The number of women taking up civil engineering degrees could be boosted dramatically, if universities relaxed the requirements they set at A Level.
That’s the view of University College London’s (UCL) civil, environmental, and geomatic engineering department. It has seen female representation on degree courses climb above 30% after removing a requirement that undergraduates must have A Level mathematics and a science eight years ago.
This, along with other significant changes to its degree programme in the same year, explains UCL’s position on top of The Guardian league table for civil engineering universities, according to the department’s professor Richard Simons.
“We aimed to allow girls to come on to courses more comfortably – so we removed the requirement for maths and science at A Level,” Simons told NCE.
“Now over 30% of our students are female, plus a third of our academic staff and professors, and half of the department’s senior management team is also women.”
The target is 50% across the board, he adds.
A new introduction this year means undergraduates can take a minor subject, in the style of the US degree system, such as mechanical engineering. “It means they graduate with a civil engineering degree, having ‘majored’ in civils, but with another string to their bow in the minor subject,” said Simons. “Again, the aim is to give them a more rounded experience and skills more suited to what employers are demanding.”
UCL’s position is in sharp contrast to other leading civil engineering universities, which demand A Level mathematics, and usually a science as well.
What A Levels do top civil engineering universities require?
University College London
A*AA-AAA; no specific subjects required
A* in mathematics; A in all A2 mathematics modules; A*A in two further A Levels, one of which must be physics
A*AA; mathematics and another science required
AAB; mathematics required
AAB; mathematics and physics required
A in A2 mathematics, physics and/or further mathematics recommended but not mandatory
AAB; mathematics and physics required
320 UCAS tariff points; mathematics grade B required
Undergraduates at UCL are still expected to have strong A Level results – usually A*AA – and to have an A in in GCSE maths. And they are left in no doubt that maths is part of the degree programme.
“The difference with our approach, is that students are engaged with engineering problems immediately,” said Simons. “They still have to do maths, but in a project environment – so the maths is more relevant.”
Simons points to the example of Rachel Smith, a 2011 civils graduate who arrived at UCL with A Levels in fine art, psychology, and chemistry.
“Like so many others, when I was choosing my A Levels, I had reasons for not picking maths and physics,” she said. “Be it not getting on with the teachers, or something else.”
UCL civils professor Nick Tyler said: “We were losing out on bright, talented, creative students. And it wasn’t only us; the whole civil engineering profession was losing out on that talent – because of a decision people make at the age of 15 or 16.”
UCL’s change of approach in 2006 had several aims, only one of which was boosting female entrants. “We also wanted to develop the problem-solving skills in our graduates that employers seek, to attract the best applicants, and to reduce the drop-out and failure rates,” Simon explained.
This was addressed through: balancing the curriculum between eight one-week, full-time multidisciplinary projects and traditional lectures; introducing a high proportion of group work to encourage peer learning and motivation; and placing emphasis on the financial, social and political context in which engineering projects are delivered.
UCL has largely achieved all its aims, said Simons. Drop-out rates, typically 15% according to the professor, “have disappeared”.
Simons says UCL has been criticised for “dumbing down” the profession, but insists this is not the case, as The Guardian’s league tables would suggest; it has achieved 3rd, 1st and 1st in the past three years.
“Our programmes teach across all the major fields of civil engineering – structures, soils, fluids, design, transport studies, surveying and materials – and we pick projects that cut across all those fields so that we avoid teaching in ‘silos’,” he said. “We also include final-year options such as GIS, finance, law, entrepreneurship, and management, to give our course more ‘real world’ grounding.”
Tyler believes UCL’s decision to relax its entry requirements has also benefited students from a more traditional civil engineering A Level background.
“Typically 10% of our intake has an ‘unusual’ academic background,” he said.
“But they are a real catalyst for the others. They are people who want to change the world – and they realise that a way of doing that is the ordered engineering way of thinking.”
And the ICE’s official guidance
Students who show an interest and aptitude for civil engineering should be encouraged to pursue physics and mathematics as their core subjects for their A-levels.
By taking mathematics and physics, they can gain entry to a civil engineering degree at university. The choice for their third and/or fourth A-level is more flexible. Typical choices are: chemistry; geography; design technology; further mathematics; modern foreign language.