How computers are helping to make engineering sexy

Engineering is deadly dull, right? Not any more. Now universities are offering courses that cater exactly for undergraduates' and employers' needs
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The Independent Online

Engineering has had something of an identity crisis in recent years: falling out of favour with students attracted by media and IT degrees. However, while the growth of student numbers in engineering has not matched that in other subjects, students are becoming increasingly attracted by courses that offer a new, relevant slant on the subject.

"Engineering has changed," says Peter Roberts, the business development manager at London's City University. "It has become much more influenced by IT and computational engineering, and we've responded to that. Ten years ago, if you'd said you'd have an engineering course that would include marketing, team-building skills and project management, you would probably have been laughed at, but things have changed."

At City University, a prospective undergraduate can choose from traditional courses such as civil engineering, mechanical engineering and electronic and aeronautical engineering, or they can opt for a newer area. "We have a very popular BEng course in media communications systems," says Mr Roberts. "We also run the BSc in air transport, which is the only course in the UK which is aimed at undergraduates who want to be commercial pilots."

James Brimble, 25, graduated in 1997 from City University with a 2:1. "The course gave me a two-year foundation in the core areas, and I was then able to choose a specific discipline," he says. "I'd always been interested in aerospace so I decided to do air transport engineering." Now he is working for Rolls-Royce in Bristol as a technology engineer, and earns £19,000.

Companies such as Motorola, Hitachi and ARM have played a major part in the funding and design of innovative courses offered by the Institute for System Level Integration. The institute, which is based in Livingston in West Lothian, set up the courses with input from Glasgow, Heriot-Watt, Strathclyde and Edinburgh universities.

Studentships are available for engineering doctorates or a MSc in system level integration, where students learn how to build, rebuild and program ever smaller and more complex chips. "It's quite a multi-disciplinary skill," says marketing manager Noreen O'Donnell. "An electronics graduate will have a good background in the hardware engineering side of things, but they also have to learn how to understand and communicate with programmers."

Universities are increasingly finding that they have to compete with industry and the City for engineering graduates. In response, they have designed postgraduate courses that are attractive to students, and enable them to work with industry. At the University of York, Professor Andy Tyrrell says that the DPhil in bio-inspired computer architecture has attracted a high level of interest.

"What we're trying to do is to have a look at how cell development and biological systems perform their immune functions, and we're trying to relate some of those techniques into the design of computer architectures to make them more reliable and fault tolerant."

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) funds a number of studentships at York, and there is considerable involvement from companies such as Nortel and British Telecom.

The EPSRC is active in funding many research projects in universities. It has just awarded £500,000 to Cranfield University in order to set up a MSc in motorsport engineering and management. Clive Temple, the marketing manager for the course, says: "We've got to make people think engineering is sexy. The interest in the motorsport course has been phenomenal. The aim is to develop the motor-sport engineers of the future."

Industry is equally involved in some of Cranfield's other MSc courses, including waste water engineering and offshore technologies. But do the newer courses offer the same rigorous training that the traditional ones provide? Andrew Ramsay, the director for engineers' regulation at the Engineering Council, argues that "often these courses are not very different from the electronic engineering that is being taught at university. They've added some modules to make it more relevant to the particular strain of interest that's being advertised, but the core knowledge is still basic engineering."

He believes that, with these skills, students have a much larger choice of employment. "If what you wanted is not there, something similar is available from employers provided you've got basic engineering skills."

In the new employment market, where skills have to be updated constantly, universities are also beginning to take up the challenge. Brunel University has pioneered a part-time post-graduate distance learning course for students who are already working in industry. Dr Gordon Lowry, of the Mechanical Engineering Department at Brunel, says: "We run two MSc courses, one in building services engineering and one in building services engineering management. The course material is sent out by post, and we maintain regular contact with students, increasingly by e-mail."

It is still true that an ability with maths is essential for engineers. But for those willing to tackle figures, the opportunities are enormous. Major companies, the City, utilities and local government all welcome engineering graduates. The knowledge-based society requires people who are not fazed by numbers, and an engineering degree could be the best favour you could do yourself.