Making engineering work for society

Last week I attended a one-day workshop for PhD students sponsored by Airbus.  Most of the students produced a poster describing their research; and a dozen brave ones gave a three-minute presentation on their PhD thesis.  It’s a challenge to describe three years of research in three minutes to an audience that are not experts in your specialist field.  However, the result was an exciting and stimulating morning covering subjects as diverse as multidisciplinary design optimization and cognitive sources of ethical behaviour in business.  The latter was presented by Solenne Avet who was the only woman amongst the twelve three-minute thesis presenters.  The gender diversity was better for the other, longer talks with two women out of six presenters.  Interestingly, the female PhD students were the only ones tackling the interaction between engineering and human behaviour, including system-human communication, collective engineering work and innovation processes, which I have suggested is essential for viable engineering solutions to our global and societal challenges [see my post ‘Re-engineering engineering’ on August 30th, 2017].  This population sample is too small to make a reliable generalization; however, it suggests that a gender-balanced engineering profession would be more likely to succeed in making substantial contributions to our current challenges [see UN Global Issues Overview].

Image from https://members.architecture.com/custom/bespoke/directory/view_images.asp?id=257460&type=O&dir=1&CaseRef=140776&imgName=43535_100017586_1.jpg

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Anything other than lager, stout or porter!

While we were sitting in the Red Deer in Sheffield enjoying a couple of pints of Iron & Steel Bitter from the Chantry Brewery in Rotherham, my long-time Swiss collaborator, and sometime correspondent on this blog, asked me: what’s the difference between an ale and a beer?  And, I had to admit that I couldn’t provide a definitive answer to satisfy his curiosity.  So, I am going to have another go, now.  Beer is an alcoholic drink made from a cereal grain and, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, ale is any beer other than lager, stout, or porter!

However, ‘real ale is a beer brewed from traditional ingredients (malted barley, hops water and yeast), matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed, and served without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide‘ according to CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale.  So the Iron & Steel Bitter that we enjoyed at the Red Deer was a real ale.

My digital detox during July [see my post entitled ‘In digital detox‘ on July 19th, 2017] included  sampling bottled ales from local West Country breweries and the photograph shows my favorites ranked from left to right.  Many were enjoyed while overseeing the BBQ in the picture below; however, the time in the Red Deer involved some rather more productive brain-storming for the MOTIVATE project [see my post entitled ‘Getting smarter‘ on June 21st, 2017].

Details of beers in photograph: Pirates Gold from Wooden Hand Brewery; Jail Ale from Dartmoor Brewery; Original Beer from Butcombe Breweries; Rebel Red from Rebel Brewing and Summer Lightening Hop Back Brewery

Re-engineering engineering

More than a decade ago, when I was a Department Head for Mechanical Engineering, people used to ask me ‘What is Mechanical Engineering?’.  My answer was that mechanical engineering is about utilising the material and energy resources available in nature to deliver goods and services demanded by society – that’s a broad definition.  And, mechanical engineering is perhaps the broadest engineering discipline, which has enable mechanical engineers to find employment in a wide spectrum areas from aerospace, through agricultural, automotive and biomedical to nuclear and solar energy engineering.  Many of these areas of engineering have become very specialised with their proponents believing that they have a unique set of constraints which demand the development of special techniques and accompanying language or terminology.  In some ways, these specialisms are like the historic guilds in Europe that jealously guarded their knowledge and skills; indeed there are more than 30 licensed engineering institutions in the UK.

In an age where information is readily available [see my post entitled ‘Wanted: user experience designers‘ on July 5th, 2017], the role of engineers is changing and they ‘are integrators who pull ideas together from multiple streams of knowledge’ [to quote Jim Plummer, former Dean of Engineering at Stanford University in ‘Think like an engineer‘ by Guru Madhaven].  This implies that engineers need to be able work with a wide spectrum of knowledge rather than being embedded in a single specialism; and, since many of the challenges facing our global society involve complex systems combining engineering, environmental and societal components, engineering education needs to include gaining an understanding of ecosystems and the subtleties of human behaviour as well as the fundamentals of engineering.  If we can shift our engineering degrees away from specialisms towards this type of systems thinking then engineering is likely to enormously boost its contribution to our society and at the same time the increased relevance of the degree programmes might attract a more diverse student population which will promote a better fit of engineering solutions to the needs of our whole of global society [see also ‘Where science meets society‘ on September 2nd 2015).

For information on the licensed engineering institutions in the UK see: https://www.engc.org.uk/about-us/our-partners/professional-engineering-institutions/

Steamy show

The Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering published a report sometime ago called ‘Technology is really a way of thinking‘.  They were right.  Once you become an engineer, then you can’t help looking at everything through the same ‘technology’ lens.  Let me give you an example.

A couple of weekends ago we went to see  ‘Anthony and Cleopatra‘ performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon.  It was a magnificient spectacle and a captivating performance, especially by Josette Simon as Cleopatra.  Before the performance started, we couldn’t help noticing the columns of steam forming in the auditorium from the ceiling downwards.  Initially, we thought that they were a stage effect creating an atmosphere in the theatre; but then I realised, it was ‘steam’ forming as the air-conditioning pushed cold air into the auditorium.  It’s the same effect that sometimes causes alarm on an aircraft, when it appears that smoke is billowing into the cabin prior to take-off.

The air in the theatre was a mixture of air and water vapour that was warm enough that the water was completely gaseous, and hence, invisible.  However, when the air-conditioning pumped cold air into the theatre, then the mixture of air and water was cooled to below the dew point of the water vapour causing it to condense into small droplets that were visible in the auditorium’s downlighters, forming the columns of ‘steam’.  Of course, the large mass of warm air in the auditorium quickly reheated the cold air, causing the droplets to evaporate and the columns of steam to disintegrate.  Most people just enjoyed the play; it’s just the technologists that were preoccupied with what caused the phenomenon!

If you want a more technical explanation, in terms of partial pressures and psychrometry, then there is an Everyday Engineering Example lesson plan available : 5E lesson plan T10 – psychrometric applications.

Picture: https://www.rsc.org.uk/shop/item/30200-anthony-and-cleopatra-poster-2017/

Hurrying feet in crowded camps

Five years ago I wrote about the potential ‘Population Crunch‘ [September 15th, 2012] that could lead to a large increase in the size and number of cities – perhaps upto 1500 new cities emerging over the next few decades as the global population rises from 7.6 billion to 9.8 billion by 2050 [see UN revised report, 2017].  It is a significant challenge to provide an acceptable quality of life to the citizens of these new cities as well as existing ones.  People have been concerned about the density of population in cities and its impact on individuals for more than a century.  In 1910, W.H. Hudson in ‘A Shepherd’s Life’ [Penguin Books, 1910] wrote, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, about London: ‘Some over-populated planet in our system discovered a way to relieve itself by discharging its superfluous millions on our globe – a pale people with hurrying feet and eager, restless minds, who live apart in monstrous, crowded camps, like wood ants that go not out to forage for themselves’  Nothing seems to have changed!