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Geotechnical Engineers of the Future: Skills and Curriculum | Education

Geotechnical Engineers of the Future: Skills and Curriculum | Education
Geotechnical Engineers of the Future: Skills and Curriculum | Education

How can geotechnical companies help university students develop the skills they need for their future employees?

Companies operating in the ground engineering sector rely on graduates from geotechnical courses in UK universities.  Even though these firms make a small commitment to shape the subjects being studied at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels, there can be huge benefits for the students.  It will also enhance the quality of workers entering the industry.

Richard Goody, associate head of Kingston University's School of Engineering and Environment, thinks the link between universities and industry is weak in some respects.

“Maybe it is better in certain sectors such as structures and certainly some institutions probably have better relationships with industry than others, perhaps based on reputation and location,” he says.

“I think universities can reach out to local companies to include them in courses. Along with contributing, their junior staff can get something out of it in terms of continued professional development. 

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"Universities are also open to helping companies with things like specialist testing or consulting."

Greater interaction between industry and universities could help companies shape the type of graduates they are seeking.

“There is also the opportunity to provide inspiration and inspiration, and also discuss what ground engineering is and what types of projects are underway,” notes Goody.

Fleur Lowridge is Associate Professor of Geostructure at the University of Leeds School of Civil Engineering.  It offers several undergraduate programs and an MSc in Geotechnical Engineering.  In addition, its Earth and Environment School runs the Engineering Geology MSc.

Loveridge says these programs have good relationships with various companies in the geotechnical sector.

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"We think it's really important to prepare our graduates to go out and work in practice."  "For example, on our Geotechnical Engineering MSc, we try to balance the fundamentals with practical examples, laboratory work and cutting edge topics such as energy. Geotechnical which is going to be important in the future."

Programs also have participation from various parties such as the consulting group Cow in York and Leeds City Council.

“Leeds City Council contributes to our transport geotechnical module,” she says.  “We also get the opportunity to visit sites, covid permission.”

Graduate students in Leeds undertake integrated design projects each year, and these usually involve industry participation.

“For example, [engineering consultant] WSP effectively sets the brief for our fourth year, which varies from year to year,” she explains.  "These are usually fairly large, interdisciplinary projects, and ground engineering will be involved as one of the issues those students have to consider."

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Loveridge says that the University of Leeds welcomes employers' ideas about what is important to them and encourages their participation in a variety of ways.

But she says that they should also take care of balance.

She adds: "For example, the Joint Board of Moderators, which accredits our graduate program to become chartered engineers, has requirements regarding the balance of our program that we need to keep within."

Alumni working in this field are another link between industry and academia.

"The links we have at the University of Portsmouth are exceedingly strong," says Nick Coor, associate chief of research and innovation in the University of Portsmouth's School of Environment, Geography and Geology. 

"We've been running engineering, geology and geotechnical degrees at the undergraduate level for more than 50 years, and a master's degree in engineering geology for nearly 20 years."

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This means that the university has a strong alumni network, with alumni working in the industry.

"One of the ways to develop a strong connection between industry and academia is through alumni networks," says Koor.

He thinks that industry should be actively involved in academia if employers are unhappy with the graduates they are getting from universities. 

"They can join the degree apprenticeship schemes that are out there," he says.  "This opens up a huge field of change for higher education, which I think is for the better, but others will disagree."

The University of Portsmouth is currently reconsidering its geosciences offering.  The department also plans industry meetings to seek input from people ranging from recent graduates to company directors.

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“At the same time, we are thinking about topics like climate change and energy transition that need to be covered in the curriculum,” says Koor.

"The industry's got a really cool role to play in that. We're talking to middle school and sixth form college teachers to get a sense of how they feel that [science, technology, engineering and math] is a  -Levels are changing to meet those big challenges, and how we can best link and match what they do."

Geotechnical Engineers: Industry is getting involved

In some universities, ground engineering is represented on the Industrial Advisory Board (IAB), which ensures that course content is relevant to employers.  This type of interaction with companies can be significantly reduced, and still has huge benefits for universities and students.

"IAB meetings are typically only a couple of times a year," Goody says.  “In the case of a design project, beyond the initial brief, we can talk for a few hours per year. There is no need to think of something new every year, as long as it is realistic or realistic.”

