Challenges ahead for education and training
The pace of technological change is and will continue to be really fast and one of the challenges that both universities and industry will face is to respond nimbly these changes. Universities, in particular, tend to have a slow response in updating relevant knowledge in the programmes. In addition, the development of non-technical skills (i.e. professional skills) that go beyond graduation such as communication at different levels (e.g. graduate to managerial) and stakeholders (e.g. the public) will also be a challenge as we start engaging more in issues around social responsibility. In the context of skills development, one of the challenge educators will face will be for students to develop better information/data literacy which is critical as we look at systems with large amounts of information and data –i.e. being able to make sense and use information. As we are facing more complex sustainable challenges that have a great number of interfaces with health, safety, environment regulators and at the same time social impact there is a need to take transdisciplinary approaches to problem solving that include innovation and entrepreneurial skills.
Meeting the challenges
The consensus here is that we need change: starting to do things more effectively and finding new ways of interacting with the students. We have already learnt much about this throughout the pandemic but there are still things we need to explore. We need to start looking at different ways of providing education and training that is more suited to the needs of industry and that allows for a faster response, for instance ‘micro-size’ specialist courses (i.e. micro-credentials) that can be delivered on demand in both industries and universities and not only focused on chemical engineering but other disciplines (e.g. data science, artificial intelligence, food, biomedicine). Similarly, we need to have industry and academia working more closely to give graduates industry experience not only in the chemical and process industries sector but across other sectors. As we enter a wider range of sectors the chemical engineer of the future needs to be able to operate in different environments. This does not mean we need to change the fundamentals that form the basis of the programmes at the moment but we need to be more creative and smarter about incorporating real world examples from different areas not only traditional chemical and process industries. In embracing these changes, we should also be embracing the idea that not all university degrees need to be the same but rather incorporate aspects of the local needs. Change is always difficult, for both universities and industry, but in this case it will be essential.
The curriculum of the future
Whilst reinforcing the importance of the fundamentals, it is perhaps critical that we emphasise more skill development and that these skills are made more evident to students in undergraduate degrees. For instance, by explicitly pointing at where and how these skills are present through their studies (i.e. problem-solving, analysis, evaluation). There is also a need to explicitly include aspects of entrepreneurship which can be done working closely with SMEs and where both the local university and the company benefit. Additionally, as we are looking at dealing with high levels of complexity it is essential to develop resourcefulness and the ability to deal with imperfection, uncertainty and ill-defined situations or problems. The landscape ahead includes a number of processes that are still being developed and fall outside the ‘traditional’ learning settings. We need to have more flexibility in the curriculum to enable learning about new and different processes which many institutions might see as a challenge to meet accreditation requirements. However, the same principles and fundamental we see in programmes apply to new processes and products and we need to be proactive about incorporating these in the curriculum.
Inevitably this requires rethinking how the curriculum is constructed, organised and presented, in other words what is in the foreground (e.g. a project involving renewable energies) and what is in the background (e.g. thermodynamics, transport phenomena) and including more transdiciplinarity and industry engagement.
The ‘classroom’ of the future
Inevitably changes in the curriculum are linked to changes in delivery and assessment. Looking ahead at what the ‘classroom’ of the future will have we get a number of interesting and thought-provoking ideas, for instance, the use of voice to voice and voice to text translation technology to produce written work from the native speaker’s language to the language of the course or the ability to follow a lecture given in another language. We also hear that current technologies such as Augmented reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR), which are not very scalable at the moment, will become more common place as the technology develops and it becomes more accessible. There is a consensus that learning in the future will be based on a ‘hybrid’ mode that includes a variety of new tools that can cater for the needs and situations of different students and that can offer more flexibility. Greater industry engagement in university learning is also very likely as the fast pace of developments will demand closer integration with industry needs. The technology can also help in facilitating closer collaborations between academia and industry.
The talent pipeline
Attracting young talent will not require a major shift from what we are doing now but it will need a stronger focus on the diverse opportunities that chemical engineering offers as a profession, more visible engagement with industry to showcase the variety of sectors chemical engineers go into and the roles and impact that they have on society. There is an evident need to engage and attract minority groups (e.g. indigenous populations, females) in order to increase diversity. It is also critical to start promoting the discipline early, end of high school is too late, and to influence the influencers (i.e. parents and teachers). We need a concerted effort in promoting the profession –not just the programme at specific universities- through campaigns such as WhynotChemEng.