"A lady never reveals her age, but to give you a clue: the year that I started university the first generation iPhone was released. By the time I took my final year exams, Smartphones and iPads were ubiquitous. When I started Sixth Form College none of these things existed in anything close to their current incarnations.
I feel that this crude example of the pace of change of technology underlines something which I have come to recognise as an important consideration when choosing an engineering degree course: ‘good’ engineering courses equip students with the required practical skills and academic knowledge in their chosen field, whereas ‘very good’ engineering courses also develop the initiative and ethos required to be able to sustain a cutting edge skill set in the future. During my time at Bristol, I found that the Engineering Design degree falls firmly into this ‘very good’ category, and here is why:
Multidisciplinary approach and soft skills
Even before I started university I felt that medical engineering was the field which I was interested in pursuing after my studies. I chose to study Engineering Design over a ‘pure’ medical engineering course for a number of reasons. Firstly a course with a multidisciplinary first year and an increasing level of specialisation in subsequent years left my options open should I change my mind, secondly I felt that having the perspective of other disciplines would be beneficial in becoming a successful medical engineer, and lastly I felt that the soft skills Engineering Design consciously seeks to develop whilst remaining technically rigorous are very important, and often overlooked in other courses.
I now work as a consultant mechanical engineer at DCA Design in Warwick, mainly on medical projects. I work alongside researchers, electronic engineers, industrial designers and many other disciplines, so the abilities which I developed at university to communicate with a multidisciplinary team of people are invaluable.
Talented colleagues and group work
I found that Engineering Design students tended to be talented, creative and full of bags of initiative. Everyone in my cohort had different areas of expertise and spending everyday working alongside such a multifaceted group of people adds another dimension of learning opportunities to the course.
The companies partnering the course are the leaders in their fields. As well as the benefit of the work placements made available to Engineering Design students, sponsoring companies also support the design projects undertaken in the final two years of the course; rather than a hypothetical academic exercise you find yourself tasked to solve a complex real world problem, for example in my final year our group project was to develop a novel system for making the Science Museum Kensington’s exhibits remotely accessible.
I secured my graduate job at DCA Design following my third year industrial placement there, after having worked at Renishaw in the summer following my first year, so like most people in my cohort I found that the quantity and quality of industrial experience afforded to students on the course was a huge bonus when it came to the business of finding a rewarding job at the end of the degree.
Open ended project briefs
There is no hand-holding on Engineering Design! Whilst the staff are helpful and supportive, for all of the design projects undertaken the briefs tend to intentionally be extremely, well, brief. It is up to the students to identify all of the true problems to be solved and how to solve them, including developing new skills rapidly. In various projects over the course of the degree I learnt about a huge variety of things outside the remit of lecture material, including microprocessor programming, intellectual property law, preparing a financial statement for a business plan and designing parts for manufacture by laser cutting and 3D printing and liaising with workshop staff to have the parts built.
Being continually thrown in at the deep end fosters a can-do attitude, and the capacity to pick up skills quickly is assisted by the fundamental understanding of all engineering disciplines developed in the early years of the course.
Life outside the lecture theatre…
Although the course is every bit as challenging as it is rewarding, there is still time to enjoy wider aspects of student life, in fact Engineering Design is well known for its students taking a very active role in this side of the university experience.
When I wasn’t wearing my ‘engineering student’ hat, I was a junior common room committee member and the bar manager at my halls of residence, the illustrator at the student newspaper, a voluntary dog walker, an active member of the hot air ballooning and art societies and also an avid climber.
Bristol is a beautiful city and every area has its own unique personality. From a church-turned-circus, to a pub with a theatre in the closet and a café resembling a hobbit hole, it is a city full of surprises that I continued to explore and discover new things in throughout my student days.
Off the back of my studies, industrial placements and extracurricular activities I was a successful applicant for the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Leadership Award in my third year. This provided me with mentorship and funding to travel extensively to visit engineering conferences, companies and exhibits. I spent my funding on a technical creativity course (which has been invaluable in my career), and also to attend a number of medical engineering conferences and exhibitions.
Life after Engineering Design…
Most technology, not just the iPhone, changes rapidly, and some of the specific information that I learnt in my first years at university is already out of date; however the abilities that I acquired when learning that information mean that I am able to pick up new skills quickly and contribute to innovative projects everyday in my job. When you couple this with the genuinely exceptional breadth of student societies and the amazing city of Bristol, I can honestly say that I loved my time as an Engineering Design student and it has prepared me well for my career, and life, in the real world!
Since graduating in 2013, I have worked on a variety of medical device projects in my role as consultant mechanical engineer at DCA Design. I am DCA’s partner representative for the Engineering Design course and have mentored a number of Engineering Design students who have taken placements at the company; using my own experiences as a student on the course to shape my support and mentorship of the students.
Sophie Sladen is now a consultant mechanical engineer at DCA Design in Warwick.