Engineering the future: inspiring and educating the next generation of problem-solvers

  • By Liz Swanton

Elizabeth Croft says Australia and its resources sector face a potential crisis in future development if we don’t start more young people on the path to engineering

Talk to Elizabeth Croft for just five minutes and you will be left in no doubt: she is passionate.

Born and bred in Vancouver, Elizabeth took over as Dean of Engineering at Melbourne’s Monash University in January 2018. She’s passionate about her profession, her new job and her new city – and she’s equally passionate about the futures of the young people she teaches, the future of her new country and the future of its mining and resources sector.

Animated and eloquent, Elizabeth has the ‘cred’ to talk about all these issues. It’s hard to argue with a CV that includes a PhD in Mechanical Engineering, a Master of Applied Science and international recognition as an expert in human robotic interaction. There have been numerous high-level university postings in these fields – and numerous awards for her contribution to education and research.

In the modern resources sector, engineers work in a variety of roles across the mining and METS sectors to improve productivity, safety and sustainability. Speaking at AusIMM’s Thought Leadership Series in April 2018 about the role of professionals in the future of the mining industry, Elizabeth said that AusIMM ‘is a place where you’re bringing people together’ to solve problems.

And in 2018, Monash and AusIMM have partnered together with one key aim: to better meet the growing need for young, talented engineers.

Elizabeth Croft at the AusIMM Thought Leadership Series in Melbourne, April 2018.

Securing the talent pipeline

It’s not surprising to learn that Elizabeth is a fervent proponent for the need to educate more engineers and to ‘get them young’, especially women. She firmly believes if the mining and resources sector wants good people to help build its future, the captains of those industries need to speak up.

In December 2017, the federal government announced a plan to cap the number of Commonwealth Supported Places (CSPs) on offer in Australian universities. From 2012 up until the end of 2017, the number of CSPs on offer was demand-driven, effectively allowing universities to enrol as many students as possible.

Elizabeth says sector leaders regularly ask her where their future talent is coming from. Her answer? She can only train the students she is allowed to take. Her concern is not just about today’s flat-lining numbers, but also that tightening quotas will stop young people applying in the future.

She believes politicians understand that approximately seven per cent of Australia’s GDP, or $226 million, is produced by the resource sector, so perhaps it’s time the sector tells the politicians what it wants.

‘We need to have the right people. Capping places is effectively cutting places. The government has said “you can have as many dollars to support students as you had in 2017”. We’re now going into 2019 and costs have gone up, so every year it’s effectively a CPI cut in the number of domestic engineers we can produce. It’s incredibly short-sighted.’

Further to the issue of capped places, which is likely to hurt the overall growth of the production-based sectors of the economy, the mining industry faces a specific problem of attracting engineers with technical knowledge relevant to mining operations, systems and processes and a growing demand for expertise in areas like automation, robotics and machine learning.

This is at a time when demand from the infrastructure, defence and energy sectors for engineers is growing rapidly and the tech startup economy is taking off. Getting students excited about the possibilities in the resources sector, and indeed engineering in general, is crucial for reversing the trend.

Elizabeth asserts that keeping students engaged through their education is also critical.

‘We are partnering up with companies across the sector to offer a cooperative education program where engineering undergraduates can access multiple paid engineering work experiences from three to 12 months in length during their degree. For our students, this is a fantastic opportunity to learn about different industries and companies; for companies this is an opportunity to work with graduates before potentially employing them’.

Increasing the participation of women

If the general numbers are smaller, the number of women is even more so. Elizabeth believes we need to get the messaging happening early, ideally at primary school level. In cases where girls and boys have the same level of education, there simply aren’t as many women choosing to go into engineering, robbing the sector of access to this pool of talented bright young people.

Elizabeth says it is particularly important to get the message across early to girls because their views about the desirability of potential future careers are typically set before they turn 12. Inspiring them about the creativity of engineering needs to be introduced long before that.

‘Women do not come to your party unless you invite them. You have to start early, before grade six, when peer pressure starts to kick in and kids are pushed away from seeing themselves as highly capable, creative, technical designers and problem solvers.

‘We, as education leaders, want to talk to the teachers and we want to talk to the dads. Daughters are influenced by what dads tell them about what they can and can’t do. It is so important for these key influencers to let them know they can be successful in maths and physical sciences and that they can use those skills in creative ways to benefit our people, our environment and our economy.’

Elizabeth has described engineering as the new ‘liberal arts’ of the technological age, bringing together maths, physical sciences and design processes to solve challenges and create innovations – which is why she is urging an immediate re-think on introducing children to the concept.

‘If we wait until grade 11 or 12, we have missed the boat.’

Destined to be an engineer

Elizabeth’s own introduction to engineering was a two-part affair that began when she was a child. There were the years of ‘doing’, when she didn’t realise she was engineering, and then the years of ‘discovery’ once she learned what the possibilities were.

