Introducing an engineering course without A-Level maths

Hereford’s NMiTE is the first new university in the UK in 30 years and aims to deliver a liberal approach to learning.

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The United Kingdom has a huge shortfall of talented engineers and part of this problem is that too few female teenagers see it as the sort of career they want to undertake. As a female engineer who has had the privilege of helping thousands of undergraduates become engineers I can say it is in fact a fantastic career for women, especially for those who want to improve the world.

To enable more women and indeed other groups of people who would make great engineers but are currently excluded, I joined the New Model in Technology and Engineering (NMiTE), the future university currently being built at Hereford, as its provost. NMiTE is probably the biggest experiment in the UK’s higher education sphere in the past 30 years, bringing radical but proven innovations from universities around the world into one exciting experience.

We are setting out to break the mould of engineering education, and will be proudly offering the world’s most radical engineering education when our first pioneering undergraduates arrive in September 2019. For instance, our MEng in integrated engineering will be taught not in four but three years, 46 weeks a year, during which time our engineers in training will be learning by solving real challenges from partner employers 100 per cent of their time. So, with hands-on learning, we will have no lectures. Absolutely none! There are no set textbooks either.

Our learners will not sit traditional exams. They will instead demonstrate their competencies and skills by addressing challenges from engineering and manufacturing companies. Furthermore, they will be tasked with understanding society’s challenges and translating them into not just technically viable, but holistic solutions. As such, our engineers will have a liberal approach to engineering, using a variety of techniques including those utilised by business, philosophy, sociology and the arts.

We are also slaying perhaps the most sacred of cows in UK engineering; we will not require our learners to have maths and physics A-level. Engineering does require a high standard of maths so instead those without it will be provided with tailored support to bring them up to speed.

Our approach has been featured widely in education, engineering and also national newspapers and a recent prominent article about NMiTE in The Times highlighted many of the underlying problems: a deeply conservative profession stuck in the past coupled with a public perception that professional engineers with degrees and masters don blue overalls, hard hats and man production lines.

Let’s deal with the misconception about what engineers do first of all. The view that engineers spend their time in overalls fixing things is about as accurate as believing lawyers spend all their time in powdered wigs interrogating the accused. This widespread misconception was highlighted when the online article in The Times was initially illustrated with a photo of women in blue overalls in a factory filing parts in a vice. I and others highlighted this inaccuracy and it was replaced… this time with a photo of three women in hard hats down a tunnel.

It sounds such a small complaint, but readers of the New Statesman will know the damage that is done when negative stereotypes are perpetuated. In this case teenagers and their parents see engineering as male, manual and dirty. The reality is that engineers, like other professionals, whether accountants, lawyers, or journalists, spend most of their time at desks or in meetings solving big challenges and earning high salaries!

The bigger issue was highlighted by the huge number of comments attracted by the article, over 100 comments last time I looked, largely from people purporting to be engineers. I do hope pupils and parents don’t see them as I can’t think of a better way of putting people off engineering than reading these misogynistic and old-fashioned views. What had set off the ire of this phalanx of crusty engineers and led to such an outpouring of disdain? It was the very idea that maths and physics A-level won’t be compulsory to get a place at NMiTE!

For us, the dogmatic insistence on A-level maths and physics is at the heart of the problem with attracting enough people into engineering. But can it be done without dumbing down the profession? Quite frankly the outpouring showed it is dumbed down already. Instead we are here to help lift it up to be fit for the impending fourth industrial revolution as every aspect of life becomes interconnected and digitised.

It is worth noting that Brunel, Eiffel, George and Robert Stevenson, and other great engineering figures from history did not have an A-level in maths. I dare say they were excellent mathematicians, as will be our graduates.

However, too few female teenagers are inspired to take maths and physics at A-level, partly because they don’t see it leading to the sorts of careers they want. There have been lots of attempts to change this, but to no avail. NMiTE can’t change the UK’s deeply entrenched misunderstanding of engineering on our own nor can we suddenly make thousands more teenagers suddenly want to do maths A-level. But we can catch them once they seriously start thinking about careers in the sixth form and take away the requirements of A-level maths for entry into an engineering degree programme.

But it is not just about “jobs for the girls”.There are also lots of others who we are looking to attract who will make excellent engineers, such as ex-forces personnel, who have the aptitude, grit and passion, but perhaps not the maths. After all, they may well have been responsible for large teams maintaining some of the most sophisticated and advanced equipment on land, sea or water. We think such people can make great engineers despite not having studied trigonometry and calculus in their teens.

Our approach of wanting smart people who have lots of aptitude and attitude to become engineers, rather than only drawing from the limited pool of sixth-formers doing A-level maths, is radical in the context of England. But NMiTE is not out of step when you look internationally, including Scotland, where the syllabus is not so specialised. It is also worth noting that in these countries engineers have a much higher status than in the UK. In fact, it is the dogmatic insistence on people requiring A-level maths in England that is out of step with much of the world.

NMiTE will open its doors in September 2019 to our first cohort of students, and from autumn 2018 we’ll be opening our doors to a group of participants drawn from recently graduated engineers and people who have just finished their A levels. The “design cohort”, will co-design and co-develop the NMiTE proposition and help us truly embed the “student voice” across our organisation.

Elena Rodriguez-Falcon is the inaugural provost of NMiTE.