The South African engineering industry is at a challenging crossroads. Not only has it been accepted that our education system is not producing enough graduate engineers to meet future planned infrastructure development projects, but the skills the industry needs are being transformed by a range of variables that are often difficult to incorporate on an educational design and curriculum planning level.
In the 21st century, the reality of the curriculum plan for engineers is that it understandably still focusses heavily on science and mathematics skills. However, an important challenge that needs to be acknowledged is that engineering education has not changed significantly enough to meet the changes of our world on a social, technological, environmental and business competitive level.
The role of science and mathematics in engineering education obviously needs to be paramount. However, the demands of the 21st century require more pragmatic, flexible and experiential opportunities to put into practice what needs to be learned about an industry that is actually fast changing. Cooperation and collaboration between students, universities, industry sector bodies and businesses needing to employ engineers needs to take place more than ever before. And realistically it needs to be accepted that there will never be one perfect model or definition of engineering education. All stakeholders are important and the education mix that is required will constantly change.
Opportunities and challenges of the new engineering world
With an emphasis on improving mathematical and science knowledge by education departments worldwide, and access to ever improving computer power, engineering services can literally come from anywhere in the world. What they may not be able to provide, however, is innovation, design and problem solving skills. Such skills cannot be taught through any single subject, degree or faculty, but in reality only through experience and opportunities to learn in a supportive environment.
The ability to innovate, solve problems across multiple business layers and communicate across cultures and languages will be key factors that anyone competing in the job market will need to master. In the engineering field, the challenges to personal ability are even more intricate. Not only will the engineer of the future need to innovate, but they will need to call on multiple skills to make the innovation a reality.
Innovation + hands-on learning = opportunity
The PneuDrive Challenge, a student mechatronic engineering design competition initiated in 2008 and sponsored by SEW-EURODRIVE and SMC Pneumatics (South Africa,) is a practical example of how business, engineering faculties and students can collaborate in order to enhance engineering education. This strategic learning experience annually allows approximately 400 mechanical, electronic and mechatronic engineering students from around South Africa to analyse, design and experiment with intelligent automation systems according to a structured learning path, which is in turn supported by coaches and subject matter experts.
Having access to engineering products and subject matter experts, from SEW-EURODRIVE and SMC Pneumatics (South Africa,) who can advise on how to best select products and test proposed applications is an important step for engineering students who need to learn how to practically bring together engineering theory with real-life engineering design challenges.
This year’s competitors, who have been challenged with designing solutions for the food and beverage industry, will have the opportunity to start stepping across the bridge that exists between academic theory and business reality. The winners of the competition will receive a ten day all expenses paid trip to Europe where they will have an opportunity to present their designs to the head offices of the sponsor companies – another invaluable learning opportunity for young engineers. SEW-EURODRIVE and SMC Pneumatics (South Africa) also offer equipment to competing universities to ensure that future students are afforded the opportunity to experiment with the latest in drive engineering and pneumatic technology.