Think Up facilitate Day 1 at the Royal Academy’s Visiting Professors’ conference

The Think Up team recently attended the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Visiting Professor’s Conference to facilitate two workshops around the theme of “Innovation in engineering teaching”.

Instead of sharing our slides (which usually contain far less than what we say), we are providing this write-up of our activities, which provides a fuller account.

Session One – Introduction, ice-breaker and data gathering

The first session was intended to be an ice-breaker. The twenty-five or so participants, representatives from universities around the world and from the Academy’s International Team, were arranged around three cabaret tables. We asked them all to spend a few moments introducing themselves, to say where they were from, to say what they teach and to describe what they hoped to get out of the day.

We then introduced Think Up by mentioning the following strands to our work:

Experiential learning, including: the Big Rig, Big Rig Nuclear, Build Camp and Constructionarium initiatives
Development of e-learning resources, including: Student Studio (developed with RAE support), Engineering Mastermind, Expedition Workshed and Make A Scape.
Design teaching, including: Creative Design teaching at Imperial College, London; Conceptual Design Thinking; and our RAE-funded research into domain-specific approaches to design.
Good practice guides: Experience-led learning for engineers, Development of e-learning resources for engineers; and Effective industrial engagement in engineering education.
To get people actively engaging with one-another, we then ran the ‘Marshmallow Challenge’. Details for how to run this exercise are given in this TED talk. We like to run this exercise because it offers interesting insights into the benefits of iterative design, and the analysis of typical results provided by the TED talk is an interesting talking point.

We used the second half of the workshop to gather data that would inform the design session that we planned to run in the afternoon. We provided all participants with a set of blank pink and yellow cards. We asked participants to write down on the pink cards challenges they face in their engineering teaching, and to use the yellow cards to write down any new practices or techniques with which they have been experimenting; one point per card.

As the participants filled-out their cards, we pinned them on the wall, and concluded the session by looking for common themes.


  • Insufficient women in engineering
  • Poor student participation/engagement
  • Is assessment a bar to learning?
  • Constraints on the curriculum
  • Difficulty accessing ‘real life’ projects/problems
  • Difficulty accessing the latest technology, equipment and resources
  • Difficulty establishing links with industry
  • Fostering a problem-solving outlook in students
  • Overuse of traditional teaching methods
  • Under-qualified teaching staff


  • Project and/or Problem-based learning
  • See real engineering in practice e.g civil engineering sites, manufacturing processes
  • Promote systems engineering/thinking
  • E-learning tools
  • Interactive lectures, e.g. using polls to get instant students feedback and to test understanding
  • Teach practical skills for industry, e.g. project management and team work
  • Help students to learn whilst on industry placements, e.g. using a VLE
  • Use of blended learning
  • Encourage discussion of ethical issues
  • Multi-disciplinary problem-solving.

Session Two – Innovative engineering education

The aim of this second session was to give participants an opportunity to reflect on how they could adopt innovative approaches in engineering education to overcome challenges they face in their teaching.

Do we need innovation in engineering education?

We began the session by asking if there was any need to be innovative in our delivery of engineering education.

We made the following points:

  • We face challenges on a global scale that the engineers of tomorrow will have to address – we referred to the list of Global Grand Challenges
  • Industry says it wants graduates who are ready to apply theory in practice, which requires students to develop industry-related skills, such as:
    • thinking critically
    • Working across cultures and contexts
    • Being creative
    • Being innovative
    • Problem solving
    • Using IT to interrelate and communicate
    • Managing oneself
    • Working in teams
    • Understanding business and customer needs
  • In delivering these industry skills, educators are faced with the following challenges:
    • the difficulty of teaching what are, for many, tacit skills
    • the difficulty of teaching social skills
    • the difficulty of teaching students to apply judgement based on broad, partial and subjective evidence
  • Learner needs are changing ‘…our digital immigrant instructors, who speak an outdated language (that of a pre-digital age), are struggling to teach a population that speaks an entirely new language’  – cited from our report, Developing e-learning resources for engineers.
  • We call it ‘e-learning’, our students just call it ‘learning’

In the context of the global challenges identified, the teaching challenges and changing learners, we need to innovate in order to make sure our education system is fit for purpose.

