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Engineering education has come a long way over a long time

The history of engineering education is neglected in comparison to the histories of ideas and technologies with which it is so intricately linked.

Engineers familiar with Rankine’s earth pressure theory or even his ideas about safe dam design will have little idea about his teaching methods. However,  leaders in many walks of life will, with little prompting, be able to relate anecdotes illustrating that it was educators, rather than the ideas and concepts they taught, that were the catalyst, or dampener, that inspired or deflated their interest in a subject. 

Concepts of what comprises engineering education have also changed over time.

Today’s debates over the length of university degrees requisite to teach the engineering science necessary for a professional engineer to do their jobs satisfactorily, reflect a very different world from when the ICE was founded. Then no civil engineering was taught in the British Isles at all, yet the profession was able to form. 

In the early 19th century engineering science was in its infancy, full of false leads, and often dismissed by practioners as unhelpful, if not misleading. 

However, if civil engineering courses did not exist in a sense we would recognise them today. Science was taught in evening classes at university, at Scottish academies and to military cadets. 

The building blocks of engineering science were available, even if it was 150 years before the majority of members began to study civil engineering degrees, as a matter of course as the first stage of professional development. 

The nature of this development is reflected in the career of WC Unwin, possibly the best known 19th century civil engineering academic after Rankine. 

Unwin was encouraged to give his first lectures in the 1860s, not at a university, but at the Royal Engineers Institute at Chatham.  His talent as an educator led to his being recruited to teach at the Royal Indian Engineering College, Coopers Hill. 

It was only at the end of his career that he became a professor at what is now Imperial College London, the role for which he is best known.

Past ICE president professor Roy Severn’s history of the  University of Bristol’s Faculty of Engineering, provides a useful case study of the evolution of engineering education in Britain. 

Like several other universities it can trace its origins back to the education of artisans – in its case the Merchant Venturers Technical College (MVTC). 

University College Bristol, a separate institution, was founded in 1876, with engineering taught within its science faculty. 

In 1909, the two bodies were merged to form the current University of Bristol. 

The MVTC influence ensured engineering was a major component of the new body. That, however, would have been mere aspiration, if not for the calibre of the teaching staff, and their interest in research. 

Professor Severn recognises this, and the contributions of John Sutton Pippard, JF Baker and Alfred Pugsley Alfred, to name but three, are well known in their fields. 

One would have to add that Severn has played his own part in this, with his coordinating role in EU funded research programmes in the fields of structural dynamics and earthquake engineering. 

His knowledge of the changing university environment over the last 40 years, with growth stimulated initially by the Robbins report, and teaching and research then impacted by membership of the EU, and the Dearing review, ensures this is an informed and up-to-date account of the changing face of engineering education. 

  • The history is available for £55. Contact Jane Keenan at the University Campaign and Alumni Relations Office, University of Bristol, Senate House, Bristol BS8 1TR or the author r.t.severn@bristol.ac.uk

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