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Courses spotlight: New directions

More than ever before, civil engineering courses need to address the challenges of unemployment and climate change. Jo Stimpson looks at three universities who are leading the way.

It’s a difficult time to be starting out in the world of civil engineering. The economic downturn has cast shadows over graduates’ employment prospects. At the same time climate change is demanding major adjustments to industry practice.

These factors mean that engineers need to prepare for an environmental and economic future that is uncertain at best. Newly qualified civil engineers have to be familiar with whole new areas of knowledge, and be as competitive as possible to find employment in a tight jobs market.

As a result, universities need to make their training as useful and up to date as possible. The wise student will choose a degree course that will prepare him or her to meet those challenges head on.

Here are three universities that have introduced new measures to ensure the courses they offer can do just that for their undergraduates.

University of Derby − BEng (Hons) Civil and Infrastructure Engineering

The University of Derby, in the East Midlands, has opted to create a civil engineering degree focusing specifically on infrastructure. The BEng (Hons) Civil and Infrastructure Engineering top-up course had a successful first run last year, and will now take on a second round of students.

The course offers an opportunity to concentrate on two specific types of infrastructure − the choice is between highway engineering, railway engineering, fluids and drainage engineering, geotechnics and environmental engineering, and surveying.

“There is a need to incorporate railway engineering at a Bachelors level − nowhere else does it.”

Brian Counter, University of Derby

The chance to specialise in railways is particularly pertinent given the university’s location. “Derby is a railway technical city, so a lot of companies here have railway-related projects,” says programme leader of civil engineering Brian Counter.

“There is a need across the country to incorporate railway engineering at a Bachelors level − nowhere else does it.”

The strength of focus in the syllabus is backed up by a teaching staff that boasts specialised professionals alongside academics. “It’s a mix,” says Counter. “Many of the teaching staff are ex-contractors and professionals. We do bring specialist people in − there’s a guy from Balfour Beatty who teaches railway.”

Meanwhile, the course’s focus on infrastructure slots in nicely with the ICE’s current agenda. In June, its State of the Nation − Defending Critical Infrastructure report called for the urgent protection and maintenance of the country’s crucial resources. Does the course at Derby promote the same priorities? “Absolutely,” says Counter. “That’s where the big picture comes in, in terms of the human reasons why we’re doing it all. The course is designed around practical management and maintenance of infrastructure.”

An eye on the bigger picture

Sustainability is another key principle of the course. It permeates students’ work throughout the programme, including their practical design projects. One of the core modules is Ethics, Environment and Innovation, which explores the principles, techniques and innovations that can enhance sustainable construction. The module takes in recycling, selection of materials, energy reduction measures such as photovoltaic cells, and intelligent buildings and structures, among other topics.

Derby’s School of Technology, which runs the course, also boasts solid links with industry, the benefits of which are felt by its students. “We maintain excellent contacts,” says Counter. “The more we can do placements, the more we can make contacts. Links with employment are absolutely fundamental.”

“Our placements become a sort of a long interview − the students become more employable. Our modules reflect that.”

Brian Counter, University of Derby

The Civil and Infrastructure Engineering course includes an independent study project at a professional organisation. Previous students have done theirs at companies such as Balfour Beatty, Jacobs, Scott Wilson and local authorities such as Derbyshire County Council.

These work placements allow the students to build contacts and show off their capabilities. “Our placements become a sort of a long interview − the students become more employable,” says Counter. He also points out that the school has strong links with the ICE and aims to prepare students to get professional membership as soon as possible. “It has paid dividends,” he says. “Our modules reflect the needs of professional interviews.”

A boost on the ladder

The course is especially suited for part time study for those already in work, says Counter. “There is a high percentage of part-time students on the course already working in companies within the area.” Over half of last year’s students worked part time in their final year, getting their feet on the career ladder before even graduating.

“There is a high percentage of part-time students on the course already working in companies within the area.”

Brian Counter, University of Derby

The course is also ideal, says Counter, for mature students who took their Higher National Certificate years ago and now want to top up and progress to Incorporated and Chartered status. He estimates that mature students accounted for around 25% of last year’s intake.

Teaching is done by a mixture of lectures, tutorials, self-directed study, work based learning, e-learning, laboratory and field work, while case studies and site visits help students to put their theory into practice.

It is an approach that has proved popular with past students, whose loyalty to the university has now prompted the possibility of creating a civil engineering Masters course. “A lot of students want to come back and do a Masters with us,” says Counter. “They like our style.”

University of Brighton − Excellence With Industry

The University of Brighton, in partnership with Southern Water, has come up with a novel solution to the problem of graduate unemployment.

Together, the two organisations have set up a scheme called Excellence With Industry (EWI), which provides students on the MEng (Hons) Civil Engineering course − as well as those on four other related courses − with work placements, bursaries, and an all-important guarantee of employment on graduation.

It is an innovative idea that allows students to create links with an employer and have the promise of a job at the end of their studies, without the hassle of having to secure sponsorship or funding prior to starting the course.

A pioneering approach

Civil engineering course leader Hamid Isfahany says the university is proud to pioneer the scheme. “This programme is unique to the University of Brighton,” he says. “We had a meeting with Southern Water in June − it actually wants to expand the scheme to other universities, or to include other degree courses. But at the moment it’s unique to Brighton.”

Students are guaranteed at least one year of employment with Southern Water on graduation, provided they meet the minimum performance criteria of getting a first or a 2:1. But the high calibre of students attracted by the scheme means they are unlikely to miss the mark. “The students have been very happy on the course and they’ve pushed themselves to the limit,” says Isfahany. “Last year all the students achieved firsts so there wasn’t a problem at all.”

