The 2019 ACED Conference, 7-8 November, Coventry University

Assessment and Project-based learning: Sustainability, Ethics and Professionalism.

We have discussed these subjects before at conferences, but the environment is constantly changing, making some things easier and others more difficult. At the same time, the Joint Board of Moderators, which accredits civil, structural and highway engineering degrees on behalf of the professional institutions, has been developing its guidelines. We have also had good talks at the one day conferences in May each year, and it’s good to have some follow-up when we have more time.

I need to emphasise the importance of this. What society expects from civil and structural engineers is changing. This is reflected in changes in what the professional institutions, and hence the JBM, expect from civil engineering education. The education that we provide needs to be engineered – it must be designed and built in a way that meets future needs. What we have is for the most part an incremental development of an exam-centred ‘training’ that developed from a narrow kind of ‘scientific’ training in the 19th century. This is not how we would do things if we designed our engineering courses from scratch. NMiTE (see below) is an attempt to do just this – might it be a suitable model for educating civil and structural engineers? I’m not sure. You have choices. You can engage with the discussion, or at least keep abreast of it, and identify the critical changes you need to make, to enable your graduates to be the engineers society needs. Or you can continue as you are (I’m addressing a minority of you now), resting on the general reputation of your institution, training scientists, and focusing on your research career. I know which is most fun, and most motivating, both for academics and for students. For 99.9% of use, helping educate fifty to a hundred good engineers every year has far more beneficial impact on society than the research we do. The purpose of this website is to give you a back door into these developments, a way to find out what is going on, to spot how moving with the times can make everyone’s lives better, including your own. It’s also, perhaps more importantly, a support for those who are engaged with the twenty-first century, an easy route to picking up and sharing ideas and resources.

I’m going to give some brief summaries and my own commentary on each of the talks. Comments would be welcome, as would suggestions for links to web pages or articles that would be helpful. In all of this, I’m aware that no-one has enough time to do everything they are meant to do, let alone everything they would like to do. Therefore this blog is not going to be a traditional ‘scholarly’ piece of work: the emphasis is on being useful.

Peer Assessment in group projects – Neil Tsang, Coventry

This is a subject that we’ve covered before, and I think most people have tried it in some form or another. Coventry have group projects in every semester of every year, so they can ensure that their students develop a good approach to peer assessment. They use WebPA (lots about this on the internet, but start at, but the most interesting part of this was the importance given to ethics. The peer assessments can point to collusion between group members to push up scores, and the patterns are looked at carefully before an investigation is made. Students get very strong encouragement to think about ethical behaviour, with the threat of investigation and penalties for any who are inclined to try playing the system. The use of peer assessment ensures that the groups decide their own ground rules for behaviour and expectations, and record them.

Digital learning and assessment – Denise Whitelock, Open University

Most academics would like to use digital assessment, but it can take a lot of work to set up (it needn’t), and there is always a questionmark over who is actually sitting at a computer doing the work that is submitted (one colleague told me of two students whose submitted work was so identical it even had the same name on it!). Denise has been part of This is all about confirming authorship. Another interesting thing that Denise covered was a tool for looking at the structure of written work, looking at its ‘connectedness’. This can be a characteristic of an author, but she noted that lecture notes submitted by academics did not do that well. Some people commented that if software can analyse in this way, software could be written to fool the system. I’m not so sure about that, but these ‘writing assessment’ tools haven’t impressed me in the past. A colleague pointed me to a web-based assessor ( ). When I pasted in the first paragraph of ‘The Old Man and the Sea’, it scored very badly; so did the first paragraph of ‘Great Expectations’. I found some sample texts for different ‘reading ages’, and a little experimentation showed that Hemingway was looking for text for a reading age of about seven. I don’t think this is the way ahead. However, Denise’s talk was really good. We might be nearly there, and could have much more sophisticated tools than the ‘plagiarism detectors’ quite soon.

