21.11.2016 : James McLean

A change in thinking

Some engineers are calling for a rethink of engineering education. How can we change engineering education to be ready for the future’s demands and needs?

If I had been asked what I thought engineering was when I was at school I would have said maths, physics and more maths. I remember my calculus teacher handing me an engineering maths book, and with that my confidence in my degree selection rapidly diminished. English was my strongest subject, whereas calculus and physics were subjects that I enjoyed, but had to work very hard at to do well in them. To my relief I passed everything, and full of great excitement headed to Canterbury as perhaps not the most traditional budding engineering student.

At university I found all of the subjects incredibly satisfying in their own way, but the papers I most enjoyed were the group courses called “Design Studio”. These courses forced us to think less about the next sheet of calculation pad, and more about the overall, or ‘holistic’ side of engineering. I loved liaising with the ‘client’ and ‘stakeholders’, designing a concept, and viewing engineering through a telescope rather than a microscope.

It is the bigger picture of engineering that excites me, and the path I want my career to follow. This is also the direction that many experts think engineering education should take. The days of a purely technical degree, straight mathematics and analysis would be a thing of the past. When I was at University we focused on only a few pieces of a far larger puzzle; engineering students of the future will instead learn the skills to critically analyse a problem from a broader, higher level perspective. The objective will be to identify several solutions to a problem and combine these to best meet the client’s and/or society’s wants and needs.

This new focus on holistic thinking will help complement the technical demands that our profession will face in the coming years. New technologies have the potential to allow calculations to become increasingly automated, therefore changing the way that an engineer must work to stay relevant in this technological revolution. This means the need for engineers to be able to think more broadly, whilst assessing and verifying computer outputs, is more critical than ever.

Tim Stratford, Head of Graduate School at the School of Engineering, University of Edinburgh, and Tim Ibell, Associate Dean of Research in Engineering at the University of Bath and former President of the Institution of Structural Engineers, have made calls that this is the direction engineering education should go. They have both identified that “we need to update our education to launch the profession into an age where digital engineering takes over the burden of detailed calculations, enabling engineers to focus on conception and judgment, and engineers will need to shift their skills into creative design” (Stratford, August 2016) (Ibell, March 2016).

The engineering profession should not resist out of fear that traditional engineering will be lost. The traditional core values of engineering must remain to maintain engineering’s integrity. The challenge for us is to bring these core values into the future with a more holistic mind-set. The idea of this prospect is one that excites me, and one that should excite others in the engineering profession.

I chose engineering, not for the love of numbers and the prospect of doing highly detailed analysis. I chose engineering because of my love of structure, working with people, architecture and design. Of course I need a strong technical knowledge to achieve these things, and as a graduate I have endless opportunities to do so. But if I can be part of a change in direction that leads to engineers being as holistic as they are critical, then I will be greatly satisfied. If you want to join me in looking into how we can prepare ourselves for the future then please let me know. If there is any time for change, it is now.

James McLean


Ibell, T. (March 2016). Virtual By Design. The Structural Engineer, 88-89.

Stratford, T. (August 2016). Experiments in learning design: Creating space for creativity and continuity in design education. The Structural Engineer, 14-22.

About the Author

James McLean

Structural Engineer

James is a structural engineering graduate from the University of Canterbury and works in our Wellington Structural team. He's a passionate advocate for holistic design and established Beca's inaugural Design Competition in 2016. The biennial event aims to promote a more creative and innovative design mind-set amongst young designers at Beca.

Ignite Your Thinking

What Do You Think?

Blair Logan · 27/11/2016 7:25:55 p.m.
Hi James,
I align with your sentiments - the challenge is to create the opportunities for our engineers to keep or create a holistic view of our contribution to transforming our world. This helps us to answer the 'why' of what we do and compliments the more traditional 'how' we do it.

Jon Williams · 24/11/2016 9:45:40 p.m.
Great thought piece James. Very much aligns with my thinking. There are some plans to hold some "think tanks" on the convergence of engineering and architecture. Will make sure you're on the invite list.