How engineering students embrace imagination

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If you were the kind of kid who enjoyed pulling apart their toys to see how they worked inside, you already know the desire for solving puzzles. Engineers are people who never lost this inclination and decided to turn this intense interest for how things work into a career. They’re always looking for creative solutions to some of the world’s most complex problems. So how does inspired curiosity help them build bridges?

Harder better smaller

Dr Paul Collins is a senior lecturer in engineering at Deakin University. He says that studying to be an engineer begins by first unlearning high schools habits: ‘Many high school leavers think there’s only one solution to a problem, because that’s what they were told in VCE.’ Engineering degrees allow students to get comfortable with the idea of being unsure and embracing multiple solutions to a single problem. Dr Collins says this is what makes engineering, first and foremost, a creative discipline. ‘It’s about using imagination to design things with a human user in mind. Making things better, cheaper and easier from a human point of view,’ he explains.

How stuff works

Deakin University looks to teach students to be creative through a unique Project-Oriented Design-Based Learning (PODBL) curriculum. ‘We’ve looked at models in northern Europe, the US and Singapore and distilled down the best practice, put it in an Australian context, and honed it with our own approach,’ says Guy Littlefair, Pro Vice-Chancellor, Industry Development at Deakin, and former Dean of Engineering in Deakin’s Faculty of Science, Engineering and Built Environment. The program draws real-life design problems from Deakin’s industry partners for students to solve using a range of techniques.

In their first year, students are given humanitarian problems to solve; such as a local natural disaster or global poverty. ‘These are problems that require lateral thinking — students are forced to innovate,’ Dr Collins says. As they attempt to solve these issues students are taught a range of strategic and creative methods to fill their ‘mental toolbox’, as Dr Collins calls it. These tools can then be drawn on throughout their degree and later in their career. By investing agency in their students, Deakin encourages them to be self-driven and to begin to craft their own style of problem solving.

'It’s about using imagination to design things with a human user in mind. Making things better, cheaper and easier from a human point of view'

Dr Paul Collins,
Senior Lecturer, School of Engineering, Deakin University

Real-world learning

Later in their degree students are asked to design an entirely new version of an existing product. ‘After they’ve learnt the skills necessary, we give them the opportunity to make their own product which could be anything from a new kind of bike frame to new versions of a Powerpoint,’ says Dr Collins. This prepares them for the industry because students finish their degree not only knowing theory, but with a unique product or concept to show to potential employers. ‘Deakin maintains a strong relationship with Engineering Australia, which provides internships and training opportunities because we are able to send them highly skilled graduates who are confident using their imagination,’ he says.

Learn more about studying undergraduate engineering at Deakin University – courses are available on-campus or online via our Cloud Campus.

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Dr Paul Collins
Dr Paul Collins

Senior Lecturer, School of Engineering, Deakin University
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Professor Guy Littlefair
Professor Guy Littlefair

Pro Vice-Chancellor, Industry Development, Deakin University
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