The New Model in Technology and Engineering – Dave Allan, NMiTE

Most people will have seen something about NMiTE ( in the press. Dave gave us an interesting talk about what they are doing, particularly in peer assessment. Their course has 40 modules, 27 of which are projects; all use peer assessment, but it only contributes to the marks of two of them. It is part of setting up an environment that supports the students in modifying their attitudes and practices. Dave gave us a few quotations from Paul Penn, ‘The Psychology of Effective studying” ( Lots of us liked this one: ‘The only consistent feature in all of your dissatisfying relationships is YOU’. (If you can point me to the original source of this please let me know.) Other good pointers were to the Ringelmann Effect ( and the Dunning-Kruger Effect ( Motivation is a big issue – undergraduates in general do not like group work – they’re more comfortable working away individually to hit the well-defined targets that they are typically given in school. Dave suggested that traditional university courses are all about ‘knowing engineering’, whereas what they should be about is ‘being an engineer’. He also indicated that phronesis is important (, meaning ‘knowing whether you should’. I’d agree with that – though many people might not be comfortable with the consequences, I would say that it’s critical for our profession to be treated with respect.

JBM Update – Nick Russell, Director of Perega and current chair of JBM

I think that this is the third ACED November conference that Nick has attended, a move that has really strengthened the connection between the two organisations, and the sense of working together. Nick gave his usual update on the work of the JBM, and did not go very far ‘off-piste’ this time! The most important prompt he gave us was the need to address climate change properly – we must produce graduates who are able to challenge the norm. Nick raised the perennial issue – if we are putting things into our courses, what do we take out? Nick’s arguments were related very closely to Tim’s, so I’ll look at some of the issues in the next paragraph.

JBM Update – Tim Ibell, Bath University, incoming chair of JBM

How should we get the importance of climate change into learning outcomes? This was Tim’s first question, and it’s an expression of the most important question. It’s part of the next one – how do we make Sustainable Development Goals not just central, but the foundation of the education we provide. At the moment, it feels that applying mathematics is the foundation, and this is wrong – it’s a tool, not a goal. If we are to motivate students, we must have a true foundation. I’m probably expressing this in my own way, as much as representing Tim’s arguments, as this has been a big issue for me. Tim sees us in a renaissance period for civil and structural engineering. I’m fairly sure that Tim means the full implications of using that term; it’s not just a blossoming, it’s a replacement of what has become rotten. In his talk (see the link to the talks that I will put here when I have it), Tim used a slide by John Orr, of Cambridge (, looking at the efficiency of various aspects of building design. I’ve shown the slide below (thank you John!), and please take a look at John used an office building with 16 floors and 30,000m2 of office area. In terms of ventilation, the design is for 3,000 people; space planning, 3,750 people; fire design 7,500 people; and structural design, 85,500 people. Some of this comes from too much importance being place on ‘flexibility’. How likely is it that THIS MUCH change in use could ever happen in the lifetime of the building. It’s my personal view that conservatism has built upon conservatism in structural engineering design, with every committee and every set of codes being significantly more conservative than the last. I’ve seen this in replacement structures built to do the same job, that are perhaps five times as heavy. When the dead load from all this structure adds to the structural loading, it becomes a vicious spiral; if it’s adding to the load within a span, it’s even worse. Not only is this very bad in sustainability terms, and in use of resources, it lousy engineering. But it’s the norm. Instead of educating engineers to think about what’s needed to do the job, we’re increasingly just training them to follow increasingly complex sets of codes, with compounding partial factors, to the point where they can miss completely understanding how things actually work. And then they imagine that the safety margins are so big that they don’t need to understand how it works, they just need to follow the rules. And then they think that they can take short cuts, because of all the conservatism, but because they don’t really know what they’re doing any more, they have no clue what the real margin of safety is, and are incapable of spotting when something differs from the norm in a significant way, and can become dangerous. Is this the kind of engineer we are producing? I know some people will be asking me for examples, published papers, etc., but I’ve no respect for that. Engineers think for themselves, they don’t just cite authority. I’ve digressed a little from Tim’s talk – but probably by less than you might think. As with all of this site, comments are welcome, especially from the speakers!

Image courtesy of John Orr, MEiCON, Cambridge

An ethical foundation for the education of Civil Engineers – Chris Megone, Professor of Inter-Disciplinary Applied Ethics, University of Leeds

