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RAE: radical changes needed in the way we teach innovation

19 April 2012

UK universities need to teach their engineering students how to innovate in a way they have not done before if the country is to move successfully into a sustainable period of growth, according to a new report by the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE), which stresses the importance of innovation not being seen as an extracurricular activity.

Educating engineers to drive the innovation economy recommends two major means of equipping students to achieve step changes: by encouraging them to address real life issues such as energy, water security and the ageing population; and allowing students to consider exploiting novel technological breakthroughs (such as hydrogen fuel cells or new applications for microwaves). In addition to innovation thinking, engineers will needwell-developed skills to deliver an innovation driven economy. UK and devolved Governments should therefore continue toprovide additional support toengineering as a strategically important subject.

Engineering students should routinely work together with other students, for example of management, science and social science, says the Academy, to enable them to understand the broad context for the innovative application of engineering skills. The benefits of this approach can be seen on courses like those at Georgia Tech in the USA, where they have developed a two year programme called TI:GER to help doctoral students move breakthrough research to market. Throughout the course they collaborate with MBA and legal students to consider the technical, business and legal factors that will influence the potential market for their research.

"The UK is home to some of the very best designers and engineers in the world," says RAE vice president, Dr David Grant. "However, an incomplete understanding or application of innovation processes means that many of their good ideas will go no further than the drawing board or the computer screen. The UK has a history of producing groundbreaking inventions but often not fully exploiting the markets for these discoveries - think of the television, the hovercraft or penicillin.

"The House of Commons Science & Technology Committee has recognised this issue with its latest inquiry improving the commercialisation of research. In order to bridge the 'valley of death' and transform the UK economy we need more radical innovation - the kind of change that creates a new 'state-of-the-art'. Much of this capability rests on the way our future innovators are being taught."

The report presents examples of radical innovation in action, such as Peter Brewin and Will Crawford's development of their company, Concrete Canvas, which they founded in 2005 to commercialise research done at Imperial College London. Their technology enables a shelter to be erected like a tent and then transformed into a concrete structure simply by adding water. Having turned down funding from BBC's Dragon's Den, they proceeded to set up the company themselves. They are now into volume production with a factory in South Wales and are developing new applications for their material in mining and undersea work as well as creating new bulletproof and fireproof variations.

The University of Nottingham's Institute for Enterprise and Innovation runs an annual 'entrepreneurial bootcamp' called Biotechnology Young Entrepreneurs Scheme (YES), one of the longest running researcher training initiatives in Europe. Over 3,000 researchers have taken part in the competition over the last 17 years and a significant number are now following more entrepreneurial careers than they might traditionally have done. New schemes, including Sustainability YES, Environment YES and Engineering YES have recently been established.

The report is available read online here.


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