Mechanical Engineering: Better by Design

Comment by Professor Duc Pham, Head of the School of Mechanical Engineering

This article was first published in Commercial Micro Manufacturing magazine (CMM), vol 7, No.3

When meeting prospective students and their parents, I am often asked these two questions: what distinguishes mechanical engineering from other engineering disciplines and what differentiates between our educational offerings and those of our peers. To the first question, I have sometimes, with tongue in cheek, given the following reply:

If it smells, it's chemical engineering;
If it is invisible, it's electrical engineering;
If it is static, it's civil engineering;
If it MOVES, it's mechanical engineering!

It is not difficult to imagine the annoyance that my stereotypical response can cause non-mechanical engineers. However, few would dispute my answers to the second question about the differences between our degree programmes and those offered by other institutions.

One of our main distinguishing features — indeed what we consider to be the soul of our Mechanical Engineering programmes — is our strong focus on mechanical engineering science. Mechanical engineering used to be taught as a craft and it was my predecessors’ predecessors that introduced the teaching of the subject as a science. Apparently, we were the first in the country to do so and teaching mechanical engineering science fundamentals has been a specialty of our School for at least the past 70 years.

Readers of this column may recall another USP of our degree programmes —- our enquiry-based learning approach typified by the car breakdown exercise we set our Year 2 students as part of their mechanical engineering design class (see “Do Cars have a SOUL?” CMM Vol 6 No 4). Where else would students be given a chance to take a luxurious sports car apart (psst! I can quietly reveal it’s an Aston Martin) and dissect every component in it to discover the underlying design philosophy?

This brings me to a more serious answer to the question about what differentiates a mechanical engineer from other engineers. I would strongly argue that it is the creative, innovative and flexible mindset mechanical engineers acquire as a result of their training, particularly in how to solve design problems.

Given that training in design is so central to the formation of high-calibre mechanical engineers, since taking the helm of our School, I have encouraged colleagues to increase the emphasis on design in our degree programmes. To foster creativity and innovation in design, we have introduced new material on creative and innovative problem solving. Earlier this year, when the Institution of Mechanical Engineers came to accredit our degree programmes, they heard and approved our plans to incorporate design elements in almost every module.

This design emphasis adds to our USP. Design integrates knowledge from the other mechanical engineering subjects. It enables students to apply what they have learnt in those subjects, thereby gaining a deeper understanding of them. This enhances their learning experience and helps them to become better engineers. It is part of our strategy for producing flexibly minded mechanical engineering graduates armed with both analytical powers founded on a solid grounding in engineering science and creative, innovative and entrepreneurial skills developed by an enquiry-based education.

I write this article in the week when our University announced the appointment of Lord Karan Bilimoria of Chelsea as our next Chancellor. Here is a creative and innovative person who, in a very short time span, built a business empire starting, not with £5 in his pocket like some other entrepreneurs did, but with £20,000 in student debt. With the education they receive from us, I am sure that our graduates are well equipped to follow in his footsteps should they choose to do so.