By Kevin Chow, Doctoral Researcher, School of Education, University of Bristol
Despite the growing popularity of STEM and engineering education in recent years, it has been noticed that there is generally a lack of understanding of the engineering profession amongst the general public as well as parents and students. Additionally, the engineering industry has observed a decline in the quality of engineering students.1 When being asked to describe a good student, the most common terms are hardworking, being good in academics, submitting work on time, being regular, participating in-class activities, and achieving high grades, etc. However, However, these qualities do not guarantee success in becoming a good engineer.
As the awareness to safety and reliability by the society increases drastically in recent years, engineers have to prepare themselves for more stringent requirements by the public. The engineering industry has reflected that many of the current engineers lack risk management skill, and that the skills learned in university cannot fully satisfy the requirements needed to practise engineering in the industry.2 While there are there are 12 elements in the competence standard of The Hong Kong Institution of Engineers (HKIE) for a professional engineer, some of the elements are difficult for engineering students to grasp in current educational setting. Examples include3:
- Define, investigate and analyse complex engineering problems in accordance with good practice for professional engineering;
- Identify, assess and manage engineering risk;
- Recognise the reasonably foreseeable social, cultural, health, safety, sustainability and environmental effects of professional engineering activities generally; and
- Exercise sound professional engineering judgement.
Students at school who are at a relatively young ages often view mistakes and failures as something to avoid rather than embrace. They do not understand that failure actually provide crucial data and insights that allow for more accurate and advanced models in further experiment assumptions; they do not understand that failure at school offers invaluable experience which may prevent significant accidents in their careers; they do not understand that failure is actually an essential nutrient for growth. The association of failures with shame, stupidity and lack of ability as a result stifle creativity and the willingness to take risks that is necessary to breakthrough discoveries and progress.
The importance of learning from failure is thus crucial. A failure in engineering does not necessarily means an accident, but can be defined as the non-performance or inability of a component (or system) to perform its intended function.4 Investigation to incidents or accidents, as well as implementation of recommendations and establishment of feedback channels to determine whether the recommendations and changes were successful in reducing risk are therefore recommended.
The Association for the Study of Failure, established in Tokyo in 2002, proposes that the Study of Failure identifies the cause of accidents and failures, and further offers ways to prevent such accidents and failures that cause economic loss and fatality. Some of the activities by the association include5:
- Identifying the cause of failures, accidents, and disasters that cause loss to the society, corporations, and individuals.
- Developing methods to prevent such failures, accidents, and disasters.
- Reforming the awareness of people about failure by spreading how to think about and recognize failure, and how to turn failure experience into knowledge at the society, corporation and individual levels.
Failure in engineering education can manifest in many forms, such as unsuccessful lab experiments, poorly designed projects, or incorrect calculations, etc., Engineering education should therefore place greater emphasis on teaching students how to derive value from failure. As the ancient Chinese proverb states, “failure is the mother of success”. Students should be encouraged to view failures not as endings, but as milestones that reveal issues to address for the next iteration. Students should be taught to analyse and understand the root causes of failure, such that they can get insights that leads to improved understanding, better decision making, and more effective engineering solutions incorporating both safety and reliability.
Educators should also change their teaching approach. Instead of the usual practise of praising students only when they achieve the correct answers, educators should also acknowledge the learning that comes from incorrect answers. This fosters an experimental and growth mindset that views failure as a natural part of the learning process. When students learn to extract lessons from failure, they will be comfortable in taking risks that can lead to innovations, be able to foresee potential risks in a project or process, and possess the ability to propose practical solutions to complex engineering problems.
Engineers, like Prometheus, brings technology and prosperity to the society. Engineers should not hesitate to challenge new technologies due to the fear of failure. Instead, engineers should value failure, conduct analysis on previous experience and develop technologies or methods that will prevent the same from happening again.6 Just as Tomas Edison once said, “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Written by Ir Kevin Chow from the Building Services Division of the HKIE
- HKIE (2022). Time to Change Roadmap. The Hong Kong Institution of Engineers
- HKIE (2022). Research on Manpower. The Hong Kong Institution of Engineers
- HKIE (2022). M3 Routes to Membership. The Hong Kong Institution of Engineers
- Leveson, N. G. (2016). Engineering a safer world: Systems thinking applied to safety. The MIT Press.
- Association for the Study of Failure (2002). Mission of NPO Shippai Gakkai “Assocation for the Study of Failure.”
- Takumi, S. (2017). The Development and Growth of Engineers. Taiwan: Ecus Cultural.
About the author
Ir Kevin Chow is a Doctoral Researcher at the School of Education. His research interests include engineering education and STEAM education. Kevin is currently a full-time teacher at Diocesan Boys’ School, Hong Kong and a Part-time Lecturer at Institute of Vocational Education. As a Registered Teacher and a Chartered Engineer, he is devoted in nurturing students towards a STEM career, especially in the areas of architecture and engineering.