An alumni’s day out: the Global Engineering Challenge

An alumni’s day out: the Global Engineering Challenge

By Conor Skilbeck, Assistant Engineer

The Global Engineering Challenge (GEC) is week-long project every first-year engineering undergraduate student at the University of Sheffield participates in (approximately 1300 students). Each year the project focuses on real-life engineering problems faced by communities in developing nations. Students are split up into multidisciplinary groups of five-to-six engineers from different engineering specialties. This year’s GEC looked at the problems facing Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya, which is one of the largest slums in the world.

The lecturers who designed the GEC understand that teaching the fundamental technical aspects of engineering is a relatively straightforward task compared to teaching the ‘soft skills’ (communication, team work, creative thinking, time management and motivation to name a few) which are essential for any successful and well-rounded engineer. The project challenges the students with complex engineering questions ranging from the design of mobile retina scanners which diagnose illnesses, to how you can improve internet access in developing communities. But importantly it also develops their ability to work collaboratively in multidisciplinary design teams and their ability to interrogate the social, ethical and environmental implications of their proposals. The GEC encourages them to understand that an engineering solution cannot be judged solely on its technical merits, but must also be judged on how it fits contextually within its surroundings.

Image credit: University of Sheffield

Image credit: University of Sheffield

With this in mind my brief was clear, to engage with the students and reinforce the idea that the ‘soft skills’ and an ability to understand the contextual nature of a project are just as important as an engineer’s technical foundation. An example I put to the students: a brilliant house is useless if what the client needed was to cross a river. Over the course of the day I split my time between two hubs of students (approx. 40 students per hub). I gave a brief presentation to each hub about myself and my career so far and spent the next couple of hours working with the groups directly to help develop their projects. I focussed my presentation on something I believe is key to delivering high quality projects ̶ the importance of communication and team work (including with people you do not get along with!). I wanted the students to buy into the idea that we cannot design, engineer and build a project on our own. And if we tried, the outcome would fall short of what we could have achieved as a group. In my mind, no matter how brilliant you are as an individual, if you cannot or will not try and create good working relationships, you will never achieve your full capability.

Image credit: University of Sheffield

Image credit: University of Sheffield

It was a very rewarding experience and I would encourage everyone to take the time to go back to the university or school they attended to talk to the students. As an industry, along with schools and universities we should take responsibility for developing and guiding the next generation of engineers. And as much as it may benefit the students, in my experience, it also benefited me. It gave me a chance to take stock and assess how far and in what ways I have developed since my fairly recent student days. It gave me a chance to assess what skills I believe to be central to my work. The process of trying to trying to guide/ teach others is inherently self-reflective, and gave me an ideal opportunity to assess my own strengths and weaknesses. This opportunity is rare in a busy working environment and I would highly recommend it for the sake of the students - future engineers - and for the rewards it may bring you.