Joy of putting a spanner in the works

From building solar-powered bicycles to designing luxury yachts, there's much more to engineering than messing about with machines
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The Independent Online

Last autumn engineering students from Southampton University came third in a 1,500-kilometre, solar-powered cycle race from Alice Springs to Adelaide, across the hot heart of Australia. Their recumbent tricycle with a computer-controlled energy-management system competed against the vehicles of some 40 other international teams in the World Solar Cycle Challenge. Two groups of fourth year MEng students from the university contributed to the success of the project. Three students raised £12,000 to pay for the trip and six students designed and built the craft. The race took six days to complete and was ridden at an average of 40 kilometres an hour.

Last autumn engineering students from Southampton University came third in a 1,500-kilometre, solar-powered cycle race from Alice Springs to Adelaide, across the hot heart of Australia. Their recumbent tricycle with a computer-controlled energy-management system competed against the vehicles of some 40 other international teams in the World Solar Cycle Challenge. Two groups of fourth year MEng students from the university contributed to the success of the project. Three students raised £12,000 to pay for the trip and six students designed and built the craft. The race took six days to complete and was ridden at an average of 40 kilometres an hour.

In both instances the students' work was assessed as project work - testing multi-disciplinary teamwork skills and group design-and-build skills - which counted towards their final MEng degrees in mechanical, electrical and electronic engineering.

Southampton University has a large engineering faculty that takes about 500 new undergraduates each year. Its teaching is rated as excellent and the majority of its research is rated highly as five or five starred in the research assessment exercise. Students can study for three-year BEng or four-year MEng degrees in acoustical, aerospace, civil, environmental, electrical, electronic, mechanical, electromechanical or computer engineering. Students also study for BEngs and MEngs in ship science and ship science with naval architecture, advanced materials (composite and fibre glass) and yacht and small craft design.

Although few ships are now built in the UK, the majority are still designed here. The faculty also offers an MEng with European studies, which gives students the opportunity to spend a year studying in a French or German university, and an MEng jointly with the university's management school.

A foundation year is available for bright arts and social science students who wish to switch to engineering after completing their A-levels. The faculty is unusual in offering astronautical as well as aeronautical engineering and ship science. It also has an international reputation in electronics and computer science. One of its buildings is home to a micro electronics chip manufacturing facility and a fibre optic research unit. The electricity bill alone for keeping the air clean in this building is some £500,000 a year!

Joe Kaplonek, the university's schools and colleges liaison officer, said that the average A-level grades of students admitted to engineering courses last year was just over three Bs (including mathematics and physics) and that most students arrived with four A-levels. Those wishing to pursue the MEng aerospace course should expect to get two As and one B.

London's Imperial College has a world-class reputation for engineering. It offers students the chance to study for MEngs in mechanical, electrical, electronic, aeronautical, civil, chemical, materials and computing engineering. It will expect students to have at least three A-levels with grades ranging from two As and a B to three As. It takes around 130 undergraduates annually and, unlike Cambridge University where first- year engineering students share a general year before going on to specialise, students at Imperial specialise from day one.

Imperial's teaching is rated as excellent and most of its engineering departments' research ratings are graded five star. In the third and fourth year of their courses students can expect to be taught by world-class experts.

David Robb, admissions tutor in mechanical engineering, says that in their first year many students take additional mathematics classes. They also have to start understanding physics from the perspective of engineering science.

Students can opt to spend four years studying at Imperial or they can have a gap year in industry before starting at college, or a gap year between years two and three. In any event, they will need two years industrial training, followed by two years working as a professional engineer before they can aspire to full chartered status.

Brunel University offers two MEngs. Its general engineering MEng takes four years including, unusually, one year on an industrial placement. Brunel's courses are open to students with A and B grades at A-level. The university also offers an MEng in mechanical engineering, which can take four or five years. Students need three Bs for this course.

Three-year BEngs can be taken in mechanical, electronic, electrical and manufacturing engineering. Last year a BSc in multi media design and technology was offered for the first time, aimed at students who wished to design and set up websites. This September there will also be new BScs in IT in industrial systems and computing for mechanical engineering, a BEng in internet engineering and a BEng in computer systems engineering.

The technology faculty takes 570 undergraduates annually. Teaching in engineering is rated as excellent. The average entry grades for most courses is three Cs and above. Courses are full time or sandwich. On the sandwich courses students spend a year or two six-month periods on industrial placements.

Dr Derek Seward, head of engineering at Lancaster University, describes his department as teaching the full spectrum of engineering activities from electronics through to mechanical engineering. All students share the same first year when they study electronics, mechanical engineering and mechatronics before going on to specialise in the second year.

The engineering department offers three-year BEng and four-year MEng degree courses, all of which are accredited by the appropriate professional bodies. Its teaching is rated as excellent and its research is grade four rated. Students are encouraged to spend their third year in industry, which extends the length of their university training to five years. Students can also opt to spend their second year studying in a partner university in America.

To be admitted directly on to the MEng course, students would need three Bs at A-level. Three Cs and above would be necessary for entry to the BEng degree programmes. High-achieving students can transfer from a BEng to an MEng.

Dr Seward said: "We like to emphasise the creative design side of engineering. We get students working in multi-disciplinary teams quite a lot. We encourage group work that culminates in a project on the MEng course. One example that we are involved in is the annual national student competition to build a racing car.

"We like students to engage in practical, hands-on engineering, taking it right through to building and testing real engineering artefacts."

Young people interested in studying chemical engineering can find details of accredited courses, academic requirements and profiles of successful young chemical engineers on a new website created by the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE), the professional body for process and chemical engineers. The site's address is: www.whynotchemeng.com

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