s by embedding this information into our other teaching that it comes alive. That by looking at what we already teach and reimagining the delivery, without changing the ‘knowledge’ content, we can add so much more to the student’s experience.

So when Toby and Marnie (BILT Student Fellows) came to visit my students in The Office and asked them about the experience[6], my students were slightly non-plussed by their questions, because far from feeling like a different approach to learning, working in groups on projects felt very much like a natural continuation of everything that they had done before.

That we, the department of Civil Engineering, have worked hard to create a course which develops ‘Emerging Engineers’. That when our students arrive, normally from school but not always, they often don’t know what a noggin[7] is, or what units to use on a drawing, or that when we ask them to submit a coursework with a specific file name we mean it. But as they develop, as they draw into the engineering community, they become engineers.

However, it is important to note two things. Firstly, that I use the phrase ‘emerging’ engineer because it takes the duration of our four-year course for our students to transition from school pupils to engineers. This requires careful planning and looking across the whole programme to find opportunities for learning the skills required to be an engineer.

Secondly it is very much a team effort. That our department is a community of practice. We talk together, support each other, make suggestions and work collaboratively to make this happen. This point is really quite important because if we were to deliver a unit in the style of the office without all this collaboration and development of students I suspect the outcome would be very different. That trying to embed authentic learning is not something that can be done at unit level but needs to be considered and mapped across the degree and that we appreciate the development of our engineers and match our expectations accordingly. 

I appreciate that I have barely mentioned the role of ‘The Office’ in this post. I hope that it will play a small part in helping our engineers to emerge. But really, I wanted everyone to be able to see the bigger picture. The hard work of my colleagues. The breadth of considered pedagogy. That actually, without The Office, I really think that we would still be helping them to emerge as engineers, no wait, that’s not quite right, that we have already helped hundreds and hundreds of students emerge as engineers. Engineers who are working around the world right now, taking on big complex challenges and who are thriving in what they are doing.

Next week is the penultimate episode – and we are not shying away from exciting topics with a look at work-life balance.

PS, last week was my birthday so my amazing wife and son cooked cake which I brought in for all my employees. It was much appreciated by everyone!



[1] Please note that 2 months ago I became School Education Director. I have no doubt that the students and staff in my school are all equally brilliant and I hope, over the coming years to blow many trumpets for all of them, but as I am new to this role I mostly know about the students and staff in Civil Engineering and hence I am focussing on them for this blog.

[2] From 2012 to 2017 our students won three times and were runners up, commended or a finalist a further three times!

[3] Jenni Case’s ‘Education Theories on Learning: an informal guide for the engineering education scholar’ Tool 4: Community of practice (Higher Education Academy, 2008)

[4] See my blog on scale rules as an example:- https://bilt.online/teaching-stories-1-rulers-for-all/

[5] Many of which go on to be published in academic journals

[6] See the BILT Blog post:- https://bilt.online/an-atypical-day-in-the-office/

[7] You may be interested to know that a noggin is a small piece of timber placed between floor joists to stop them rotating, the term has become popularised by the phrase ‘use your noggin’ because not including them can lead to the floor collapsing

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