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‘The world does not present neatly packaged problems’: NMITE’s new chief academic officer

Joseph Flaig

'I've always thought it's a great shame that we don't have more structures that support students to actually stick with a job until it's done': NMITE chief academic officer Professor Beverley Gibbs
'I've always thought it's a great shame that we don't have more structures that support students to actually stick with a job until it's done': NMITE chief academic officer Professor Beverley Gibbs

From AI optimisation of injection moulding to researching public participation in renewable energy, Professor Beverley Gibbs has had a long and varied career.

After eight years of apprenticeships and sandwich learning, she received a degree from Loughborough University. She then spent about 20 years in industry, working in everything from polymer process to coal mining, before returning to academia with a PhD at Nottingham. A post-doctorate at UCL followed, before she went to Sheffield as director of learning and teaching in mechanical engineering. Now, she has recently been confirmed as chief academic officer at the New Model Institute for Technology and Engineering (NMITE) in Hereford.

Such a diverse career in industry and academia has given Professor Gibbs a unique perspective on engineering education and employer demands, and NMITE president Professor Elena Rodriguez-Falcon says her background will be “hugely important” at the new university, helping it deliver a new style of engineering education by challenging conventions.

“I understand that a job has to be done,” Professor Gibbs tells Professional Engineering. “What does it mean for a student to get 50% on the task that you just set? Because there is no 50% in the engineering world, you have to stick with a job until it's done. And I've always thought it's a great shame that we don't have more structures that support students to actually stick with a job until it's done, because there's great learning there.”

Such an approach will not just make well-rounded graduates, Professor Gibbs says, but it will also “deliver value” for employers. She mentions reports from the Royal Academy of Engineering and Engineering UK, which stress the importance of ‘work ready’ graduates for engineering companies. Professor Gibbs’ own research found employers praising graduates’ analytical work on very specific problems, but saying they struggle when asked to start more complex and multi-disciplinary projects.

“Just this week we had a partnerships advisory group at NMITE, talking to a recruitment agent,” she says. “They were saying that these quite extensive, expensive graduate schemes exist in the engineering sector because, unlike other sectors, graduates are not able to add value as quickly as other types of graduates do. They just can't get going fast enough. And so that's what underpins our approach.”

‘Who, what and how’

NMITE is still going through the regulatory process, with an aim to take in students next year. When it does, the ‘who, what and how’ it teaches will be different from other higher education providers.

The team aims to reduce barriers to entry to encourage a diverse range of learners. Applicants will not need a maths A-Level, for example – instead, there will be supportive maths teaching alongside engineering concepts. Maths GCSEs are required, and students must not be ‘scared’ of it.

The university aims to teach a three-year MEng in integrated engineering, accredited by a professional engineering institute. The integrated approach will be more well-rounded than typical engineering degrees, but with less in-depth examination of complex concepts.

“What we're talking about is integration across different engineering disciplines – control electronics, materials, structures – but also integrated with a whole set of tools and techniques that you need to be an effective engineer, like communication, programming, business awareness, that kind of thing, but also a higher level of what we would call liberal content,” says Professor Gibbs.  

“We'll work with our students to appreciate art in a way, to talk about aesthetics, we’ll introduce our students to ideas of rhetoric, so that they learn to be persuasive and confident in the way that they talk about their ideas. We will talk about history as a way to understand how we've come to be where we are in engineering terms, and how different kinds of influences over time have led us to the place that we're in, but also to increase cultural awareness.”

Instead of lecture theatres, the institute has studios where students can work in small groups, collaborating and spending lots of time with educators. There will also be workshop facilities, but the studio is set up for flexible learning with opportunities for 10-minute ‘bursts’ or quiet study.

The ‘how’ of teaching will be what Professor Gibbs calls a “challenge-based curriculum”. She gives the example of an electronics module, in which students might design a circuit board for a flood level indicator. Hereford is prone to flooding, as it did earlier this year after Storm Dennis caused the River Wye to burst its banks. The students could therefore use their knowledge in end-of-year community-based challenges, combining learning from multiple modules.  

The masters will conclude with ‘advanced engineering sprints’, in which students will draw on everything they have learned to tackle industry-focused challenges in themes such as health, infrastructure, energy and security.

“By going through these challenges repeatedly they develop a way of working that allows them to get up to speed very quickly, start delivering solutions very quickly, understanding what the constraints are very quickly,” says Professor Gibbs. “They do that so often that it becomes a process of mind, and that's where we hope their employability comes from – by being able to hit the ground running.”

A new vocabulary

An NMITE MEng will not create a combination of mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and computer science graduates, Professor Gibbs says. Such a feat of teaching would take far too long. Instead, she says they will have a “vocabulary” across all the different disciplines, including knowledge of basic principles and important elements, and how to learn more about them.

“The world does not present problems to you neatly packaged up as a disciplinary problem,” she says. “It's important that we help our learners understand how to go and find and understand information that is new to them. And that will be a challenge that increases over the course of their career.”

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.


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