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Preparing the next generation

University of Melbourne School of Engineering

Engineering education has changed a lot in 100 years – what needs to happen in the next century?

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Back in 1861, Australia’s first engineering school opened at the University of Melbourne with just 15 students. In the 150 years since, global market forces and changing expectations have continuously redefined what is needed to prepare the profession’s future leaders.

According to Professor Mark Cassidy, Dean of Melbourne School of Engineering and a keynote speaker at the upcoming World Engineers Convention, engineering is the ‘action’ arm of the STEM professions — the application of science and technology and maths to find solutions to the world’s greatest challenges.

He said today’s engineering students identify strongly with this ethos and are hungry for opportunities to leave a positive mark on society.

“They can see what the issues facing the world are and they really want to make a difference,” he said.

According to Professor Cassidy, the challenge this sets for universities is to create programs that meet this desire for practical experience while also laying a strong theoretical foundation.

Another thing that sets today’s young engineers apart is many have more of a ‘problem-finding’ mindset, Professor Cassidy said, and they want to pursue solutions to issues they are passionate about. He said this entrepreneurial spirit is a big shift from when he was an engineering student.

“We all just wanted to work for a major corporation or government, but now this entrepreneurial spirit is very strong in a lot of students,” he said.

“They see it as a different pathway, and that’s something that bodes well for the future of Australia.”

A precinct approach

Providing this balance is the driving force behind the university’s $1 billion investment to see the Melbourne School of Engineering 2025 (MSE2025) strategy to completion. This includes two new large-scale developments devoted to the discipline. Melbourne Connect will focus on data science and digital technology, including artificial intelligence and machine learning, and co-locate academia, industry and students. MSE’s new campus at Fishermans Bend will be an innovation precinct, a place for large-scale interdisciplinary research and project-based teaching.

“Both precincts are looking at where engineering will go in the future, and we’re hoping to co-locate with industry to give our students experience” Professor Cassidy said.

Professor Mark Cassidy,

“We also want to make sure our academic work is really focused on the challenges that are facing the world into the future to ensure we are making a difference with what we do in our research and our teaching.”

When asked what the university is currently known for, biomedical engineering immediately sprung to Professor Cassidy’s mind. University of Melbourne Professor Graeme Clark’s work on the bionic ear is a well-known example, and more contemporary projects include creating a brain-computer interface that allows a prosthetic to be manipulated with just a thought. Robotic exoskeletons are another promising project.

On the cyber side, the school is moving more into cutting-edge technologies, such as artificial intelligence. This work is applied in many sectors, again linking back to health. As a biomedical example, Professor Cassidy mentioned the use of sensors plus machine learning to predict the likelihood of someone having an epileptic seizure.

“Can we have sensors connected to the brain that are able to predict in real time when someone might have a seizure?” he said.

A precinct-based approach is representative of the shift to project-based teaching. In this way, industry and academia have a symbiotic relationship: more engineering students are asking for and expecting this industry-relevant training, and for its part, industry is looking for graduates who are ready to apply what they’ve learned to real-world scenarios.

“Industry are looking for graduates who are industry-ready, and hungry to apply their fresh perspectives and skill sets to the new organisations they join. We’re ensuring our graduates are prepared to do just that,” Professor Cassidy said.

This means universities can no longer do what Professor Cassidy refers to as “postbox work”, where industry and academia conduct their work separate from each other and researchers send their work to industry in a postbox, never to be applied to solve a challenge or deliver an outcome.

“A lot of the grand challenges engineers are facing are multidimensional and multidisciplinary. They need larger teams to come together — teams comprising academics and industry,” he said.

“We’re trying to really put those together. Our strategy is much more about engagement, it’s much more about partnerships and it’s much more about building larger teams together to work on these issues.”

On top of that, engineering careers — and the skills required to undertake them — are changing at a rapid pace. How can students entering school now prepare for a profession that might look quite different by the time they graduate?

Professor Cassidy said one way he thinks Melbourne School of Engineering is answering that question is by giving students a broad range of electives to build out a diverse skill set. For example, he said the new precincts will look to marry data science and engineering to prepare students for Industry 4.0.

“There’s much more emphasis on the ability to interpret data, so we look at adding computer science applications to all of our degrees,” he said.

City living

Being a CBD-based university also gives Melbourne School of Engineering an opportunity to place this work in terms of benefit to society, Professor Cassidy said. Melbourne is undergoing a period of immense change, from large city-shaping infrastructure projects to steep population growth – all while trying to maintain its crown as the country’s most liveable city.

