Over the last two days I have been working with the 3rd year Civil Engineering undergrads at their annual sandpit. The students are whisked away for 2 days to Broomley Grange, a house in the Northumberland countryside to consider, decide on and develop the topics, aims and objectives for their 3rd year project. The sandpit is an opportunity to get away from the stresses of student life and think about the big picture for civil engineering. It empowers the students to take ownership of their third year project and module leader Ben Bridgens has seen a massive improvement in the quality of their work since implementing the sandpit 5 years ago.
The two days begins with the students having talks from a mixture of experts on the big challenges facing society over the next few decades, the students make notes of these and other problems they think of along the way; throughout the talks there is plenty of time for discussion and questioning of the experts to dig deeper into the challenges facing society and how civil engineers may tackle these challenges.
After a hefty lunch, where the students get to chat to the experts and PhD students from a mixture of civil engineering fields such as structures, transport, geotechnical and environmental engineering, it is back to work. What might the world be like in 2050? Do you have a vision of a perfect 2050 world? What about a bad one? What role does engineering play in these visions? The students break off into groups to fine tune their 2050 visions, both good and bad and consider the engineering and societal paradigms which might lead to each of their visions of the next 30 years.
The students present their good and bad visions for 2050 to the other groups, which take in a wide range of topics: The effects of increased urbanisation; population growth; Climate change; Automation of technology; A.I. and how we interact with the civil and natural environment. These visions help the students to reflect on the big issues they noted down during the morning’s session. The big issues are divided into themes and split between groups of students who are now tasked with developing as many research questions was they can by discussing each of the post-it-notes from the morning’s session in groups with PhD students facilitating the discussions. Once the students have a huge list of research questions arising from each topic, it is time to call it a night and relax!
The next morning each group talked through their thoughts behind their lists of research questions. The students then had the whole morning to choose, tweak and develop a research question, with aims and objectives and deliverables for their project. During this time staff and PhDs spent time with each individual student to help them narrow down their ideas into a manageable but still inspiring project. At the end of the two days the students present their project title, aim and objectives and talk through how they might go about achieving them. This is a great opportunity for the students, they develop research skills which are often missing from undergraduate courses. Taking the students out of the usual lecture theater scene allows the students to consider the bigger picture of challenges which face society which engineering can help with.The empowering nature of taking a project from the initial ideas right through to delivering a finished article also means that students are more likely to be motivated throughout the process and more likely to achieve their potential.