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STEM education has changed a lot


since Australia’s rst engineering
school opened
by Susan Muldowney — May 2, 2019 in Centenary 4 min read


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5/5/2019 STEM education has changed a lot since Australia's first engineering school opened - Create digital magazine

Engineering education in Australia has come


a long way since the rst struggling school
opening in Melbourne in the mid-19th
century. 
When Australia’s rst engineering faculty opened at the University of Melbourne in
1861, it struggled with an image problem.

Enrolment in its rst year stood at 15 students. Within three years, it had dwindled to
nine. The broad industry view was that engineers required on-the-job training, not
academic teaching, and the university’s certi cates were not recognised by engineering
societies at the time.

More than 150 years later, practical industry experience forms the foundation of
learning in engineering faculties across the country.

At the University of Melbourne, there are more than 11,500 students enrolled at the
School of Engineering — 33 per cent of whom are women — and teaching methods
focus on problem-based learning.

Students complete design, industry or research projects and are guaranteed industry
involvement in at least 50 per cent of Master of Engineering subjects.  

Australia’s engineering educators now share the perspective voiced by industry more
than a century ago: to prepare engineers for the workplace of tomorrow, put theory
into practice.


Learning getsLATEST
practical
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It has taken time for universities to adapt. When Professor Mark Cassidy, Dean of the
Melbourne School of Engineering, was a civil engineering student in the early 1990s,
learning was still grounded in theory.

“It was very science-based, with limited application to how you would use these skills in
the engineering profession,” he said.

“It was assumed that a lot of those skills would be learned on the job.”

Will Robertson, Lecturer and Honours Project Coordinator at the University of Adelaide’s
School of Mechanical Engineering, said this hadn’t changed by the early 2000s, when he
graduated from the university.

“When I was an undergrad, the culture was that you had to turn up to lectures because
that was where you did the learning,” said Robertson, who is also Director of Curriculum
Implementation at the university’s Faculty of Engineering, Computer, and Mathematical
Sciences.

Much has changed, and students today are likely to watch lectures online and come to
campus to work in teams solving real-life industry challenges.

Many campuses are moving towards a ‘precinct model’, where students are co-located
with industry. Examples include the University of Melbourne’s new Melbourne Connect
precinct, which will see 1100 engineering students and sta co-located with
multinationals and startups.

It will also be home to a new accelerator program and a fabrication laboratory known as
the Fab Lab.

Cassidy said the precinct model helps blur the lines between theory and practice.

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“Learning is now focused on how people will practise engineering,” he said.

“This includes team-based learning and project management.”

The impact of AI
Project-based learning aims to prepare students for the workplace of tomorrow.

However, with technology like arti cial intelligence (AI) evolving so rapidly, it is
challenging to predict what work will look like in the future.

Professor Mikhail Prokopenko, Director of Complex


Systems at the University of Sydney’s Faculty of
Engineering and Information Technologies, said
engineering education must prepare students for
the third wave of AI, known as contextual
reasoning.

The rst wave, expert systems, blossomed in the


1990s as a way to describe behaviour using ‘if-then’
rules.
University of Adelaide students in 1985.
The second wave, machine learning, used statistical
probabilities to nd patterns in data.

“In the third wave, AI systems will be able to explain their actions and contextually adapt
to changing situations,” Prokopenko said.

“This will have an impact on the future of engineering education. Jobs in the future will
be in areas that require interaction with AI — not using AI as tools but as problem-
solving partners. The new crop of engineer will be driven by this need to interact with
AI.”

The rise of ‘micro-credentialing’


As technology continues to reshape jobs of the future, Cassidy said learning structures
must evolve, too.

“Universities will become more involved in bringing people back to university for shorter
stints of learning, known as micro-credentialing,” he said.


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“I think the concept of life-long learning will also become embedded in workplaces as
employers see the need to keep their people up to speed with changing technology and
new ways of working.”

Robertson said that while universities will continue to curate and deliver bachelor’s
degree programs in the future, learning will also be delivered online in what he
describes as “digestible chunks”.

“You may be a mechanical engineer and do a micro-credential in a facet of electrical


engineering,” he said.

“There is so much that can be learned online already, and universities are either directly
or indirectly seeing some competition.”

"LEARNING IS NOW FOCUSED ON HOW PEOPLE WILL


PRACTISE ENGINEERING."
– Professor Mark Cassidy

Cassidy said that micro-credentialing will recognise prior learning in university and in
the workplace.

“Rather than giving people another four-year program or a two-year master’s, you bring
them in and asses them for the credential that they have,” he said.

“This kind of ongoing relationship with learning and with universities will be a real
di erence in the future.”

Education wish list 


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Olivia Panjkov is completing her nal year of a master’s in electrical engineering at the
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Olivia Panjkov is completing her nal year of a master s in electrical engineering at the
University of Melbourne and has seen an increased focus on communication and
interpersonal skills in recent years.  

“The aim is to get us career-ready,” Panjkov said.

“I think there is a bit more that universities can do in this area.”

Panjkov’s education wish list includes a greater focus on safety design.

“I’ve done some internships and safety is such a priority in the workplace,” she said.

“I wish I’d had more experience in my degree in working and designing for safety.”

Panjkov added that industry experience has also shown her the importance of cross-
disciplinary collaboration.

“I’d like to see interdisciplinary projects across di erent schools of engineering, or even
using the help of physics or maths students,” she said.

“This would provide a more practical experience in terms of how problems are solved
on the job.”

Cassidy predicts greater multi-disciplinary collaboration in the future.

“Industry wants industry-ready graduates,” he said.

“That is where education is heading. Science must be embedded in practical outcomes.”


 


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Susan Muldowney
Susan Muldowney is a Melbourne-based writer specialising in architecture
and design and is endlessly fascinated by the engineering that brings some of
the best building plans to life.

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