You can find out more about Chris’s work at You’ll see that there’s a great deal there, and a big ambition. Personally, I think there’s a long way to go. Chris told us that it can be challenging to identify something as an ethical issue. People don’t recognise the contribution of ethics to their decision-making, even though it’s always there. It strikes me that this ‘unconscious’ ethical foundation can be a problem – it’s usually a product of environment, not thought about or owned, merely borrowed. I think that ethics are not necessarily good – they’re often simplistic, and increasingly out of touch with their origins. I would argue that all our thinking about sustainability is based completely on an unacknowledged set of ethics, and if we’re going to get sustainability right, we have to sort out and understand that ethical foundation. What I see is the majority of engineers, who above all else should be responsible, analytical, independent minded and responsible contributors to the good of society, just going with the flow. However, I don’t think you achieve much by just telling someone what you think is right or wrong – what you need to do is to help people to work things out for themselves, then they’re equipped to deal with whatever they encounter. You could argue that this is a general foundation of education as opposed to training. Chris argues that developing an understanding and practice of ethics needs to be incorporated into every level of engineering courses, and the assessment of ethics needs to be integrated into other assessments – it’s counterproductive to have it boxed-up as a separate thing. Chis’s centre (link above) does some online courses that could help, but it’s really important to have practicing engineers involved. They themselves work very closely with colleagues in other disciplines (as their name implies). There are a few resources available, probably the first to look at is the Royal Academy of Engineering at This page links to Chris’s centre, but also provides a good set of documents. I suggest that getting ethics thought about provides a sound foundation for going on to think about sustainability, as well as for engineering which is genuinely ‘good’, not merely clever. Chris also mentioned the 2002 Reith Lectures, by Onora O’Neill – I didn’t hear these at the time, and I’ve not looked at them yet. If anyone is familiar and can give us a commentary or summary in so far as they are relevant to civil engineering, I’d be glad to publish on a new blog here (I reserve the possibility of editing anything submitted). Trust, of course, is fundamental to all good working relationships, and so central to all we do. It’s often a stumbling block in group projects, so anything we can learn from this would be useful.

Community engagement in student projects – Sarah Bell, Professor of Environmental Engineering, UCL

Over the last year ICE has been putting more emphasis on ‘serving society’ – but Sarah asks us ‘Who do engineers actually serve?’. This is clearly very close to the ethics questions just examined, but Sarah’s approach is to get engineering students engaging with the people most directly affected by engineering decisions – often the least powerful in society. See They tend to work more with informal groups rather than organisations – this is more direct, and ‘unfiltered’ (my choice of word). Engineers must think through what they have to offer, and what they are being asked to do. Who is actually making the decisions? Whose voices are being heard? It’s important to understand the role of politics in engineering – social, ecological and political issues are central. There is no such thing as a purely technical decision. We must think about power structures, engineering as service, responsibility to sustainability and to democracy. Engineers must realise the values that underlie decisions. When I was at Bath we ran a series of interdisciplinary design projects in an area of East London. Most students relished the engagement in real issues, but a minority just wanted to do sums – could this have been a consequence of how engineering had been presented to them at school? If so, why were they still like this in third year? I’d argue that engagement with ethics, sustainability, and society needs to start in first year. What do you think?

Workshop: Testing the threshold – Tim Ibell, University of Bath

The key idea of this workshop was that exams are good for testing basic knowledge, but not for assessing engineering ability. Yet exams still dominate assessments, and their results dominate degree classifications. Ideally, a degree classification would reflect engineering ability; most students have already shown that they are good at passing exams in order to get to university. All too often, the knowledge they gain to do so doesn’t stick. So Tim asked us – should a first class graduate be a first class engineer. Well the answer is ‘Yes’! But if that first class degree is a consequence of being very good at exams, they might in fact be a very poor engineer. This is a very fundamental problem, that we need to address. The legacy of a good education is knowing that asking the right question is far, far more important than being able to answer a question. If the question isn’t the right one, the resulting is more likely to lead to harm than good. Tim showed us a plot to argue that the first two hours, then the first two days, have far, far more influence on the success of a project than all the detailed calculations and sizing. This is not to say that the latter are unimportant, but that the processes are well-defined and regulated. If you don’t get the first two days right, you will probably be doing the wrong thing; if you don’t get the first two hours right, you will have no chance of discovering what the right thing will be, because you won’t be asking the right questions. A university is not a place to (just) learn about engineering. A university is a place to learn how to be an engineer. So how might we relegate exams to be an ‘efficient, systematic approach to check basic understanding’, and elevate design projects so that ‘a university is a place to learn how to be an engineer’? So the questions examined in the workshop were:

1) Is it feasible to reconfigure degree classification processes to ensure that the outcome is based on engineering design ability?

2) If so, to what extent do you think we should go in relegating exams to a threshold check?

