Students following a new curriculum at University College London designed real-world solutions to the problem of chronic flooding in Mevagissey, a seaside village in Cornwall, United Kingdom. The approach encourages students to first conceptualize solutions to problems, then learn and apply the engineering principles that will bring those solutions to fruition. Wikimedia Commons/JK the Unwise
At University College London, civil and structural engineering students are given real-world engineering challenges to teach design-based learning.
March 18, 2014—This January was the wettest on record for England since rainfall records began to be kept in 1766, according to a February 27 report on the BBC, the United Kingdom’s public news service. The rainfall caused severe flooding in many areas, including in southeastern England. While residents and politicians argued about the inability of drainage systems and waterways to handle the water, particularly in the Somerset Levels area and along the River Thames, public—and private—conversations turned to how coastlines and areas located along waterways could be protected from future significant rainfall events.
Chris Wise, a structural engineer and one of the founding partners of London-based Expedition Engineering, is a professor of design in the civil, environmental, and geomatic engineering department at University College London (UCL). He took the experience of one small Cornish seaside village, Mevagissey, to his first-year undergraduates. Within an afternoon, he taught them how to analyze existing drainage options and come up with a design-based solution for flood protection that could be extrapolated to other flood-prone areas across the country. The project is part of the curriculum he is helping UCL develop to train 21st-century engineers.
Wise and his teaching partner, Ed McCann, CEng, a director of Expedition Engineering and a visiting Royal Academy of Engineering professor of innovation at UCL, have developed a design-based course that students engage in throughout their college years that focuses on the conceptual elements behind a typical design. Students are given a problem or need, and must develop, test, and refine a concept—and in some instances scrap the design and start afresh, Wise explains. The purpose is to encourage students to understand the “design loop” as a “creative process,” according to Wise. “And it’s unfamiliar territory for most of the engineers, of course,” he says.
To become professionally qualified, or chartered, undergraduate engineering students at British universities must begin by committing to a subdiscipline—such as environmental engineering, structural engineering, or mechanical engineering—right from the start. Because of this highly focused, narrow path, “there is a great mystery associated with all these multiple specialisms, and people are quite protective of it,” Wise says. “And that’s really unhelpful for the students,” he says, because the amount of specialist knowledge needed “is relatively small, especially in the early days.”
“What you really need to know is how to approach a problem,” he explains, “so that’s what we’re trying to teach them.”
The industrial backgrounds that Wise and McCann bring to the program mean that “we’re not really interested in over-specialism, because we would rarely use it in practice,” Wise says. “So we’re trying to teach the students how to enjoy life as an engineer, how to be able to get to the point where they can improvise almost, and then plug all of their technical knowledge into the thing that they’ve invented.”
The complex problems that the best engineering firms and biggest global consultancies work with, he explains “are not purely technical; they are not purely social, they are not purely financial, they’re not purely environmental. It’s a whole mix of stuff. And that skill is in pretty short supply at the moment, so there is a need for people who want to make a unique contribution through their engineering going forward, to at least be able to understand more than superficially the context that they’re working in.” he says. Engineers need to be able to synthesize information from many sources to derive the best solution, he explains.
For the Mevagissey project, Wise provided students with a BBC video shot from a Royal Air Force helicopter showing the village flooding and a contour map of the area. He told the students to determine what was causing the flooding and what the potential solutions to that problem could be.
“Because the weather has been so terrible, the Mevagissey flood was a natural starting point for [demonstrating] how you relate engineering to the natural environment,” Wise says. “You’ve got wind and you’ve got waves and you’ve got rain and flooding and a whole load of things,” and the surrounding ecosystem was “happily surviving for a hundred years—a couple of hundred years in some cases,” he says, but were “pushed beyond their limits, and they all fell apart.” The example enabled the students to learn that “it’s actually possible to deal with these things using engineering principles, and it’s not as hard as they might imagine,” he says.
Wise and McCann’s students found that when taking into consideration the 5.2 km2 catchment area, which is partly rural and partly urban, as well as the 1:30 slope gradient, the maximum capacity of the 6 ft diameter pipe through which the water flowed to the village’s harbor had been overwhelmed after a storm that lasted just one hour and dropped just 21 mm of rain. From there, it was only a short step for the students to develop design-based solutions: a larger drainage pipe to the harbor, trash screens that would be regularly cleaned and maintained, and perhaps a second river channel through the town or a dedicated field that would act as a flood plain in times of excess rainfall so that the water did not pool within the village, as it so frequently does. As Wise wrote in an opinion piece for Building.co.uk, “These techniques could provide protection against even the storm-of-the-century. And the methodology works, scaled up, even for big problems like [those of] Somerset and the Thames.”
Wise and McCann’s students have also been tasked with creating design-based solutions to a collapsed roadway that isolated 30 homes on Christmas Day in the village of Carstock—a collapse that required the military to be called in to recover the trapped cars. They have also used visual and environmental cues to recreate the structural design behind London’s Leadenhall Building, better known by its nickname, the Cheese Grater.
This is the second year that Wise and McCann have taught their design course, which each of the students in the civil, environmental, and geomatic engineering department must take.
This fall, a series of new project-based courses—known as the Integrated Engineering Program—are being unveiled within the broader engineering school at UCL. Beginning with this fall’s new 700-strong incoming class, all engineering students will take courses in the program each year. “It doesn’t matter if you’re doing biomedical, chemical, civil, electrical, or whatever—all of them are going to do the same foundational program,” Wise says. The program focuses on scenario -based learning spread across disciplines. “It will be a really good test of whether or not we’ve got the design, the intellectual part of the design process, nailed,” Wise says.
“Our mission [within the engineering faculty at UCL] is to attract students [who] are looking to make an impact, looking for a place to explore the practical side of their engineering education—not a lot of universities provide that,” says Emanuela Tilley, LEED-AP, a teaching fellow within the engineering faculty at UCL who is helping develop the new curriculum for first-year engineering students. Tilley made the move six months ago from practice, in which she worked on wind engineering and sustainability design for such projects as the Burj Khalifa and Masdar City (See Civil Engineering, “Reaching Toward the Heavens,” March 2010, and “Headquarters Building for the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company,” October, 2009).
“I’ve come from industry with a different perspective, knowing that engineering education is kind of in flux at the moment,” Tilley says. “Industry [is] really looking towards these universities to do a little bit more, to add the practical side. First-year students, when they come in, have such an enthusiasm, and sometimes—and I remember this when I was a first year—that get overwhelmed by the lectures and the content and the technical material. And it sometimes squashes that enthusiasm. We really want to use that enthusiasm, when the students come in first year and say, ‘You know, what? Even though you have three years to build your technical knowledge, you can still be designers, you can be clever people, and you can solve problems. And you can make an impact.’”