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Debate Teaching surveying

The Institution of Civil Engineers is calling for a complete revamp of teaching surveying at university.

This week we ask: Should the teaching of traditional, practical surveying skills make way for more modern, technology based methods?

Yes

John McCreadie, chairman, ICE Geospatial Board

Because of the revolution that has taken place in surveying and mapping over the last decade I doubt that much of what the civil engineering student is taught in current university courses regarding these disciplines is relevant to his future career.

GPS has become the dominant technology in surveying.

The National GPS Network, the National Grid Transformation and the National Geoid Model are replacing the UK's traditional reference systems of triangulation points and benchmarks.

Knowledge of Geodesy, once a specialist and somewhat esoteric subject, is now almost essential to properly use GPS in the engineering environment.

Photogrammetry is providing low cost mapping solutions in the form of orthophotomaps, digital terrain models and surface elevation models. High resolution satellite imagery provides up to date mapping information in areas of the world previously unmapped.

Radar interferometers allow subsidence measurements to be observed to millimetres.

LIDAR is being widely used to map and model river flood plains.

Three dimensional GIS and sophisticated visualisations are allowing engineers to present their designs to the public in easily understood ways. Point clouds generated by laser scanners are fast becoming the preferred method of measurement of our built environment.

Does the engineer have much understanding of any of these technologies and how they contribute to the civil engineering process? I have my doubts.

In my view it would make better use of the limited course time available for teaching surveying topics if students were introduced to the concepts of modern measurement and mapping techniques rather than learning how to operate a theodolite and dumpy level.

Additionally, as we move towards a world where the built and natural environment is three dimensionally modelled in a digital environment, rather than depicted on paper maps, civil engineers will have a responsibility to make their as-built designs available in a way that can be incorporated into this model of our world. Civil engineering students should be aware of what will be expected from them in this rapidly changing area of the profession.

No

Tim Hughes, professor of civil engineering, Cardiff University

It is of course right for civil engineering courses to be continuously reviewed - and they are - but to date we have not been overwhelmed by irate consultants and contractors beating paths to our door demanding that our graduates should no longer be taught basic surveying techniques.

Current practice at Cardiff is such that traditional surveying takes up about 1% of a four year undergraduate degree course - including a one week residential field course - that is as much about team building, presentation skills and bonding, as about surveying. This module includes general land surveying, traversing, levelling and setting out, and continues to provide students with sufficient skills for their first year on-site vacation employment. That is not the only reason for teaching this subject in the traditional manner.

Traditional surveying provides students with a number of key skills and attributes including the basic ability to transfer geometry from the ground onto a drawing and vice versa. This provides a good grounding in 3D visualisation and perhaps their first real contact with the practical skills necessary for construction. It also teaches much about spatial accuracy in the same way slide rules taught us about magnitudes. Closing errors are, for example, a complete mystery when first encountered by students and are a good lesson in accuracy. These key skills are to be abandoned at our peril.

On perhaps a more controversial note the Institution needs to be careful in the way it wields the accreditation process, which is where these curriculum revisions impact on universities.

Some recent announcements on maths, health and safety, and sustainable development lead me to suspect that some consider engineering education should be more about regurgitating facts than being able to think and do. Recent moves by the Institution, for example the Career Appraisal Academic Review, will encourage more non civil engineering graduates into joining, something many of us support, while at the same time many civil engineering graduates are not even considering entering the profession. This should point us towards more diversity and less prescription in what is taught.

The facts

The ICE Geospatial Board has set itself the target of devising a new surveying curriculum for university civil engineering courses that better reflects modern developments in surveying and geospatial engineering lCardiff University was ranked top for civil engineering in The Times Good University Guide 2002. Its surveying course focuses on the fundamentals, and includes a week long field trip.

lTo have your say on the debate, enter the ICE Geospatial Board forum by visiting the ICE website www. ice. org. uk and going to the Geospatial Board engineering club.

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