3) Should exam results still count towards degree outcomes?

4) How might JBM help to lead such a cultural change?

5) Would the job of an academic change? Positively or negatively?

6) Are there any industry-related unintended consequences of elevating design ability and relegating exam ability?

These questions were discussed in groups. I don’t have a summary of the findings available, and in any case, I would prefer to throw these questions out to you, the reader, and I invite you to comment or answer here.

Introducing sustainability and ethics to first year students – Roger Venables

Roger urged us not to ‘add on’ or ’embed’ sustainability, but to start with sustainability – then civil engineering meets the needs. Sustainability then provides the proper foundation for learning civil engineering, which is a service to society. Roger referred to the ‘triple bottom line’ of social, environmental, and economic performance, and recommended the ‘Five Capitals’ mode of Forum for the Future ( Roger makes use of CEEQUAL ( ), though you might want to use version 5 (, which includes the question ‘is it the right thing to do?’. This may have been dropped as it is not so easily incorporated into a scoring system. It’s also worth looking at Climate Northern Ireland (, where there are some good resources. I believe that if we follow the kind of approach that Roger advocates, then we will engage and motivate students and help them on a pat to becoming good engineers.

Maths Inspiration – Rob Eastaway

See This is certainly also ‘engineering inspiration’, but packaged in a way that means that schools will buy into it, and teachers and students will spend the time and money required to attend the events. One of my former colleagues does a lot of work with this organisation, it’s hugely worthwhile – and ought to be getting more support from the engineering profession, whether companies or institutions. Some people might suggest that this is ‘maths as entertainment’ – as if it cannot be the real thing if it isn’t boring and difficult! If you would like to get a sense of just how good this is for engineers, take a look at Rob gave us a bit of a taster with some snap-thinking questions that showed that very few of us were good at making quick mathematical assessments. This suggests strongly that we’re not able to teach students to make the mathematical judgements or rule-of-thumb assessments that are critical in the early stages of a project, so I suggest that we have a lot to learn from this ourselves. And of course, the work of Maths Inspiration can do a great deal to support the recruitment and motivation of students to become excellent engineers.

The Coventry Simulation Centre – Janet Campbell

Janet told us about the Centre in which the conference was held (see There’s too much for me to write about here, and you might think that no-one else has these facilities, so what’s the interest? Actually, there is inspiring work being done here. The level of thinking that has gone into getting the most out of this was very impressive, and certainly gave me ideas about how things might be changed. For example, when we run design projects we tend to assess the work that has been done over the course of a project, but what we’re really interested in (or should be!) is what the students have learned about how to do projects like these. I’ve lost count of the number of times that students have said to me ‘I wish I’d known at the start what I do now’. Of course, I had told them at the start, but it only registered as they went through the experience. But it would be nice to have had the chance to set up a quick ‘first stages’ exercise at the end to get evidence of what they’d learned. There were so many good and inspiring things about this, but as with our students, you learn by engaging with it – there aren’t short cuts. This is why we had a taster session in the conference. I cannot give you what you have missed.

That’s the end of what I want to report about this conference. A big thanks to Neil Tsang for setting it all up. I think everyone who came got a lot out of it, and I think everyone enjoyed it. I’m looking forward to next year – I think this will be announced on the ACED web site soon ( ).

Thanks for reading this page, I hope it’s been useful and interesting for you. Please share the link with colleagues, and please comment! You can contact me at Paul at mccombies co uk. I will approve most comments made on this site immediately, but I also welcome guest contributions – please email me to discuss ideas.

4 thoughts on “The 2019 ACED Conference, 7-8 November, Coventry University

  1. Thank you, Paul!
    What a fabulous initiative to do this. We have been trying to launch a Community of Practice for anyone and everyone with an interest in education of civil/structural engineers, and I sincerely feel that you’ve just cracked how it should be done. I sincerely hope we all use this Blog in this way.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Paul, just seen this now via WordPress and would like to connect it to my site and blogs. Currently looking at my 10 favourite structures from my book ‘Building Passions’, but also scoping a PhD on comparative architecture and engineering 1885 to 1915 in Chicago, London and Riga. As you note, building standards have impacted on responses to community built environment demand, for good and for bad. Hoping to learn some historical lessons linked to this theme and demonstrated through outstanding architectural styles such as the early Chicago School and Art Nouveau.


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