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Literature Review on the Education System for Civil Engineers

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Published: 23rd Jun 2021

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Needs of modern civil engineers

In order to understand the challenges that Design and Technology (referred to as D&T hereafter) faces and how overcoming these challenges may allow D&T to be made better preparation for civil engineering, it is first important to discuss the needs of modern civil engineers.

With ever increasing challenges facing current and upcoming civil engineers, it has never been more important that engineering students are equipped with the ability to produce creative designs and be resilient in the face of these challenges (Craddock, 2016).

(Mitchell, 2017) agrees, stating “Creativity and ingenuity” is an essential attribute for professional engineers. He discusses how it is imperative that engineers can go beyond the bounds of the already existing solutions to be able to bring about positive change.

There is a current crisis developing in the field of civil engineering according to (Arciszewski, 2006) who argues that civil engineers have lost their place as innovators and leaders of change. With the challenges of a modern world to overcome, the paper suggests a focus “on engineering creativity” (Arciszewski, 2006), where greater teaching of this engineering creativity, can be used to reform civil engineering and allow it to be the profession that leads the way through the difficult times of present.

This need for knowledge alongside creativity is highlighted when (Boyd, 2016) discusses how “No policy… can be implemented without the creative logic and technical capacity to do so”. There is a need for engineers to be creative and innovate, “To challenge the norm. To learn. Improve. Push boundaries. Influence.” (Boyd, 2016), no matter how small or how major a project, no matter if that project is working in the urban mega cities or in disaster relief in small villages. Engineers have a moral commitment to improving the world around them through their actions, and change can only come about from innovation and creativity.

(Cosgrave and @ICE_engineers, 2018) argues that if we are to overcome the challenges of “mass urbanisation, crumbling infrastructure and catastrophic climate change”, simply adding more hard engineering will not help and instead space must be made for “our engineering community to challenge our approach and assumptions”. Engineers of today and tomorrow must innovate and change, and only by allowing their creativity to flow can this be achieved. This idea of challenging the established practices is further supported by (Craddock, 2016) who favours the idea of new approaches and models of engineering which are appropriate and ready to “respond to the challenges of the 21st century”.

However, creativity is not the only skill modern civil engineers need as (Mitchell, 2017) highlights the need for “the ability to communicate”. He highlights communication is essential because engineering involves working not only for people, but with people. He also highlights that “communication is a two-way process”. (Cosgrave and ICE_engineers, 2018) backs up this point, emphasising the need to work together to achieve success against global challenges; “It is impossible to progress this mission whilst sitting within our own organisations and practices”.

It would therefore seem that modern engineers must be creative and resilient, whilst being knowledgeable and able to communicate their ideas. The biggest theme is the need for creativity and new ideas, suggesting that the current education provides suitable knowledge to upcoming modern engineers but lacks the ability to nourish creativity.

D&T and Engineering Education

In order to produce students with the creativity, resilience and communication skills required to face the challenges presented to engineering currently, students must be given the opportunities to grow and expand their own knowledge. According to (Craddock, 2016), “we need to change the way that engineers are educated” so that they are able to meet the demands of a modern, challenging world.

(Engineering, 2014) discusses the unbalance between the levels of education for their respective inclusion of engineering, highlighting how the primary and secondary levels of education within the UK often only include engineering as one-off or special projects, in contrast to the detailed and dedicated courses provided by universities and colleges. The report also discusses how engineering and the key skills and mindsets required by engineering students can be included in D&T education, but currently only “through the efforts of a committed teacher who introduces it”.

Despite this, participation of students in “well-designed, project-based learning is an excellent preparation” for their future enabling them to develop the wide ranging life skills required to be more successful and fulfilled (Engineering, 2014).

The report also highlights how being taught the qualities to think and act in an engineering style will benefit a student’s future job prospects and help improve their approach to all problems in their lives, weather they choose to enter engineering as a career or not (Engineering, 2014). These qualities, especially creative thinking and problem solving alongside practical and technical knowledge, can be taught effectively with D&T (Green, 2016).

