New U.K. University Plans Bold Changes to Engineering Pedagogy

NMiTE’s Program Is Designed to Produce Employment-Ready, Humanist Engineers
  • Hereford City

    The U.K.’s first new university in four decades, New Model in Technology & Education (NMiTE), will be located in Hereford City, in the West Midlands of England. Pictured here is a view towards the Old Bridge and Hereford Cathedral.

    Photo by Gabriella Karney Photography

  • Rural Location

    NMiTE is schedule to open in 2020 in Hereford City, a rural area ready for an infusion of redevelopment.

    Photo by Gabriella Karney Photography

While the drive to revamp engineering education continues to gather steam, the bold approach pioneered by the U.K.’s first new university in four decades is more revolutionary than evolutionary. Describing itself as “an unprecedented opportunity to inspire and teach a new generation of engineering talent,” New Model in Technology & Education (NMiTE) will debut with innovations such as a three-year degree program, unconventional admissions criteria, a mandate for gender balance, and a facilities design that won’t be finalized until students give it a trial run.

NMiTE (an official name is expected before the end of the year) will have its formal launch in September 2020, in Hereford City, in the West Midlands of England, a rural area ready for an infusion of redevelopment.

The school will incorporate new directions in engineering pedagogy that have been appearing with more frequency lately: the preparation of employment-ready graduates, an emphasis on practice or “making” rather than theory and lectures, and consideration of the human dimension in all projects or products. These are part of the knowledge base NMiTE deems necessary to produce the new breed of engineers who will be tasked to tackle today’s most complex global challenges, from sustainability to cyber security.

“From the outset, aspects of humanities and social science will be embedded in the students’ practice,” says NMiTE president and CEO Janusz Kozinski, Ph.D. “Students may not understand all the nuances, but the best way to learn is to find answers to the questions being asked.”

Before stepping into the NMiTE post in July 2017, Kozinski was the founding dean of Lassonde School of Engineering, York University, Canada, created to be home to the Renaissance Engineer™.

That vision strongly influences the goal of NMiTE’s curriculum, “designed to specifically address the needs of engineering and technology employers with the aim of producing employment-ready, highly productive, industry-relevant, culturally intelligent, innovative, ethically aware, problem-solving, economically and financially literate graduates, who will demonstrably be outstanding contributors, inspirational employees, entrepreneurs, and innovators.”

A Remedy to the Engineering Shortage

NMiTE’s founding is taking place against a backdrop of a severe engineering shortage that threatens British competitiveness. An annual deficit of 44,000 engineering graduates has pushed demand five times higher than supply. In an environment where innovation is increasingly identified as the key to solving global problems, a sense of urgency accompanies the shortfall. More students must be attracted to the field, and the curriculum must equip them for the new roles they will be expected to play.

An “urgent rapid disruption in engineering higher education is required,” states a school publication.

These conditions are not necessarily unique to England. Kozinski’s analysis of engineering education and markets in Canada, the U.S., and the U.K. reveals “huge similarities” in all three nations.  

“The U.K. may be more driven by industrial needs than the U.S. and Canada, because it will have a severe shortage of engineers, especially our type,” he says. “But there is no difference between the way young people think and live in these three countries, and I imagine it would be similar in other cultures all over the world.”

His solution is to place a premium on engaging with students.

“This university is being created for young people. We want to make certain it is also created by, in part, young people, not just academics. We ought to listen to young people—what is it that excites and inspires them, what are their preferred ways to learn? Our focus is on learning, not just teaching. Teaching is input; learning is outcome.”

Blocks, Not Courses

The activities that will generate that learning will take place over three, 46-week-long academic years, culminating in an Accelerated Masters in Liberal Engineering degree.

Instead of taking the traditional four to five courses per semester, capped by exams, students will be assigned a project to work on as a block over a three- to four-week sprint. By the end of the block they will have designed, made, or manufactured something tangible. The academic schedule allows for 15 blocks per year.

Emblematic of NMiTE’s hands-on approach, each project block entails on-premises work with an industrial or community partner, part of the degree requirement for a six- to 12-month work placement. A specific project can be either an individual or group effort. During their final year, students select a more comprehensive project with a school partner, spending at least six months of continuous time in that environment.  

“Students work for most of the day together with their mentors,” explains Kozinski. “They are often on premises, and come back here if they need to spend time in the studio or lab. This teaches them what it means to structure their time and how they will work when they graduate. There is lots of flexibility, all driven by the nature of the project we receive from the partner.”

By the end of the program, students will have had the opportunity to work in 30 to 40 different   environments. Not only will they be ready to join the labor market a year earlier; they will be able to make more informed decision on what to work on and for whom. That’s a benefit for employers, too, who get to know candidates before they are formally hired, Kozinski points out.

Grit, Curiosity, and Passion

With the human factor so important in the engineering design process, NMiTE is paying similar attention to the human characteristics of its future students. Grades and previous coursework are only one element of the admission decision, and candidates with academic gaps—not meeting the math prerequisite, for example—won’t necessarily be passed over. Students can get up to speed in their weaker subjects through online courses and tutorial sessions.

The school also seeks to create “open and simple pathways to admit learners who have already begun their careers—whether in the military, through apprenticeships, or through experience—giving them credits for their previous training and life-learning.” Highly prized in the selection process will be “evidence that students demonstrate systems thinking, the capacity to collaborate and work in teams, can find and creatively solve problems, are capable of visualizing, and can adapt and improve.”

Kozinski cites three personal traits as essential criteria for admission: curiosity, grit, and passion—“who they are as humans, with passions, hopes, and dreams.” He adds creativity to this line-up, a lesson learned during his tenure at Lassonde, where applicants were asked to explain why they wanted to become engineers. They went beyond the standard essay to express their deep-seated motivation, responding with poems, video clips, songs, or artwork. Their creativity was “quite clear.”

