Redesigning engineering education

In this second part of a series on design innovation, ST senior education correspondent Sandra Davie talks to British inventor and entrepreneur James Dyson

Mr James Dyson started the Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology four years ago to address a lack of engineers.
Mr James Dyson started the Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology four years ago to address a lack of engineers.PHOTO: DYSON

Look at it as an engineering problem. The field is essential but the degree is expensive. Plus, engineering has an image problem and there is a global shortage of its talents around the world.

So how do you solve this problem?

Start your own university, like British inventor and entrepreneur James Dyson did four years ago with the Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology.

The school on the site of Dyson's design centre in Malmesbury, Wiltshire, in the United Kingdom, was originally intended to offer degrees validated by the University of Warwick.

Last year, it became the first independent higher education institution to be granted degree-awarding powers by the British government. It gets more than 14 applicants for each place and does not charge tuition fees.

Mr Dyson, 73, said the idea of launching the university came after he visited the government to "moan about the lack of engineers".

Speaking to The Straits Times, the man who is estimated to have spent more than £30 million (S$55.7 million) on the institute and its campus talks about his ambition to reinvent engineering education.

Q Manufacturing is your core business, not education. So what spurred you to start your own institution to train engineers?

A It was with a small group of recent graduates that I designed and developed the Cyclonic vacuum cleaner prior to its launch in 1993.

So, right from the beginning, young people - recent graduates - have been a driving force at Dyson. As a result, we have a very young corpus and almost a university campus feel.

When I challenged the UK minister responsible for university education to create more engineers, to overcome the shortage in the UK, he told me to start a university.

Oddly, it felt like the natural thing to do, so it didn't take long for me to say yes. Just about a year later we welcomed our first undergraduate engineers to our campus in the UK.

Q So how is the Dyson Institute different?

A Technology is developing at such speed that academic study benefits from immediate practical application. Dyson undergraduates, while studying for their degree, are also working on real-world Dyson technologies.

They do this alongside some of the best engineers and scientists in the world at Dyson. But then I would say that, wouldn't I?

But seriously, we have a culture that encourages experimentation and learning through failure. It is hard work and not for the faint-hearted, but I believe we are creating some of the best engineers in the world.

I am also genuinely appalled by the extraordinary debts that UK undergraduates incur - the average undergraduate today leaves with over £50,000 worth of loans, which takes years to pay off - if they ever manage it.

We therefore don't charge fees, and pay a salary from day one. The undergraduates are not tied or "bonded" to Dyson, but we all hope that they will stay with us for a long time.

Q Around the world, universities find it hard to draw the best and brightest into engineering. Does engineering have an image problem?

A It depends where you look. My experience is that Singapore holds manufacturing, engineering and science in very high regard, and it is a brilliant place to base a high-technology company for that reason. Indeed, it is part of the reason Dyson's head office is in Singapore.

Unfortunately, that attitude is not universal. Manufacturing is often considered to be a dirty industry and engineering more about fixing broken machines than creatively solving problems.

When I was young, I was told if I didn't work hard I would end up working in a factory. Well, as it happens I found that to be a very exciting prospect, and I've had a very fulfilling life.

I think engineering is perceived to be hard work and difficult. I suppose they are right in some ways, but for me that is part of the appeal. It's an incredibly rewarding way to spend one's life - using your hands and your brain to develop solutions to very large problems.

Q You have been insistent that design and engineering should not be taught as separate fields, but together.

A I studied at the Royal College of Art in London and it was there that I realised that art and science, inventing and making, could be one and the same thing.

Good design is not about blindly following what has gone before, it is about forging your own path, being brave, embracing failure, solving problems and creating something new. It is about pioneering. It is certainly not about how a product looks, it is about radically improving upon how it works and the performance that it achieves. This requires the interaction of science, technology and design - so, yes, it can't be separated.

Q The other thing you have always stressed is on nurturing engineers to be risk-takers and to embrace failure. How do we do that?

A Engineers naturally want to solve problems; the problem is that society often discourages failure.

Education systems normally applaud the person who gets the answer right, rather than the person who found a different or creative solution. I think this is a mistake.

Failure is a very important enabler to progress, it is important to experiment and fail along the way. Indeed, my life has been a story of moving from one failure to the next - learning from each one and solving the problems confronted...

I'm far more interested in how to do things differently than getting it right the first time. And this requires a bit of naivety and a mindset that embraces the unknown.

We tend to admire and aspire to academic brilliance. That is what our teachers tell us to aim for and it tends to be what our parents want from us, but it is just not how real life works.

Q Do you think university education, especially in engineering, needs an overhaul?

A Engineers hold the key to solving many of the world's problems and so we should encourage as many young people as possible to take up engineering and the sciences.

South Korea, Singapore and other ambitious countries around the globe understand and celebrate the immense value-creating ability of engineers.

I think it's important to continually evolve how subjects are taught. As technology progresses at such pace, learning by rote will not be sufficient. Rather, we need to teach a way of thinking, of tackling problems, and finding solutions. I'd also advocate greater collaboration between industry and academia, which I know is something that your Education Minister Lawrence Wong recently highlighted as being important.

Q Can you tell us more about the upcoming St James Power Station campus?

A Dyson's engineers and scientists are focused on developing new and inventive products that change the way things are done in a fundamental and radical way. I believe this can be done only by bright minds collaborating in an inspiring setting.

The spaces which we occupy are therefore important to us - from our historic Hullavington Airfield campus in the UK to all our offices around the world - we create collaborative spaces where teams can come together and bring new ideas to life.

St James Power Station will help us to do that in Singapore... This space, which has played an important role in Singapore, will provide a suitably inspiring and collaborative space for us to invent products for the future.

We look forward to moving in later this year.


About James Dyson

Mr James Dyson, 73, is the chairman and founder of Dyson, the technology company, known around the world for its dual cyclone bagless vacuum cleaners.

In the late 1970s, frustrated with his bagged vacuum cleaner that lost suction, Mr Dyson set about solving the problem and developed the cyclone technology. After thousands of prototypes, the first dual cyclone vacuum cleaner was launched in 1993.

Today, as chief engineer, Mr Dyson works alongside his engineers and scientists in developing products which solve problems ignored by others through investment in science and technology.

The James Dyson Foundation inspires the next generation of engineers through its work in schools and universities.

It does this with scholarships, engineering workshops, university partnerships and the annual James Dyson Award, an international student design competition.

In 2017, he established The Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology. The undergraduate engineers pay zero tuition fees and earn a full salary. In addition to their degree studies, they work on real-life projects alongside world experts in Dyson's global engineering, research and technology teams.

Mr Dyson was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2015, and in the 2016 New Year Honours was appointed to the Order of Merit. He was awarded a CBE in 1996 and a Knight Bachelor in 2007.

Mr Dyson spent one year at the Byam Shaw School of Art (now part of Central Saint Martin's College of Art and Design) before reading furniture and interior design at the Royal College of Art. It was while attending the Royal College of Art that he made the switch to industrial design.


Register for Design Innovation Forum

To listen to more of Mr James Dyson's views, you can register to attend the virtual Design Innovation Forum by the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) in partnership with The Straits Times.

Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran, architect Brian Yang and SUTD president Chong Tow Chong will also speak.

Registration is free.

SUTD Design Innovation Forum

March 19, 2.30pm to 4pm

Speakers:

• Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran

• Sir James Dyson, chairman and founder of Dyson

• Mr Brian Yang, partner at architectural firm Bjarke Ingels Group

• Professor Chong Tow Chong, president of SUTD

Moderator:

• Mr Mark Wee, executive director of DesignSingapore

To register, go to str.sg/SUTDForum