(Green, 2016) also talks about how essential D&T is for “life in an advanced technological society”, raising concerns about students missing out on their “opportunity to have their interest in design, manufacturing and engineering careers awoken”. It is vital this interest is given chance to grow in order to encourage students to not only study engineering, but to be able to present solutions to the complex problems of the current world.

(Hardy, 2016) agrees, suggesting that D&T is “a subject that transforms; pupils learn about designing solutions to improve people’s lives”. This learning enables students to be more aware of the impact of products on the world around them and make better decisions as to how their work and actions can impact on the world in a more positive way (Hardy, 2016).

Challenges facing Design and Technology

The primary challenge for D&T is the loss of interest and uptake, threatening the continued existence of the subject. In recent years the subject of D&T  has been becoming less and less popular with students at all levels; “numbers taking D&T GCSE have dropped from about 450,000 10 years ago to just over 230,000 now” (Judith, 2014).

This decline has lead to a growing number of schools no longer offering D&T (Turner, 2017) despite calls from industry experts that D&T is vital for continued growth of skills (Green, 2016; Hardy, 2016). The value of D&T for developing key skills such as design and creative thinking is being recognised by the South East Asian manufacturing giants now as a way of moving their economy and abilities forward according to (Green, 2016) while in the UK faces increasing challenges.

In order to overcome this loss of interest it is vital that the negative image of D&T being simply wood or metalwork (Green, 2016) is changed, allowing D&T to be seen as a vital subject for allowing students to expand their skills and abilities, especially around design and innovation.

In order to meet the challenges presented to modern engineers, it is vital students are encouraged to develop their creative problem solving and high-level thinking skills (Engineering, 2014). This requirement for the development of creative thinking skills is discussed within the three main syllabi available for A-Level D&T teaching; the AQA syllabus states that it is a “creative and thought provoking qualification” which aims to “gain an insight into the creative… industries” and “develop the capacity to think creatively, innovatively and critically” (AQA, 2018). The Pearson Edexcel syllabus “encourages creativity and innovation” which puts the use of “creativity and imagination” as the main aim of the course (Edexcel, 2016). Finally the Cambridge International syllabus claims to “develop essential lifelong skills, including creative thinking and problem-solving”  by developing an “ability to be innovative and creative” as one of the top aims (Cambridge, 2017).

(S. Atkinson, 2000) suggests that D&T curriculum provides ideal opportunities for students to develop these essential creative skills and discusses the need for students to be willing to take risks while being motivated and involved in their work. This willingness to take risks and be motivated and involved is recognised by (Craddock, 2016) who explains how a 2007 Royal Academy of Engineering report recognises the need for education to “equip students with knowledge and problem solving skills” (Craddock, 2016). (Jones, 1997) agrees, suggesting that there is a “great chance of students learning technological concepts and processes” if students are allowed and encouraged to take risks and reflect on the outcomes. It is key that in order for students to be able to develop these creative and high order thinking skills they must also be able to take risks.

Two of the three main syllabi talk about the need for students to be willing to take risk, (AQA, 2018) requires students to “be open to taking design risks” in order to expand their creativity and innovation. (Edexcel, 2016) also requires students to “be open to taking design risks, showing innovation and enterprise” while the Cambridge syllabus does not discuss the need to take risk to be innovative.

Despite this importance being placed on the development of these creative and high order thinking skills by the three main syllabi available for A-Level D&T, students may still not be able to develop them due to a lack of guidance on how to develop their design and creative thinking skills; Denton (1992) cited in (S. Atkinson, 2000) talks of the need for students to “be taught how to design effectively and think creatively” and (Jones, 1997) discusses how students were “often confused by the conceptual demand of a project and lack of explicit process teaching”. (S. Atkinson, 2000) also highlights a lack of guidance or teaching given to pupils on how to design or think creatively.