Professor Cassidy said the engineering school’s new precincts will play a key role in helping Melbourne navigate through these looming challenges. He sees the University of Melbourne’s role as a convener, uniting startups, academics, entrepreneurs, industry and the future workforce to flesh out ideas and tap one another for expertise. Melbourne itself also serves as a living lab and testing ground for these ideas and technologies.

One example of field testing ideas in this way is AIMES, or the Australian Integrated Multimodal EcoSystem. Located in Carlton, adjacent to the University of Melbourne’s Parkville campus, on 6 square kilometres is the “most highly sensored area of roads, footpaths, intersections and traffic lights in the world”, Professor Cassidy said.

Nearly 50 companies joined together with the university to test how sensors and smart technology can be used to improve the way we move around the city. Everything from traffic lights to parking meters to cameras are being used to test pain points and gauge how people move through an urban environment.

“Anyone who has been in Melbourne knows there’s quite a bit of traffic, but all cities are going through that,” Professor Cassidy said.

“If you look around the world, with the desire to keep cities moving and enhance liveability, we need to design better systems for transport, traffic and vulnerable road users. It’s the use of data like that from AIMES that will make a big difference.”

A mirror to society

As the world becomes more connected and collaborative, Professor Cassidy said engineering educators need to lean into the challenge of making sure the profession reflects this.

“The design of society is affected by who creates it. And if engineers are creating society through the application of science, then we need to have diversity in the student cohort, so that our future engineering professionals are a true representation of our society,” he said.

Boosting the number of women in engineering is an imperative for educational institutions and private organisations alike. Australia’s engineering workforce is only 12 per cent female, and while issues like workplace recruitment and retention affect that number, establishing a robust talent pipeline is firmly within a university’s remit.

Across engineering and IT, Professor Cassidy said women make up 34 per cent of Melbourne School of Engineering’s student body, a number he is particularly proud of.

“That is the highest in Australia, and we’ve been nudging that up a per cent or so a year,” he said.

Getting there has been and remains a concerted effort by a team of professional and academic staff. The school employs a suite of programs to attract diversity of gender and culture into engineering degrees and keep them there. One of its most successful programs for girls is the three-day Girl Power engineering camp for Year 9 students at the Parkville campus.

But beyond gender, Professor Cassidy said diversity in all its forms is important for shaping the future of the profession. For example, the Melbourne School of Engineering is working to increase the number of Indigenous engineering students. The school hosts and coordinates the Victorian Indigenous Engineering Winter School (VIEWS) program alongside three other universities, which brings Indigenous Australian students from around the country to Melbourne to showcase opportunities in STEM education through the lens of problem-finding and hands-on experience.

The school is also focused on rural and regional impact. One initiative, the Mallee Regional Innovation Centre (MRIC) taps into the creativity and drive of students in the Mallee district of Victoria to work on projects that more directly affect their communities and local economy, particularly agriculture.

“Agriculture is a big industry in Australia, and there are really interesting problems to solve in that space. How can we apply tech tools including automation, computer vision, robotics and drones to farming?” Professor Cassidy asked.

The Melbourne School of Engineering is halfway through its MSE2025 transformation strategy, and it has “massive ambitions” for the future, said Professor Cassidy.

So, where will the school be by 2025? Professor Cassidy said by then he wants the University of Melbourne to be internationally known for the quality and contributions of its engineering and IT research – and for its outstanding graduates.

“Whether it’s in the transport system, or biomedical engineering … I see demonstrable examples of how our work is contributing to society,” he said.

What are the major trends influencing engineering education? How can today’s professional prepare the next generation of engineers? This will be a them at the upcoming World Engineers Convention 20-22 November in Melbourne. To learn more and to register, click here

autonomous robots and engineering

With autonomous robots on the rise, what do engineers need to know?

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As collaborative robots give way to autonomous ones, the future is not as frightening as you might think, says Professor Elizabeth Croft, presenter at the World Engineers Convention.

When her daughter came home with a textbook that said robots are designed by ‘scientists’, Professor Elizabeth Croft was very surprised. Most of the driving force behind robot technology and capability is coming from engineers, she said.

“I had a bit of a fit when I saw what the textbook said. I told my daughter, ‘No, actually, engineering is pushing the forefronts of robotics. Science, art and design all contribute and help us to think about it, but the engineering part is what allows us to continue to innovate,” said Croft, Dean of the Faculty of Engineering at Monash University.

