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What Ada Lovelace’s flying horse can tell us about modern problems with educating engineers

12 October 2021

On 12 October 2021, we celebrated Ada Lovelace Day, named for the world’s first computer programmer, who has inspired generations of women in STEM.

Beverley Gibbs, Chief Academic Officer
Beverley Gibbs, Chief Academic Officer

In 1827, when she was 12 years old, Ada Lovelace imagined a steam-powered flying horse. Ada’s ideas for the horse terrified her mother, who feared Ada was taking on characteristics of her father, the original ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ lothario, Lord Byron.

Byron is still regarded as one of the great English poets, and Lady Byron’s reaction to Ada’s horse-themed creativity was to buckle down on directing Ada into a purposeful study of mathematics and science, to avoid the chaos associated with her creative father.

The rest, as they say, is history, and on the second Tuesday of every October, we celebrate Ada Lovelace Day, recognising her contribution to computer science.

As an engineer, I find Ada’s flying horse captivating and inspiring. At their best, engineers rely on imagination, empathy, creativity, vision and readiness for change – capabilities that come from an understanding of what it is to be human rather than an overly narrow devotion to maths and science. Why then, do we spend so little time in the engineering curriculum developing these capabilities, and why do we select them out during our admissions processes? AT NMITE, we’re determined to do things differently. 

At NMITE, we recognise that people who do not have Maths and Science A-Levels can still have the vision, curiosity, determination and creativity to be fantastic engineers – and so we welcome them. Our very human admissions process takes account of the applicant’s journey and potential. Once they join us, we explicitly teach and support maths and science – and communication and interpersonal skills – inside the programme, closely aligned to their application in engineering work. 

We are also inspired by the humanities world, and have built that into our programme because the subjective and objective need not be in competition. The professional accreditation of engineering education requires that engineers can work with ambiguity, respond to stakeholders and manage risk – these skills cannot come from numbers and natural laws alone.

At NMITE, we have infused the curriculum with approaches from history, art, philosophy and rhetoric as well as the more usual social sciences. In the first couple of weeks in our programme, learners study the idea of certainty – yes, in metrology, but also in speech.

There are, of course, plenty of examples of great teaching at the humanities and science interface, but at NMITE, we have won the institutional argument on transdisciplinary approaches and it’s what we are founded on. That’s not just because different disciplines are interesting and important, but because we know they unlock routes to being a better engineer.
As engineers, we are perhaps most characterised by a yearning to put ideas to use: in many ways, this is the essence of what engineering is. Too often, educators are keen to share their discipline’s insights, but stop short of showing students how to effectively integrate those perspectives into their core discipline or vocation. 

NMITE was founded in response to an overly narrow admissions criteria to engineering degree courses. We aim to meet the needs of employers reporting long-term shortages in a sector critical to economic growth and human wellbeing. We have a recruitment process that treats applicants as rounded people, and we maintain that human awareness throughout our programme – humans as stakeholders, employers, and collaborators. Humans at individual, community and global scales. Rather than seeing safety in logic and numbers as Lady Byron did, we see safety in properly preparing our graduates for the world they will enter and the work they will do.

Whilst Ada Lovelace is rightly recognised and respected for her contributions to computer science, let’s be inspired by her navigation of different disciplines and reflect on the evidence that she had all the hallmarks of a thoroughly excellent modern engineer.
 
Professor Beverley Gibbs is Chief Academic Officer at NMITE, a new provider of higher education. Find out more at www.nmite.ac.uk.


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