In an earlier publication (E. Stephanie Atkinson, 1995) suggested that the use of sub-headings taken from syllabi specifications as progression points in a linear design process constrains flexibility and thus prevents pupils from engaging their own creativity within design problems. This linear design model goes against the “creative, dynamic and iterative process” (Hill, 1998), but is widely adopted due to a lack of understanding of the key design element of the subject by teachers. (Jones, 1997) also discusses the need for teachers to develop an understanding of technology and how this relates to the subject of D&T, discussing how a “restricted view of technological knowledge limits student learning”.

This lack of awareness of the restrictions such linear design models can cause is only made worse as the number of teachers training to teach D&T falls along with the fall in uptake by students due to job uncertainty (Judith, 2014; Association, n.d). Many teachers that do choose to specialise in D&T also receive little specialist training about the subject (Association, n.d), leading to the adoption of this constraining design model.

(S. Atkinson, 2000) suggests these “highly structured, inflexible procedures…prevented rather than developed creative, innovative thinking” leading to many pupils feeling despondent and “already disliking ‘design and make’” before entering GCSE or A-level D&T courses. This is likely to be a key reason the uptake of D&T has fallen, as students do not feel they enjoy their time and develop their skills. Students are focusing more on their future career opportunities (Craddock, 2016) and do not see D&T in its current form enhancing their skillset for future employment.

It is worth noting that the use of such a linear design model is discouraged by the syllabi, with the AQA syllabus requiring student tasks to be uncertain and complex enough that “students can engage in an iterative process of designing, making, testing and evaluating” (AQA, 2018). The Edexcel syllabus is similar in requiring “students to follow the iterative design processes of exploring, creating and evaluating” throughout the course (Edexcel, 2016).

Another key barrier to unlocking the potential of D&T is discussed by (S. Atkinson, 2000); how the expectation of high academic achievement placed on students can discourage the development of creative and high level thinking. In order to achieve this high academic performance students are often discouraged from being too creative as this can be “difficult for pupils to communicate in a form that others could understand” (S. Atkinson, 2000) leading to the teacher being unable to justify a high mark for the work of the student.

It is intriguing to note that (S. Atkinson, 2000) found that often students of a creative nature disliked the linear design model most strongly, believing it would reduce their chances of success within the subject of D&T. In contrast, those students who were assessed to be less creative by (S. Atkinson, 2000) “welcomed the structured approach as they felt safe” and trusted this approach could help guide them through the design process, achieving high academic performance. This suggests the assessment is set-up such that the more creative a student is, the worse they perform in this supposedly creative subject. (S. Atkinson, 2000) goes so far as to suggest that the use of this linear, structured design approach has “wasted valuable educational opportunities” by focusing on the need for the majority of students to achieve academic performance.

(Hill, 1998) presents an alternative to the “design, make and appraise cycles based on closed design briefs” so typical of D&T education in schools, suggesting that tasks that are not related to the real world problems are often more difficult for students to engage with, reducing the opportunity for innovation or creative thinking. (Jones, 1997) agrees saying “Learning is enhanced when students are involved in authentic activities”, with findings of their studies suggesting that students of all ages found it easier to apply creative and innovate thinking to real problems, than to “abstract projects assigned by the teacher” (Hill, 1998).

(Craddock, 2016) echoes the need for change in D&T education, discussing how “The need to change the way engineers are educated is also recognised by engineering employers and the young people entering engineering education themselves”. They agree with the idea of using more real world based design problems as a way of improving engineering education in general, discussing how the use of challenging problems with no distinct ‘correct’ answers exist, help to prepare students for the practical, project based reality of engineering in practice (Craddock, 2016). A report for the Royal Academy of Engineering agrees, suggested that “there is already a clear recognition of the value of authentic, practice based, experiential learning” (Engineering, 2014).

(Hill, 1998) suggests that in order for the teaching of D&T to better reflect the real world, and indeed to be able to incorporate these real world problems, students should be encouraged to move from producing drawings and models as a final product, to working through models to make a prototype of their final design. (Hill, 1998) talks about how a “shift from making models to making prototypes” allows “creation and invention for real human needs”.

