Research sets out to reconstruct the identity of engineering

22 July 2002
INDUSTRY response to the changing demographics of UCT's engineering student body can impact on students, says new research.

Earlier this year, Education Development Officers Jenni Case and Jeff Jawitz in the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment presented some of the findings of their research, which concentrated on the vacation work experiences of UCT engineering students. Their research examines how the response of the engineering industry to diverse employee demography impacts on students' experiences in the workplace.

"From past experience many people in industry anticipate that engineers will be white males but instead there is now a very diverse group in terms of race and gender. People are quite surprised by this change and how they respond affects the students," said Jawitz.

"Part of the research has also been to help our colleagues reflect on our curriculum and our role in working with students.

"At the moment we have a curriculum that forces students to spend six weeks at a company whether they want to or not, whether the company wants them there or not, just so they are eligible to graduate," explained Jawitz.

Their research indicates that in some instances vac work is destructive and can impact severely on students, while in other instances it is a tremendously empowering experience.

The pair conducted their research in the civil and chemical engineering departments, using a combination of focus groups and individual interviews, conducted by Nazeema Ahmed, a clinical psychologist working on the project.

"We chose those departments because, firstly, there is a lot of diversity in terms of race and gender, which is what we were looking for, and vac work is a compulsory component of the curriculum for final year engineering students," said Case.

According to Case, their research has attracted some interest from various people in industry who want to understand what students' needs are.

"It costs a lot when a company loses a student they have invested in and often a student can leave because of a negative vac work experience," Case added.

"We wanted to inject a research component into the discussion around women in engineering in South Africa. Particularly because there is very little of that and there needs to be more of it if we will ever understand the situation properly," said Jawitz.

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