“The students have been very happy on the course and they’ve pushed themselves to the limit.”

Hamid Isfahany, University of Brighton

If the students receive more attractive job offers, they have no obligation to work for Southern Water and are free to go elsewhere − but, says Isfahany, the “competitive opportunities and competitive salary on offer” mean that few students will do so in the current climate.

Southern Water is leading the EWI programme, but it was developed collectively with other companies including Atkins, Costain, MWH and United Utilities. All five of the main companies involved benefit from being able to draw on a group of dedicated and disciplined students.

Costain programme co-ordinator Paul Erricker has spoken about the value of the EWI scheme. “Costain will have a regular source of high calibre graduates with real industry experience,” he said. Those graduates are attractive future employees. “Southern Water is doing this to train its future workforce,” says Isfahany. “They get people who are already familiar with the company and the working environment.”

The future workforce

During the MEng course Atkins, Costain, MWH and United Utilities take on the EWI students for eight week summer placements and set them to work on Southern Water projects.

The students also receive an attractive bursary − last year this was £750 per month tax free, although the economic climate means bursaries may be slightly lower for this year’s intake. But in spite of the downturn, EWI is set to continue for the foreseeable future.

“Students on the scheme have a great influence on the other students. They raise the standards.”

Hamid Isfahany, University of Brighton

“Southern Water’s directors specifically said they will continue with the scheme regardless of the recession,” says Isfahany. “It means they will be well positioned for when the climate changes − it’s a well timed investment for them.

“The programme has been successful so far. Southern Water has been happy with the students and their progress.”

Students can apply for a place on the EWI scheme during the second year of their four-year MEng course. Only the best students are taken on − the acceptance rate onto EWI is around one in three students − but those who are unsuccessful can simply carry on with their MEng as normal.

Still, Isfahany says EWI’s positive effects are spreading beyond those who win a place on the programme. “Students on the scheme have a great influence on the other students,” he says. “They raise the standards of the others as well. They are helping other students because they have learned about the industry and worked on real projects.

Brunel University − Joseph Bazalgette labs and Civil Engineering with Sustainability

Brunel University has its eye on the future. In spite of the economic slump, it is pursuing long term goals by continuing to invest in civil engineering and by putting a firm focus on sustainability.

The investment comes in the form of the university’s Joseph Bazalgette Laboratories. Since they opened in 2007, around £750,000 has been spent on them − with more investment still to come. Brand new equipment worth £250,000 will be used for the first time by this year’s freshers.

Acting head of civil engineering Phil Collins says his staff is enjoying getting to grips with the cutting edge machinery. “It’s all new kit and new models that we’ve never used before,” he says.

“The new equipment is built to a high specification. It’s good for the students. It’s the same equipment as in commercial labs. That makes it more enjoyable for them.”

Phil Collins, Brunel University

This year’s new apparatus includes a pair of £100,000 flumes − one open channel flume and one flow visualisation table − improved concrete preparation testing facilities, increased geotechnical analysis facilities and equipment for innovative materials preparation and structural and materials testing.

Collins says the investment is paying off. “The new equipment is built to a high specification, so we can use it for research,” he says. “But it’s also good for the students.” The facilities are of an industrial standard, meaning Brunel students can concentrate on their projects without having to worry about the results being affected by poor quality equipment. “It’s the same equipment as in commercial labs,” he says Collins. “That makes it more enjoyable for them.”

Investing in the future

In addition to this investment, Brunel’s new Civil Engineering with Sustainability BEng and MEng courses emphasise the need for engineers to invest in the future in their work.

The courses take a well rounded view of sustainability in all its senses, says Collins. “There’s the climate change side, there’s the environmental impact side − but also economic sustainability and social sustainability,” he says. “We want our students actually going out and producing things of value that people will want to use for many years.”

“There’s the climate change side, there’s the environmental impact side − but also economic sustainability and social sustainability.”

Phil Collins, Brunel University

The BEng and MEng rest on a philosophy of “cradle to grave” sustainability − that is, thinking beyond a project’s completion date and asking how it will hold up in the future. Engineers, he says, should not just fulfil their brief and then wash their hands of a project. “We should be involved right at the start of the project,” he says.

“We should have an impact in its design, be involved right through − and be concerned with it right through to the end of the piece’s life.”

This thinking was the motivation behind the creation of the courses, which provide mainstream civil engineering training but give attention to sustainability issues throughout. “What we’ve done is taken the sustainability thread and tried to integrate that in, so it’s not just a standalone module,” says Collins.

Solid training and experience

The BEng and MEng can be taken as sandwich courses with a year in industry. These paid work placements put students on a fast track route to Chartered engineer status − the requirements for which include a minimum of two years’ approved industrial training. The accreditation of Brunel’s courses means the integrated work placements can count for a proportion of those two years’ training.

“We want our students producing things of value that people will want to use for many years. We should be concerned with it right through to the end of the piece’s life.”

Phil Collins, Brunel University

Further opportunity for practical experience comes in the form of a field trip to Dorset, taken in the first year. This year, students visited Lulworth Cove, Lyme Regis and West Bay. They carried out a topographic survey and site investigations, and looked at engineering solutions to coastal erosion.

The important thing is that students leave with a sense of the longevity of their work and a solid training in sustainability issues, having gained useful experience of real projects and high quality equipment, says Collins. “We have ambitious goals but have already made some significant progress towards achieving them,” he says. “It has been an exciting time for us.”

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