Professor Euan Lindsay set up a completely new engineering program at Charles Sturt University in 2016. The school was recently named as one of the top four emerging leaders in engineering education by MIT.
create: Why does Charles Sturt University need to have an engineering program?
Euan Lindsay: The genesis of the program was the difficulty in getting qualified engineers to work in the regions. And, for much of regional New South Wales, Charles Sturt University is the only university with a local presence. Local engineering organisations like Local Government, the mines, the construction sector looking for engineers, turned to their local university and said, we can’t get engineers.
The vast majority of Australian engineering graduates are trained in the city. It’s not that they don’t want to come to the country, it just never occurs to them. They don’t realise there are vibrant communities out here. They don’t realise there are opportunities. So industry asked us, when are you going to start teaching engineering?
create: Could you give a brief summary of what it is that you do and why it’s different?
EL: When you ask industry the skills they are most looking for in graduate engineers, they want engineers who can communicate, engineers with enterprise skills who can understand a finance plan, and understand that engineering is human centred.
The philosophy of our program is that we have student engineers, not engineering students. They ‘work’ for us for three semesters here in Bathurst. They then do four one-year work placements in industry working as cadet engineers doing real engineering with real jeopardy attached, helping real people and getting paid real dollars for that work. The paradigm is that you’re an engineer from the day you start. We treat you like an engineer and we expect you to professionally develop like an engineer.
Another difference is we have no formal lectures and no formal exams. Our technical content is delivered online through what we call our topic tree. The point at which you work through the branch of the tree to a topic such as buckling is the point where you’re encountering a situation at work where you need to know if a member is going to buckle.
As you work along that branch, you encounter all the prerequisite knowledge you need in other topics. You can’t do buckling without understanding how to analyse loads and you can’t do that without understanding shear force or bending moment diagrams. So the topic tree gives a strong visual understanding of how the curriculum links together, and gives you the flexibility to engage with the material when you need it. And you remember what you learn, because you learn it at the time that you’re actually applying it.
create: So is that philosophy based on an approach from another school or individual?
EL: We’ve drawn inspiration from all over the globe. For instance, the University of Waterloo in Canada is really good at workplace learning. And Aalborg University in Denmark is really good at problem-based learning. Other schools around the world have excelled at one specific dimension of what we do, but nobody has integrated it all together the way CSU Engineering does.
create: You start your students off building a Rube Goldberg machine. What is the idea behind that?
EL: The key goal is to get the cohort started with a manageable project that requires them to work together as a team to deliver something on a short timeline. It bonds the student engineers together with an early win in the second week of the program. It also emphasises that engineering is a team sport.
You have to accept responsibility for each other’s work, and you can’t just worry about your own little piece of the puzzle. It also provides a really powerful contrast in week three when we move into the Engineers Without Borders challenge, and we can emphasise that good engineering is actually about helping people, not just making toys.