Engineering’s green dream must get real

The Sasol Solar Challenge Race brings students together in multidisciplinary teams to foster research in alternative energy and fuels, and prepare them for industry practice. (Kevin Sutherland/Gallo)

The Sasol Solar Challenge Race brings students together in multidisciplinary teams to foster research in alternative energy and fuels, and prepare them for industry practice. (Kevin Sutherland/Gallo)

South Africa is well positioned to become a world leader in alternative energy applications and innovation. In order to realise this potential, energy innovation must be promoted through technology development, technical education and commercialisation.

But, unless we develop a pipeline that supplies the necessary skills base to support the government’s New Growth Path and the National Development Plan, the ideals of a sustainable green economy will not be realised.

To develop this pipeline, national engagement with schools, universities and industry is required to address critical skills shortages in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem).
There has to be a national drive for quality education in the Stem disciplines.

In higher education, the preparedness of students entering tertiary education frequently raises concerns. It is generally agreed that our teaching and learning environment has changed.

Overwhelming change
In the past, students may have had the ability to cope with higher education and succeed; now the low success rates at South African universities suggest that this is no longer the case. We are teaching and learning in times of overwhelming change – changes in the way we know, changes in the way we teach and changes in what is expected of us as educators and learners.

This is no less true in engineering education. Engineering educators are faced, on the one hand, with changing student demographics, changing student attributes, a shift in student preparedness and an ever-changing engineering practice, and, on the other, with urgent calls for increased success rates.

Responding to the requirements of the profession and the call for sustainable green technology, engineering educators have to incorporate an increasing body of knowledge and promote the development of skills and attitudes without ­overburdening the curriculum.

Changes in social climates, combined with the diverse requirements of industry, drive an ongoing need to optimise ­engineering education programmes.

New opportunities
As with most challenges, this new environment presents new opportunities, driving innovation and a call for change.

We have to rethink and reinvent the way we teach to ensure sustainable, efficient education programmes that can feed the pipeline of engineers and technically skilled people for the green economy.

Engaging with the industry on sustainable technology solutions, students and researchers transfer skills and knowledge to the faculty and industry partners through exchange of experiences, resulting in industry-ready graduates entering the job market with a unique skills base for developing the green economy.

Students have to be seen as a resource that needs practical real-life problems to train them and simultaneously generate and implement real-life solutions.

Innovative programmes should be implemented to promote engineering and energy innovation among schools, students, researchers and the industry.

Sustainable future
These programmes should function as a teaching tool developing young engineers, technicians and technologists and serve as a research platform promoting innovative and sustainable energy solutions. Only then will we create an enabling and mutually beneficial environment in which industry can interact with universities to develop a pipeline to drive a sustainable future.

The University of Johannesburg’s Solar Team is working on Ilanga II, a solar-powered prototype vehicle that will compete in the 2014 Sasol Solar Challenge. The project is run by students from start to finish, and designed to help them to become industry-ready by working with multidisciplinary teams and partnered interests.

The team’s fundraising drives, together with academic and administrative support partners from the university and its Resolution Circle (a specialised technology research and development centre where academia and industry converge), have already led to 25 industry partners putting their weight behind the team’s green technology drive.

The 2014 Sasol Solar Challenge competition is used as a platform to foster research in alternative energy and fuels, to develop local expertise and encourage industry participation and community engagement on environmental issues.

Nickey Janse van Rensburg is programme manager of the University of Johannesburg Energy Movement and a lecturer in the university’s mechanical engineering science department

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