STEM Matters: NMITE – a new approach to STEM education...
02 April 2020
Regular readers will be only too aware of the STEM challenge facing the UK. Engineers are key to resolving many of the world’s major challenges – from addressing the climate crisis & evolving energy needs or securing infrastructure against harsh weather conditions to ensuring everyone has access to sufficient food & clean water – but we remain critically short of them.
This interview & column was originally featured in the April 2020 issue of EPDT magazine [read the digital issue]. Sign up to receive your own copy each month.
Practical problem-solvers will be the innovators of the future and this is crucial for global development. NMITE has a plan to help – so I talked to Professor Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, NMITE President & CEO and Rick Miller, President of Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, US to find out more...
NMITE – New Model Institute for Technology & Engineering – is an initiative, backed by government, educators, Olin College and industry, designed to transform higher engineering education in the UK. NMITE’s vision is to help solve the problem of Britain’s estimated annual shortfall of at least 22,000 engineering graduates with a radical new approach to both teaching and learning – and a curriculum that will combine the best innovations from leading universities around the world.
A Mexican national and mechanical engineering graduate, NMITE President & CEO, Professor Elena Rodriguez-Falcon was formerly Sheffield University’s inaugural Director of Women in Engineering. While there, she established the whole agenda for that organisation and led the creation of the UK’s first Women in Engineering student society (which won Engineering Society of the Year in 2018), before joining NMITE in 2018. Recently, Elena was named Woman of the Year at the 10th annual 2020 FDM everywoman in Technology Awards, which celebrate inspiring, talented women working in STEM and shaping the future of the technology industry in the UK and beyond.
The award reflects Elena’s outstanding achievements in tech, with the awarding body describing her as: “...a passionate and dedicated woman whose vision, innovative approach and success make her an outstanding role model. After setting up numerous women in engineering networks and campaigns, she is now helping establish one of the most ambitious Higher Education projects seen in the UK for some 40 years – challenging conventional education norms to develop work-ready and innovative engineering professionals. The judges were so excited by this woman’s proactive approach to solving industry’s longstanding talent challenge – as well as how visionary, inclusive and community-orientated she was in everything she did and is doing to encourage more women and girls to choose a career in technology.”
Elena began by defining the problem: “We don’t have enough engineers; we don’t have enough women engineers; and employers tell us that too many engineering graduates lack the right industry skills for the future”. This, she told us, is because too many engineering courses comprise simply of lots of didactic learning of theory – not real engineering – meaning graduating engineers then have to learn (or be taught) how to apply that knowledge on the job.
NMITE will be different, she said: “You won’t come here to study engineering; you’ll come here to be an engineer”. We want to develop competencies and skills – not just impart knowledge. She noted that these days, all that knowledge is available in seconds via your smartphone anyway – so the most important skill anyone now needs is learning how to learn.
NMITE's future learner engineers will work collaboratively in small groups, getting hands-on with real-world, project-based engineering challenges set by industry. It aims to change the route into employment too, as the learning experience is being designed solely to align the skills and talents of its engineers with the needs of employers. This will reflect technological developments and help develop a mindset that is open to change.
NMITE is strongly supported and backed by engineering businesses, Herefordshire Council and the local community, Olin College of Engineering, professional engineering bodies and the UK Government, which have awarded up to £23million in initial funding.
We also talked to Rick Miller, President of Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, who was in the UK visiting NMITE. Rick recently announced that after 21 years in his role, he will be standing down in June 2020 – and Elena said he had been a big friend to NMITE, and very generous with his time as her organisation looked to learn from Olin’s model, approach and experience.
Olin is an undergraduate engineering institution dedicated to exploring innovative approaches to STEM education since its founding in 1997. It began as an experiment to educate engineers differently. At the time, typical engineering students received a thorough technical education, but lacked the necessary teamwork, project design and communication skills needed by industry. In the two decades since, the principles on which an Olin education was founded – design thinking, collaborative teamwork and a gender-balanced student population – are now widely emulated throughout the world in engineering and STEM institutions.
Rick described Olin as “privately funded national lab for STEM education”. He said they had been visited by 900 universities from around the world; however, he doesn’t encourage them to simply copy Olin’s curriculum, but to experiment, try things and find what works best for them and their students. He emphasised how he has often been pleasantly surprised by how much more capable of working together to figure things out students have proved. This has reinforced his belief that teams are a multiplier for problem solving and confidence. In a previous Forbes interview, he said: “Learning things that matter; learning in context; learning in teams. Envisioning what has never been and doing whatever it takes to make it happen. Do that 20 times and you will be employable forever”.
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