The current pandemic has strongly highlighted the extent to which we rely on innovative digital technologies to underpin the functioning and wellbeing of our societies.
Such innovation requires a growing pool of skilled and imaginative engineers. Michael Barwise FRSA believes that the necessary skills are becoming lost and is reaching out to Fellows to explore how to reverse this trend.
As a systems engineer, I have noted over the last couple of decades that the pool of people with the advanced technical skills needed to support our dependence on digital technologies has been diminishing. We have more and more digital practitioners, but the proportion of them with the necessary expertise is progressively declining.
Current trends in commercial electronic systems and software production make it hard to maintain the high standards needed to ensure that essential systems are reliable, safe, and ultimately even functional. Ever more complex ready-made components are commonly assembled into even more complex systems, taking the internal mechanism of the parts, and therefore to some extent the whole, for granted. The result is systems that are often not fully understood even by those who create them. Consequently, fragile and marginally functional devices and systems increasingly pass into production, only to fail in service. The problem is clearly demonstrated in the software domain by the burgeoning incidence of post-release bug fixes, emergency recovery from collapses of ‘cloud’ services and indeed occasional but all too frequent loss of life.
This trend has become entrenched in the preparation provided to our future engineers. In both hardware and software development training, less and less attention is focused on theory and fundamental principles. Practical work is commonly reduced to application of complex proprietary ‘black box’ modules, the internals and operating principles of which are seldom if ever discussed. Crash courses in coding, generally concentrating on the detail of specific languages and commercial products, offer swift entry to a trade that adheres to no formal common standards. Development of manipulative skills and familiarity with proprietary tools take precedence over understanding of, and ability to apply, the fundamental process that underpins sound engineering practice; a logical progression from informed conceptualisation to design, from design to implementation, and from implementation to verification. Instead, the prevalent current tendency is to leap straight from broad concept to implementation, omitting formal design and limiting verification to a bare minimum. Indeed ‘design’ has increasingly come to mean a somewhat diffuse cultural phenomenon largely related to styling, instead of a rigorous process of converting a concept into a practical, reliable and implementable solution.
Although such deficiencies in engineering education have long been recognised by some experts, there seems to be little traction so far for improvement. Their ubiquity and extent were illustrated last year on a visit to the BETT exhibition, where leading edge information technology products for education are annually put on show. Among over 200 stands purporting to offer materials and devices for education in digital systems, only one that offered anything other than ready made complex units or pre-packaged I found plug together modules with concealed internal functionality. On every stand, I asked the same question: “do your tutor materials provide enough information to allow the internal mechanism of these devices to be explained to students?” All but one of the responses were in the negative, and on one stand the somewhat startling reply was “What do you mean?”
This ‘black box’ approach to technology education normalises a training of what would in the mechanical sphere be called ‘fitters’: people who can install ready made parts without expecting to understand how they work, but who can not adapt, create or design parts, devices or systems themselves. We will always need fitters, but unless we also guarantee a growing population of informed engineers who can innovate and design new parts, devices and systems to high standards of functionality, reliability and safety, our digital capabilities will rapidly decline to the point where they fail to support societal needs.
Regrettably, this decline is clearly well under way. To reverse it, technology education must seek to nurture the engineering mindset. Obviously, it is grounded in solid understanding of the fundamental technical aspects of the discipline, but alone that is insufficient. In addition, the engineering mindset includes forethought, acceptance of personal responsibility, autonomous sequential decision-making and – above all – the capability to analyse problems to first principles and synthesise solutions from those principles. Consequently we must re-envisage technology education so that, as well as instilling deeper factual knowledge, it provides opportunities to develop these attributes. They are essentially talents, acquired by active participation in situations that demand their exercise, not fact-based skills that can be imparted by instruction.
Two and a half centuries ago the RSA was founded to support “arts, manufactures and commerce”; an expression of the leading edge technologies of the time and their societal application. In the same spirit, the RSA could be the forum from which we may initiate change towards a more in-depth education in digital technologies based on understanding and application of fundamental engineering principles. Unless we do, progress will likely grind to a halt within the foreseeable future, as the pool of sufficiently expert engineers becomes smaller and smaller while the requirement for their services continues to grow exponentially.
I am keen to hear from Fellows who are educators and who feel this could be a way forward for them: to build dialogue and drive change towards provision of real engineering education from the earliest years. It is essential for our future and can be a fascinating pathway to real learning for all age groups.
Michael Barwise FRSA is the founder of Boundless Brainpower, an educational initiative dedicated to developing tools and materials that support informed hands-on learning in digital technologies, with emphasis on exposure to fundamental principles.