‘I spent lots of time on my grandparents’ farm. There was stuff everywhere: trucks, cars, farm equipment, and a big shed full of all sorts of bits and pieces. You could just play with anything or go out there and make anything you wanted.

‘And in the summer I liked to hang around with my dad when he was working on the boat motors, dock, and other projects. I had older brothers and I always felt like I was the third brother. I was interested in the physical world, the maker world. The freedom and encouragement I had to mess around with stuff is probably why I am interested in design and build, and why I feel comfortable in that space.’

Given all those creative opportunities, it is surprising Elizabeth didn’t foresee her career as an engineer. Her parents were doctors and she thought she would be too.

‘In high school, I helped at their surgery at weekends, everything from helping look after appointments and patient visits to preparing urine and blood samples – although I was more interested in repairing the centrifuge or the autoclave and my parents encouraged this. I enjoyed taking things apart, and sorting out how they worked.’

Then one day, when she was in early high school, a family friend changed her life by giving her a set of drawings of the Boeing 767. Phil Hill was a Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of British Columbia, specialising in thermodynamics and combustion. He was also involved in working on the engines for the plane.

‘When he explained what his work involved, that was the end of medicine. It was like “keep your blood tests. I’m going for this job, where I can design and build things and that can have a big impact”.’

Engineering and mining – a ticket to see the world

Elizabeth’s own career has involved a number of relocations and not everyone embraces that type of lifestyle. However, Elizabeth suggests people considering work in the mining and resources sector should embrace its cyclical and global nature and take advantage of the opportunities it can provide, especially if they are new to the industry.

‘There is so much opportunity. It is a fantastic opportunity to travel, and I think getting experiences in other countries’ resources industries is amazing. Australia’s mining and resources professionals are respected worldwide, especially for their safety and productivity, so I always encourage people to take the opportunities and get experience in other countries.’

Elizabeth also advises looking outside the box for vocational experience. She believes resources professionals need to understand that any project is about the people, the community, the whole cycle,
and they should try to learn about all parts of the business, because it makes them more effective in all future roles.

Shared experiences in Australia and Canada

Taking a ‘whole of business’ approach is advice Elizabeth gave to her students in Canada, and she sees no reason to change her tune for her Australian pupils. There are great similarities between the two countries, with both being built on the back of world-renowned resource endowments, and she believes Australia’s industry can take lessons from her homeland.

‘One thing that is really good in the Canadian resources sector is the strong push for diversity. They have done a lot of work in terms of increasing the number of women and First Nations People working in mining and its partnership activities.

‘I come from British Columbia, which is mostly unceded territory with very few [land claim] treaties. That means for every project there needs to be negotiations with the owners of the land.

‘We don’t have that same level of understanding in Australia, and I think to go forward together, conversations, negotiations and real partnerships need to happen. We are getting there, but the sooner we do, the better.’

Photo courtesy CARIS Lab.

Improving mining’s sustainability record

Elizabeth also believes the industry needs to have a better understanding – and education programs – about what sustainable development in mining means, ‘not only from the whole-of-life cycle of mines, from the exploration, development, and gathering of revenue, but also the ending of the life cycle of the mine and what that looks like.

‘How do the traditional owners of that land interact with that mine? What is the benefit for their community? Our time here is just a blink of an eye but in the community time scale, they will deal with these impacts for a long time, so they must be part of the conversation – and part of the opportunities available. Mining accrues incredible value for Australia, and it is incumbent on us to make sure everybody benefits.’

Elizabeth says many companies are already on the front foot, mentioning the vision of companies like Fortescue, Rio Tinto, BHP and Woodside, but she believes more can be done.

The other problem for the sector to get its head around, she says, is how to transition to a low carbon future. She believes it is a fantastic opportunity for universities and the sector to work together to create a more sustainable future.

‘The mining and mineral processing sector is one of the largest consumers of power. We have to sensibly look at every solution that can possibly be used to lower our carbon production. All of us have a part to play, and the resource sector is a very big player.’

Learning from other industries

As part of this future thinking, she is keen for engineers – and other resources professionals – to take a closer look at what works in other industries, to see if that cross-over of technology can be adapted to create solutions for the challenges in mining.

For example, using processing technology from the water and waste treatment industries to develop new ways of treating and storing tailings. Or examining e-waste and using mining technology to extract the valuable substances available, possibly using ‘just-in-time’ technology from the car industry for greater efficiency in cost and logistics.

At the heart of all of this future planning, this solving of challenges, she says, is a very special group of people – the professionals.

‘This is our job,’ she laughs.

‘Our job is to look at sustainable and economically viable solutions, and when I say that, I mean long-term economically viable. There’s no point creating short-term wealth for a long-term pain. We have to think about the resource and energy needs for generations.

‘Our role as professionals is for the betterment of society and the protection and safety of the public. That is what we do. The public depends on engineers, and other professionals, to develop sustainable, technological solutions for a modern world.’

 

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