We don’t need no education

We don’t need no education

As a student, I loathed exams, but perhaps not for the reasons others do. I took studying seriously and tried to cover all content presented. I then found it frustrating that only a fraction was examined. After graduating, I vowed to avoid exams to justify my competence. Thankfully, my career path has avoided any more exams: although I now regularly set them!

If my career path had taken me into an engineering design firm, I probably would have faced a pop quiz during my interview. For example, one US engineering firm has administering the same quiz for 30-years. While initially candidates would get most questions correct, today they find candidates struggle to get half-correct.

When I first heard this statistic, I was deeply troubled. Universities have in the last decades, put considerable effort into developing teaching practices. Where has all this effort gone? Has the formalisation of curricula and expected outcomes, resulted in students focusing on short-term goals (i.e., exams) to the detriment of long-term learning?

Assuming this statistic not to be an outlier, is it really that bad? I guess it would be bad, if we see an increasing number of failures in the coming decades. But perhaps this statistic reflects a change in teaching focus from technical acumen. The pop quiz resulting in the statistic in question, was primarily on technical aspects. Modern teaching practices have shifted to building soft skills in line with current shift towards “environmental, social and corporate governance” issues surrounding infrastructure development.

Another concern, is perhaps that civil engineering (and subsequently geotechnical engineering) is no longer seen as attractive. The university I am part of is struggling to attract students. Should this be attributed to the cyclical nature of the construction industry or are there other issues of concern. A perception of being luddites, coupled with corruption and anti-competitive behaviour, does not give the civil engineering industry a good image.

So, is our university education system failing industry? Are we on the right path or should we turn back our practices 30-years? Or perhaps industry is not portraying an attractive image of civil engineering? I challenge you to reflect on these questions and fill in the following 5-minute pop quiz.

About the author:

Charles John MacRobert is a Senior Lecturer at Stellenbosch University. He enjoys teaching geotechnical engineering to undergraduate and postgraduate students. Understanding the science of slope stability and the art of decision making gets him excited. His family, woodwork and gardening keep him busy the rest of the time.


About these articles:

To debate past, current and future issues in Geotechnical Engineering, the Time Capsule Project is welcoming and publishing short articles on the ISSMGE website.

We challenge you to write 200-400 words on any topic that will generate debate within the Geotechnical Engineering profession. Click here to submit your message for consideration.

Articles will be displayed for a limited time and views expressed need not be shared by the ISSMGE or held strongly by authors.