Global challenges and engineering

Deborah Greaves, Professor of Engineering

Deborah Greaves, Professor of Engineering, writes about the challenges facing our planet, and how the creation of a new School of Engineering can make a powerful contribution to regional, national and international priorities.

“Even the mechanical engineer comes at last to the end of his figures...face to face with the discrepancies of nature and the hiatuses of theory… With the civil engineer...the complexity and fitfulness of nature, are always before him. He has to deal with the unpredictable, with those forces (in Smeaton’s phrase) that are subject to no calculation and still he must predict, will calculate them, at his peril.”

The words of Robert Louis Stevenson beautifully capture the essence of engineering: the synthesis of scientific knowledge to find creative, practical solutions to challenges in the real world, and for the benefit of mankind.

Today, we are no less short of challenges. The impacts of climate change, and the interwoven issues of energy security, energy equity and environmental sustainability, for example, are all global in scale, complex in nature, and multidisciplinary in their requirements.

The UK government has offered a fresh take on some of these societal issues, setting out, within its Industrial Strategy, to improve living standards and economic growth through increasing productivity and driving growth across our country. It places stress on the need to build upon our research and innovation excellence with particular attention to areas such as clean energy, robotics and autonomous systems, biotechnology and medicine, and transformative digital technologies that include supercomputing and advanced modelling. 

This presents many opportunities for the south-west of England and South Wales. Indeed we have existing expertise in many of these emerging fields of technology, an observation recently highlighted by the Science and Innovation Audit. In particular, the unique mix of maritime heritage, natural marine resources, and the physical infrastructure and track record associated with existing high-tech marine industries presents an ideal location for the establishing of a world-leading marine renewables test-bed. Indeed this has been achieved through the installation of the Wave Hub, the creation of FaBTest and COAST (Coastal, Ocean And Sediment Transport laboratory), and the formation of the research partnership PRIMaRE. The aim is to support the nascent MRE (marine renewable energy) industry, leading to the commercialisation of world-changing technologies. In turn, these developments will have synergies with underpinning technologies and digital specialisms such as artificial intelligence and robotics, big data, and environmental modelling. But sustained growth in these industries will require commensurate development of the human capital to fuel expansion.

And this is where we come in. 

Last year, we launched a new School of Engineering to satisfy the objectives: to create engineers fit for the 21st century, and to partner our industries in research and innovation. 

The first objective is critical to success. There is a widely acknowledged shortage of engineering graduates produced each year, a number estimated to be as high as 20,000 annually, according to the Royal Academy of Engineering. We run five undergraduate degrees:  mechanical engineering, marine technology, civil and coastal engineering, civil engineering, navigation and maritime science. The latter has been the historical focus of our education since the Plymouth School of Navigation was founded in 1862. We also offer postgraduate MSc programmes in civil engineering, coastal engineering and marine renewable energy (jointly with the School of Biological and Marine Sciences). This year we launched a new MSc Advanced Engineering Design programme and have plans for other new titles that reflect our specialisms and are directed at the needs of industry. Indeed, we pride ourselves upon having one of the largest industrial advisory committees of any UK university. It actively supports our programmes with placement opportunities, site visits, contributions to teaching, and mentoring of our students. It also helps us to ensure the relevance of our programmes to employers.

Then there is the second aspect – industry collaboration. The school provides research and development expertise and facilities for industry to access commercially and through collaboration in teaching and research.

The world-class COAST laboratory, and concurrent growth of the coastal engineering and MRE research area, are great examples of how teaching, research and commercial work can be combined to benefit one another. A sustainable coastline is critical to the UK, as is developing MRE sources as an alternative to hydrocarbon-based energy. Through the COAST lab and its activities, the coastal engineering team is making a major contribution to advancing MRE feasibility and to related ocean and coastal engineering in the UK, and to training new experts in the field. 

We have ambitious plans to further improve our facilities and provide our students and researchers with innovative and exciting environments in which to study and work. This includes the development of a new home for Engineering – a building to house flexible laboratory spaces in a multidisciplinary collaborative environment, where research, teaching and commercial activities share and grow together in the same space. 

Our aim is to create a new learning environment to encourage our engineering students to work across discipline boundaries with their contemporaries and be mindful of their future role as graduate engineers working with our industrial partners. We believe that this will lead to innovative, resilient graduate engineers, who are equipped to face down the challenges posed by a 'complex and fitful nature', taming them through calculation and prediction.