UCAS Listings: Understanding how things work

Student profile: Benjamin Marshall, studying Mechanical Engineering at the University of Sheffield
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The Independent Online
Engineering may be one of the harder courses to recruit students onto, but straight-A student Benjamin Marshall, from Darlington, had no hesitation in selecting either the course or the university.

"I've always wanted to do engineering, because I'm so interested in how things work, and I've always been very practical with my hands. I'd heard good things about the University of Sheffield, as it is one of the top- rated departments in the country both for research and for teaching quality," he says.

Benjamin took his A-levels at a sixth-form college in Darlington, studying maths, physics and chemistry. "I had a look around quite a few universities and this one impressed me the most during its open day. The lecturers were really friendly, and I liked the city very much as well."

Benjamin's course is a four-year degree in Mechanical Engineering. "When I looked at this one, compared with civil engineering, I decided it had much more practical application to the real world," he says. "I've worked at an engineering factory in my holidays and at weekends for several years, so I know what the course is going to lead to."

During the first year, Benjamin has studied twelve half-modules, in subjects as diverse as fluid mechanics, which is the study of how fluids flow through pipes, to computer studies, in which they have learned the basics of computer- aided design.

"We've also looked at the structures of materials and how they behave under certain stresses and pressures, and we've done a module in Maths. I found that quite easy because I've done the A-level. We need maths to be able to make the calculations of certain things, so it's quite a big part of engineering, which people don't always realise!"

One module which did take Benjamin by surprise was 'the engineer in society'.

"To be honest, I thought it was a bit daft. We had quite a few lectures from people outside the department - some of them were quite interesting - and then we had to write up our notes as essays, and we were marked for accuracy and basic literacy. I suppose it's to make sure that we don't lose our ability to communicate!"

The course has also centred on communication skills - not always thought necessary for an engineer, but vital in the workplace. "We had to give a presentation to the group on any subject we liked. I talked about a coast-to-coast walk I'd done, and I actually found it very easy. I can see why it is important to have these skills as well as the practical hands-on experience with machines," he says.

He admits his course is male-dominated. "We had five or six girls to begin with, but several have left," he says. This is out of a course group of around sixty.

Course-work is very intensive. "We have one or two tutorials each week, in small groups of about four. Then we have 20 hours of lectures each week, and we spend on average around 20 hours each week doing homework. We also have a three-hour lab session every fortnight.

"At the busiest time, I think I was doing about a 60-hour week," he says. "I remember sitting up until 10.30pm some nights finishing off projects - but we'd always make sure we still went out and had a good time.

"I think you need to be able to work off the pressures and strains of studying."

As a result, Benjamin says he often only gets about five hours sleep a night, but is confident that his body-clock has readjusted!

The course is divided into two semesters, with exams at the end of each one. "The exams count for most of the overall mark, but there is some continuous assessment," Benjamin says. "We have to hand in all our of our project and design work, and that counts towards the final grade." Benjamin has continued his academic success, scoring Firsts in most of his exams.

Job prospects, he says, are bright. "The department has lots of work placements advertised, and I know they would help you to find a job at the end of the course."

There is no specific work placement during the course, but students are encouraged to take up some form of engineering work in the holidays, if at all possible.

For Benjamin, the future lies in the family firm. "We make secure metal boxes - the British Antarctics Surveys Team is currently using some of our products." The experience he's gained will help to continue the firm's success.

"I could have gone into the firm straight from school, but I think that would have been a pretty limited life experience," he says. "I think I'll gain a lot from this course, and the social life has been pretty good too!"