Using design thinking

Right from the beginning, teaching design has been a key thread in Think Up’s work. Since 1999 we have been evolving techniques for teaching design We have also found that using ‘design thinking’ techniques is a particularly effective way to facilitate large group conversations.

During our workshop, we used design thinking to facilitate a conversation in the room about how innovative teaching techniques can be used to overcome the current engineering teaching challenges.

We showed the design process diagram (below) that we commonly use in our teaching, and explained that today we would be focusing on idea generation, modelling and testing.





Idea generation

The aim of this part of the workshop was to generate ideas for innovative uses of engineering teaching approaches. We gave participants the following starting brief:

“Use innovative teaching approaches to overcome today’s engineering teaching challenges”

We then introduced one of the models that we use at Think Up to explain idea generation:

New ideas are an experience in the mind, triggered by a combination of the information we already hold in our heads, and the external stimuli we apply.

We explain that, in this case, the information in the mind is the sum of all experience to date. To provide the stimuli required, we created a series of stimulus cards. Participants were given two decks of stimulus cards. The first deck we referred to as Challenge Cards. There were ten of them, on each we had written one of the challenges from the first workshop. The second deck we called the Technique Cards. Again, there were ten, on each we had written one of the innovative engineering teaching techniques that had emerged from the first session.

The session ran as follows:

  • Participants worked in groups of four.
  • Each group was given a deck of Challenge Cards and a deck of Technique Cards.
  • They were asked to take a Challenge Card and a Technique Card and use the combination of the two to stimulate ideas.
  • We encouraged participants to think fast, writing down as many ideas as they could in five minutes on a piece of paper in front of them.
  • Every five minutes we asked the participants to pick-up a new pair of cards to work with.
  • After half-an-hour or so, we asked the participants to pick three ideas that they felt were their favourites, and to write them each down on a blank card.

This session was inspired by a workshop we attended at the Electromagnetic Field festival led by Richard Sewell and Dr Lucy Rogers.

At their workshop, they used a series of pre-prepared cards to stimulate idea generation for tech projects (they used three decks of cards: a need; a technique or technology; and a location). This in itself we believe was inspired by Brian Eno’s invention cards. The innovation we added this time was to use the outputs from previous discussions to create the content of the cards, which, while labour-intensive to produce between the two sessions, led to good conversations about topics that mattered to the participants).

Modelling and testing

The aim of this next part was for participants to use an iterative test and adapt process to enhance the quality of their ideas. I mentioned that over the last two years of design teaching this step has often been the most illuminating for participants – it shows how the modelling and testing process can lead  to a significantly better idea.

To help, we provided participants with three tests that their ideas had to pass. We call these criteria ‘rules for successful evolution in complex adaptive systems’, as set out a few years ago by our colleague Ed McCann (they have proved to be a very effective facilitation technique ever since). The rules are:

  • Mutations must be replicable
  • Mutations must result in some short-term benefit
  • Mutations must not consume all available resources

Over a half-hour period we asked participants to take each of their ideas in turn and to ask if the idea passed all of these tests. If it didn’t, they had to propose modifications to their idea so that it would pass the test.


We ended our Ideas Generation session by asking delegates to present their ideas.

These included:

  • Development of e-learning courses for those parts of the curriculum where current teaching staff are under-qualified
  • Development of alternative assessment methods that foster a “deep learning” approach

Launch of three Royal Academy of Engineering/Think Up reports

To conclude the day, we gave delegates a brief introduction to our three RAE-funded reports being launched at the conference:

Experience-led learning for engineers

Our key conclusions are that:

  • Industry wants graduates who can apply theory in practice
  • To do so, they need ‘skills for industry’
  • We identify three challenges to teaching these:
    • The tacit nature of industry skills
    • The social nature of industry skills
    • Use of judgement

Developing e-learning for engineers

We offer guidance for commissioners, designers and operators of e-learning tools.

Our key conclusions are that:

  • Vast volumes of e-learning tools are available for engineers
  • One generation designing for the next represents a challenge

Effective industrial engagement in engineering education

This report provides guidance for: Universities, Companies, and Professional Engineering Institutions.

Our key conclusions are that:

  • We need industrial engagement to help ensure our graduates are ready for industry
  • There are challenges to ensuring engagement is effective and sustained