(Jones, 1997) also discussed the problems with studnets seeing model making as the end of the design and make cycle, suggesting those students who only needed to produce a model would often see little reason to make accurate measurements or give thought to the material selection for the real product. If the model making was seen as the end of the cycle, students would often dismiss problems encountered and simply adapt the model when this might not be appropriate for the real world solution; this encouraged students to choose to use materials and processes suited to model making rather than those more appropriate for the actual solution.

In contrast, (Jones, 1997) found that those students focused on making a prototype saw great value in accurate measurements, material and equipment selection, as well as having a deeper understanding of the need of their solution. Those students who focused on making a prototype also avoided the addition of uneccessary components or materials and focused on making a suitable solution to their problem. As such, (Jones, 1997) considered it “crucial that students are aware of the concept and purposes of models and modelling in technological practice, rather than seeing them as an endpoint in themselves”.

Anning, Jenkins and Whitelaw (1996) cited in (Hill, 1998) discuss how models and prototypes are very different in their use and application, although highlight that “teachers are often unclear about these distinctions” which may cause confusion for students about the purpose of a model or a prototype. This in turn can cause pupils to become detached from thinking about their work in a real world context, and focus simply on producing a model that will enable them to demonstrate their own skill without actually designing a solution to a problem. If this is allowed to happen, it can reinforce the negative image of the subject of D&T as a design and make activity that does not truly educate students and enhance their creativity and high level problem solving skills.

By suggesting solutions to some of these key problems whilst being sympathetic to the needs of modern, upcoming engineering students, there is the potential that D&T can become a popular and useful subject for students wishing to pursue engineering; changes will allow D&T to be made better preparation for civil engineering.


: 2018. A-Level Design and Technology Product Design Specification. AQA.

Arciszewski, T., 2006. Civil Engineering Crisis. Leadership & Management in Engineering, 6(1), pp.26-31.

Association, T.D.a.T., n.d. What are the issues?

Atkinson, E.S., 1995. Approaches to designing at key stage 4.

Atkinson, S., 2000. Does the Need for High Levels of Performance Curtail the Development of Creativity in Design and Technology Project Work? International Journal of Technology & Design Education, 10(3), pp.255-282.

Boyd, A., 2016. WHY ENGINEERING IS VITAL TO SOLVING COMPLEX GLOBAL AND LOCAL CHALLENGES. Available from: https://www.ewb-uk.org/why-engineering-is-vital-to-solving-complex-global-and-local-challenges/ [Accessed 10 December 2018].

: 2017. Syllabus: Cambridge International AS & A Level Design & Technology. Cambridge, C.A.I.E.

Cosgrave, E. and @ICE_engineers, 2018. 21st century engineering: Time to get radical.

Cosgrave, E. and ICE_engineers, 2018. 21st century engineering: Time to get radical.

Craddock, D., 2016. PREPARING STUDENTS FOR 21ST CENTURY CHALLENGES. Engineers Without Boarders.

: 2016. A-Level Design and Technology Specification. Edexcel.

Engineering, R.A.o., 2014. Thinking like an engineer;  Implications for the e  ducation system   

Green, R., 2016. The importance of design and technology to Made in Britain. The Manufacturer.

Hardy, A., 2016. What’s the point of design and technology? : STEM.

Hill, A.M., 1998. Problem Solving in Real-Life Contexts: An Alternative for Design in Technology Education. International Journal of Technology & Design Education, 8(3), pp.203-221.

Jones, A., 1997. Recent Research in Learning Technological Concepts and Processes. International Journal of Technology and Design Education, 7, pp.83-82), p.83-96.

Judith, B., 2014. Teachers fear for future of Design and Technology. BBC News, 16 December 2014. Available from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-30484428.

Mitchell, D.M., 2017. What constitutes a

good civil engineer?  [Accessed

Turner, C., 2017. Design and technology GCSE axed from nearly half of schools, survey finds. The Telegraph: The Telegraph.

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