Gender Balance

Gender balance in the student body is a “fundamental” imperative, says Kozinski. In the U.S. and Canada, the average female engineering enrollment is around 17 to 18 percent; in the U.K., it’s between 9 and 10 percent, barely higher than the 7 percent rate 100 years ago.

The skewed ratio is a distinct disadvantage for the profession. “It means we’re losing terrific talent to other disciplines,” especially law and medicine. “The conversation is missing a tremendous perspective.”

But just as law schools moved from being “absolutely dominated by men” a few decades ago to a 50-50 split today, so too is NMiTE pursuing a parallel track. In fact, the school has announced its intention to be “a beacon institution for women who wish to study engineering in a gender-balanced environment.” 

Here again, Kozinski is departing from tradition, abandoning old, tired recruiting methods in favor of a fresh new plan.

“We decided not to do what had been done in the past—going to elementary and high schools, telling young girls what science and engineering are about. That doesn’t work. I told my colleagues this was the definition of insanity.”

Instead, NMiTE is creating an academic program with a strong element of social values and community-type work. “We’ve noticed that social meaning resonates with females. At Lassonde, for example, we linked engineering with law. It’s not about creating preferences for women, but creating opportunities and giving them more choices.” As testimony to the effectiveness of this approach, he notes that the gender mix of the class that entered Lassonde during his last year had risen to approximately 32 percent female.

Physical Plant

When it comes to NMiTE facilities, many decisions are yet to be made. The preliminary space summary anticipates just over 100,000 sf for the school upon opening, roughly divided into 44,000 sf for general teaching and studios, 33,000 sf for laboratories and workshops, and 25,000 sf for administration. The cost for each type of space has been calculated fairly closely to $25.5 million overall: about $232 per sf for general teaching and studios, for a total of $13.5 million; $185 per sf for labs and workshops, totaling $6.17 million; and $246 per sf for administration, totaling $5.84 million.

The intent initially is to create a signature academic building and refurbish existing buildings in Hereford City, but explorations are still ongoing, according to Doug Reid, one of Kozinski’s colleagues at Lassonde, who joined NMiTE as chief digital and infrastructure officer in September 2017.

While the actual sites are still up in the air, the goal is to create an environment conducive to project-based work. Reid envisions creating spaces similar to the studio model typically found in schools of architecture—but rarely in engineering. Students will each have a desk within a large open studio serving as a home base. They will move around to other spaces—classrooms, maker spaces, etc.—but come back to the studio for their own projects or group work.

“This is an option to give students more dedicated space that they can rely on as their own,” says Reid.

The maker space is indispensible to hands-on learning. Students will start a project digitally or on paper with models, then move to 3D printers and laser cutters for rapid prototyping, and then to more traditional manufacturing tools like CNC (computer numeric control) machines and routers.

The school’s student-centric orientation is further reinforced by its inclusion of student input in the final facilities configuration, to flesh out “the way engineering should be learned in this new era of becoming a liberal, or humanist, engineer,” says Kozinski.

The target opening date allows time for a two-phased trial run. To begin, a design cohort of 25 students will spend a few weeks (at no cost and not for academic credit) in September 2018 and spring 2019 in prototype labs, studios, and classrooms to test whether they are the right size and have the right kinds of equipment, benches, and other furnishings to accommodate the diverse program subjects and activities.

Then, in the fall of 2019 a pioneer cohort of about 75 students will enter the program, also at no cost but this time for credit. The pioneers will go through the first-year curriculum and provide “meaningful feedback on what works, what needs improvement, what new things to add, what to drop,” says Kozinski. That learning will be incorporated in the final physical version that will officially launch in September 2020 with an incoming class of up to 350 students.

“We want to give students the opportunity to correct us, and to give ourselves the opportunity to improve,” Kozinski continues. “Otherwise, we will be doing what everyone else does, predefining everything. When students come into to a well-established lab, people learn that perhaps it is not optimal for students, and it is much more difficult and expensive to change. We are giving ourselves an extra year to make certain we do not make mistakes.”

Lessons Learned

Reflecting on the lessons learned from experiences at Lassonde, Kozinski reemphasizes the importance of student involvement. When translating academic programs into facilities development, their responses are “absolutely critical—not only in equipment types and set-up, but nuances like natural light and how groups interact with each other. We can only learn this from young people. They are the ones solving problems.”

Measured growth is another key. Lassonde enrollment zoomed from 200 to 3,800 students in just a few years. “Our pace of growth was way too high. If you grow too fast, it is very difficult not to compromise on some things you’d normally like to do.”

He also urges strong consideration of “the kind of people you invite to work with you on something we call ‘new, bold, and different,’” he says. Here again, rapid growth can be an impediment to “a truly quality process of hiring high-quality individuals, not just on paper, but whether they reflect the spirit you want to create for your school. You need to make certain there is an optimal fit between the aspirations of the institution and their own.”

Outside Support

Over the course of its planning, NMiTE has received support from several academic and professional bodies, as well as from private industry. For example, the school received guidance from Olin College of Engineering, in Needham, Mass., which was founded in 1997 to reinvent engineering education, with an emphasis on experience-based learning.

“We like how Olin faculty interact with students, how students are the driving force behind the learning process, and how the school and students are embedded in community,” says Kosinski. “Our model is different. Olin is a very progressive, small school with fewer than 500 students. We will be an order of magnitude bigger—5,000 students in 10 to 15 years. At the moment, I don’t think any engineering school comes close to what we’ve developed,” concludes Kozinski.

By Nicole Zaro Stahl