Industry-ready graduates of engineering can be a vital part of an organisation. To have someone that can come in and very quickly contribute to a company are very highly sought-after. Judith Shawcross discusses the approach developed by the University of Cambridge’s Department of Engineering.
The effect of new staff who can quickly contribute are especially important to small and medium-sized businesses as, for these businesses in particular, it can be difficult to provide a training structure or development program.
Two key aspects of developing industry readiness are preparing graduates to solve real, rather than academic problems, and giving them experience of a range of industrial working environments.
Undertaking multiple projects based in different companies has been found to be successful in developing students’ skills, experience and confidence, and for the host companies, projects have often delivered value in terms of new insights or proposals.
Solving real problems
There are many differences between academic problems and practical workplace problems.
Academic problems are generally well formulated, come with all the necessary data and have one right answer. In the workplace, however, problems are typically messy, have incomplete or conflicting data as well as multiple potential answers.
These real-world problems require different skills, such as framing the problem, generating a range of potential solutions and being able to systematically evaluate which solution is the best fit for the situation, taking into account financial, resource as well as engineering considerations.
Teaching workplace skills in a university setting is challenging because skills are context-specific and not easily transferable. Consider making a cup of tea.
Making tea in a kitchen requires a completely different skill set to the skills required for making tea in a forest where, among other things, you may need to build and light a fire.
In a university environment we have been able to simulate some aspects of solving real problems while working in teams, including group exercises solving problems related to factory layouts and locations, as well as improving assembly and operational efficiency.
However, doing this in a real company setting, interacting with a range of people and having to deliver useful insights in a short time frame enables more skills to be developed related to working with other people, making sense of an unfamiliar situation, thinking from different stakeholder perspectives and working out how to analyse real data to generate evidence-based insights.
Students on the Institute for Manufacturing’s Industrial Systems, Manufacture and Management (ISMM) Master’s programme take part in four industry projects throughout their course, giving them the opportunity to develop new skills and confidence in an industrial context.
In a typical year, the ISMM team coordinate around 80 projects with companies that vary considerably in terms of size and the sectors they operate in. Projects are also part of the IfM’s undergraduate programme.
Source: The Manufacturer