Ethical engineering: universities must help bridge the skills gap

The charity Engineers Without Borders UK needs universities to upskill the most impactful generation of engineers this world will ever see

As the 2030 deadline to reach the UN Sustainable Development Goals approaches, engineers have a crucial part to play. Engineers have the skills, and therefore the responsibility to help reverse unsustainable environments and ecosystems, and to provide regenerative alternatives that also deliver a good quality of life for everyone.

At Engineers Without Borders UK, we believe that the current standard approach to engineering education falls short in terms of preparing students for the complex challenges the world is facing. Engineers simply cannot afford to be blinkered to the wider implications of their work – their work will affect people and the planet.

Formal education of sustainability is crucial to get us to the tipping point where globally responsible engineering becomes mainstream

Sustainability targets, the social sciences and community knowledge must be integrated into projects if the final solution is to be at all effective.

As part of our new strategy, we defined this requirement via four key ethical pillars that should form the foundations of engineering education and practice:

  1. Responsible. To meet the needs of all people within the limits of our planet. This should be at the heart of engineering.
  2. Purposeful. To consider all the impacts of engineering, from a project or product’s inception to the end of its life. This should be at a global and local scale, for people and planet.
  3. Inclusive. To ensure that diverse viewpoints and knowledge are included and respected in the engineering process.
  4. Regenerative. To actively restore and regenerate ecological systems, rather than just reducing impact.

 

We have been working to integrate this approach into engineering education in the UK for decades. Our Engineering for People Design Challenge provides students with a case study from a specific community and encourages them to put people at the heart of their designs while deepening their understanding of the importance of context when developing solutions. It is now in its tenth year and has reached over 50,000 undergraduate students to date.

Already embedded in the undergraduate curriculum at over 30 UK universities, the Design Challenge has extended to reach more than 10,000 students over three countries and we are welcoming new universities each year.

Only 7% of UK engineering companies with a sustainability strategy, feel they have the skills to fulfil it. Universities need to bridge that gap

Our student chapters are also well established, offering a space to explore a more holistic approach to engineering and drive collective action outside of the formal curriculum. We’ve seen chapter alumni go on to do remarkable things within their sectors – from helping embed sustainability into projects such as making National Trust properties more energy efficient to founding their own organisations to tackle a lack of diversity in engineering.

As effective as the chapters are, formal education of sustainability is crucial to get us to the tipping point where globally responsible engineering becomes mainstream. Our new partnership with TEDI-London (a new undergraduate and postgraduate engineering programme from Arizona State University, King’s College London and UNSW Sydney) is a key example of this.

We will be helping them integrate ethical engineering into the whole curriculum – not just a single unit.

It is coalitions like this that will help mature our relationships with universities and drive collective action towards a new engineering culture, bringing students into the conversation to encourage and showcase sustainable and responsible innovation.

We are ready to support the university sector to meet this challenge and help upskill the most impactful generation of engineers this world will ever see

We want more universities to support their students to enhance their understanding of sustainable engineering practices. A recent survey found that only 7% of UK engineering companies with a sustainability strategy, feel they have the skills to fulfil it. Universities need to bridge that gap.

By opening up curriculums to project-based learning that takes into full account the communities and environments that would be impacted, students will graduate with a rounded understanding of the wider purpose and potential of their skills.

At Engineers Without Borders UK, we are ready to support the university sector to meet this challenge and help upskill the most impactful generation of engineers this world will ever see.

Find out about signing your organisation up to the Engineering for People Design Challenge here.

You can read our 2021-30 strategy here.

Luke Smith is engineering programme manager at Engineers Without Borders UK, a UK-based registered charity and NGO working to inspire, enable and influence global responsibility through engineering.


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