When Croft talks about the future of robotics, she’s not discussing the manned ‘collaborative’ machines that, for instance, help people on an assembly line to lift engine blocks into car bodies and that switch off when their operator is absent. She means fully autonomous robots.

“Collaborative robots, or ‘cobots’, were passive in the sense that they would not act unless the operator put motive force into them,” she said. They were very safe because they were not autonomous. If the operator did not touch the cobot’s controls, it would stop.

“Where we’ve moved is to a place where now we have autonomous robots that are independent agents, such as delivery robots, robots operating as assistants, etc.,” she said.

“This is the area that I focus on: robots that bring you something. Maybe they hand you a tool. Maybe they carry out parts of an operation that are common in a workplace. We’re interested in collaborating with those agents.”

These autonomous robots are different from cobots, Croft said, because they have their own agenda and their own intent. They are not tele-operated, and they are not activated or deactivated. They have their own jobs, just like people in the workplace. They need no permission to operate.

It’s in this area that Croft works, in the space where rules of engagement have to be figured out. Several major issues are slowing things down right now, such as questions around liability and safety frameworks. Also, how does the front-end work, or how do humans interact with the robot? How do they tell it what they want it to do? If voice operation is key, then we’re clearly not there yet, judging by the voice interactions with our smartphones.

And what about social and ethical impacts of technology in society? These are powerful, autonomous systems that are being developed, so how and where should boundaries be drawn to ensure Skynet doesn’t send a cyborg assassin to kill Sarah Connor?

“The underlying programming and bounding of how much autonomy those systems have really impacts what consequences can happen,” Croft said.

“So, it is very important that students of this technology think about ethical frameworks in the context of programming frameworks. Ethics must underlie the basic design and concepts around how an autonomous system operates. That needs to be part of the fundamental coding, part of the training of an engineer.”

Reducing complication

In order to tone down the Terminator imagery, Croft offers an example of how an autonomous robot might change workflow for the better.

When you buy a piece of furniture from IKEA, the instructions contain a small picture of a man and look friendly, but they’re actually quite complicated. There are numerous pieces, many just a little bit different to each other. Some are very small, some are very large, some are flexible. The assembly requires dexterity and making of choices about what must be done in what order. Constant close inspection is a must because of the numerous dependencies.

Professor Elizabeth Croft

Professor Elizabeth Croft.

“This job cannot be fully automated because it’s too expensive,” she said.

“But there are parts of that operation where it would make a lot of sense to have more automation or assistance involved.”

Such technology is very close to reality right now, but we don’t have the legal and other frameworks to make it fully operational.

“We’ve come to a place where people can grab onto a robot, move it around, show it an operation, then press a button and the robot does it,” Croft said.

“But because of legal issues, liability and occupational health and safety, there are risks that need to be managed. There are issues around getting the person and the robot to come together in a workspace in a safe way. Who’s responsible? When the operator is always in charge, then there’s no doubt. But when the operator has no longer got their hand on the big red button, then there is risk.”

Who assumes that risk? In Europe, Croft said, the risk is assumed mainly by the manufacturer of the robot, which creates a challenge for innovation. In North America, the risk is often assumed by the person or company that owns the robot. In other jurisdictions, the risk could be assumed by the worker who is using the robot.

Swapping robots with humans

Outside of the legal framework, the biggest issue is actually the workflow itself. On a typical production line for instance, if one worker can’t do a job, another is brought in to take their place. People are quickly interchangeable. The same needs to be true of a robot being replaced by a human. If the robot breaks down, the business can’t stop operating. So, humans and robots must be easily swapped in and out.

There also needs to be a clear understanding of the value being offered by the robot, to ensure the worker is comfortable to work with the robot. And the worker must feel that the robot understands what they do, too.

“It will become a greater and greater requirement for educators of people working in software engineering or computer engineering to create a real understanding of the impacts  – ethically, socially, environmentally – of the designs they create,” Croft said.

“We’ll need professionals interested in public policy and engineers with a strong ethical framework. The engineers are creating the future of technology. We are the ones who first see the potential impacts. If we don’t prepare our people for that, we’ll see unintended consequences of the technology.”

Elizabeth Croft will be speaking about how engineers can set the agenda for future technology implementation at the upcoming World Engineers Convention. To learn more and to register, click here