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Koor cites the Undergraduate Mentoring Scheme run by Ground Forum as a good example of how companies and organizations can get involved in encouraging a diverse set of people in the industry.

“The mentoring scheme is specifically aimed at female and [Black, Asian and minority ethnic] students, particularly those in their second year of relevant degree pathways, primarily directed toward civil engineering,” he explains.

"I currently have five students from our geosciences degrees and our engineering geology and geotechnical degrees."

Site visits and placements are also beneficial.  "It's always nice to have people willing to employ our students for a year, which I hope will benefit both parties," says Loveridge.

She also mentors Constructionrium, a Norfolk-based organization that provides construction experiences for built environment students and professionals.

"Graduate students go to the site and make cut-down versions of plastic structures, like the Millau Viaduct," she notes. 

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"In recent years, we've done this in partnership with Bentley, who comes in and runs it for us. It's a huge investment of time, but it's taken a lot of summer students."

Those who have gone through years of placement, and then they go on to work for Bentley, so it's been a mutually beneficial relationship."

Loveridge says getting involved in education can benefit employers as well as students.

“Many of them do this for a variety of reasons, including recruiting, general good marketing or promotion, and getting their company name out there.  Some people do this because they want to give back to the industry they are passionate about. 

She says there are many different ways companies can contribute, from providing data to giving guest lectures or project briefs.

“Sometimes we have companies mark-up certain elements of our design projects. Our graduate students prepare construction drawings, and it is beneficial to have a real construction practitioner keep an eye on them.”

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Geotechnical Engineers: Actual project data

In some cases, companies may provide students with brief descriptions of actual projects, providing information and data for students to work on.

“Most of our undergraduate students go on placements for a year between their second year and their final year,” says Koor.  "Students usually collect actual data for their final year projects during placements, which is a huge advantage."

The University of Portsmouth has an industrial bursary scheme associated with a bachelor's degree in engineering geology and geotechnical engineering.  These companies also provide data for postgraduate students of the university.

According to Loveridge, students at the University of Leeds also use the data on real projects.

"Sometimes it can be public domain data, like site investigation information that's publicly available, so they're dealing with real data that they might have in practice," she explains.

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“Sometimes it can be about an actual project – research projects are most likely to happen. Each student, on each program, does an individual research project at least once during their bachelor’s or master’s degree.  It's a great place for companies to engage with aspects of real projects."

Loveridge says that students don't work on actual projects as they happen to be.  "It's really down to the companies and whether there are any issues regarding commercial interests.

"The timeframe can also sometimes vary greatly between practice and academia, depending on the types of projects involved. But we always like to use real data and look at real projects if possible."

Goody agrees that it will be very difficult for companies to produce live briefs for actual projects.

“But I have experience with companies providing design projects that are real projects,” he says.  "They usually expire, and the fact that they're full means it's less commercially sensitive. 

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“With those types of projects, they are unknown, but the company provides things like ground investigation reports, client briefs, and maybe some architectural drawings.

"Students can use them the same way a practicing engineer might design their own."

Loveridge thinks there may be ways to make it easier for companies to get involved in academia.

"Data sets are often quite large and complex in the real world, and perhaps we need to work with slightly simpler versions," she says.  "I think the main message is that with different levels of time input you can get involved at different levels of exposure, but hopefully it's a benefit for all parties involved."

Future of Geotechnical Engineers

Koor notes that geology in the UK is in serious trouble, with courses closing in due to a drop in the number of students wanting to study the field.  He points out that this could create serious problems for geotechnical and ground engineering companies in the future.

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“We need industry support for these courses, especially at non-Russell Group, non-red brick universities,” he says.  “Virtually all our undergraduate and graduate graduates go on to find jobs in the industry, so we are providing a very important service.

"They can't really rely on the government to fund the courses, because that money is no longer there. The bulk of our income is dependent on students.

“There are four or five courses that have closed and will never be opened again, because geosciences is an expensive course to run with field trips and labs. We survive here in Portsmouth, and there are other courses like that.  Those are alive, but it's only a matter of time before a few more drop by the end of the list.

Source: AILBHE Goodbody, Ground Engineering, geplus, Direct News 99