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Preparing Better Engineers: Compulsory Undergraduate Research Projects That Benefit Universities And The Profession

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2009 Annual Conference & Exposition


Austin, Texas

Publication Date

June 14, 2009

Start Date

June 14, 2009

End Date

June 17, 2009



Conference Session

Preparing Engineers for the Global Workplace & Successful Graduates for a Flat World: What Does It Take?

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Page Count


Page Numbers

14.973.1 - 14.973.12



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Paper Authors


Aisling O'Sullivan University of Canterbury

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Dr Aisling O'Sullivan has been teaching and researching in the discipline of Ecological Engineering as a senior lecturer (US associate professor) at the University of Canterbury since 2004. Prior to that, she was a visiting Post-Doctoral Fellow at the University of Oklahoma and a Post-Doctoral Researcher at the National University of Ireland in Dublin. Along with Dr Thomas Cochrane, she has led curricular developments, including undergraduate research projects, for the Natural Resources Engineering Programme. Aisling has published in Engineering Education since 2006.

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Thomas Cochrane University of Canterbury

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Tom A. Cochrane is a senior lecturer (US associate professor) in the Dept. of Civil and Natural Resources Engineering at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. He teaches and does research in hydrology, natural resources engineering, GIS, and soil/water conservation. Dr Cochrane received his M.Sc. and Ph.D. from Purdue University.

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Preparing Better Engineers: Compulsory Undergraduate Research Projects that Benefit Universities and the Profession


Engineers are responsible for creative, innovative and adaptive designs that solve challenging technical problems and provide sustainable solutions. Professional skills (i.e. management, social/cultural appreciation, budgeting, communication and personal development) are recognised by the profession as an integral part of an engineer’s formal education. However, most engineering programmes do not specifically teach these skill sets. We recognised the need to better prepare students for real-world engineering practice that demands innovation and professional skills as well as technical competence. We therefore developed a successful model in which engineering students integrated technical information and professional skills through a real-world research project established in partnership with industry. Material taught throughout a four-year curriculum culminated in the compulsory (equivalent to ~8 credit hours) assessed research project that acts as a pathway towards real-world and sustainable engineering practice. A uniqueness of our model included indigenous people’s cultural engagement, where students were taught the importance of understanding and working with indigenous peoples for successful engineering outcomes. The final year student research project benefited the university, students, industry, and the engineering profession at different levels through financial and other gains. The University and its students acquired industry funding, sponsorship, scholarships, graduate employment and research partnerships. Industry and the profession profited from better prepared engineering students, early recruitment opportunities, company marketing and cost-effective tax- deductible research partnerships. To successfully implement compulsory undergraduate research projects, support from colleagues and the profession is necessary. While financial and personnel resources are limited in times of economic uncertainty, we have mitigated these limitations by partnering with external mentors.


Engineering employs mathematical and creative applications of scientific principles to solve problems and design solutions for the benefit of humans and their environment. While most engineering students comprehend the theoretical principles of technical tasks, they struggle with evaluating and synthesising real engineering problems due to a lack of actual experience1,2. Such experience can be gained through real-world engineering research projects, where creative and adaptive problem-solving is facilitated in a contextual learning environment3,4. Contextual learning is especially important for natural resources, environmental, biological, civil and other engineers who practice at the interface of the living environment (i.e. ecosystems)5.

Industry depends on its ability to attract graduates with a deep technical and broad professional skills base. Professional skills are considered an integral part of an engineers formal education as stipulated in the professional guidelines provided by the U.S. Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) and the Institution of Professional Engineers New Zealand (IPENZ). Six professional skills defined by ABET in their accreditation criteria are6 :

O'Sullivan, A., & Cochrane, T. (2009, June), Preparing Better Engineers: Compulsory Undergraduate Research Projects That Benefit Universities And The Profession Paper presented at 2009 Annual Conference & Exposition, Austin, Texas. 10.18260/1-2--4746

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