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Student Essay competition 2006 - Winning Entry by
Catherine Johnson, 2nd year undergraduate at University of Liverpool

This question takes me back to a hot day in Kerala, a south-Indian state. I am seated in a classroom with about 50 other students around me and the teacher in front of us is teaching us Laplace transforms, a maths topic. As she continues to write formula after formula in complete anticipation that we will remember these lovely lines of literally Greek letters and numbers, I begin to question this method of teaching.

It is true that some of the brains that are used in huge industries such as NASA, Nokia etc are Indians, but when I look at myself and my classmates I see us memorising things we do not understand. Even simple laws that govern physics, which seem logical to simply think through when required need to be memorised. Surely, this is not the way things are taught in IIT, one of the best universities in India, and other centres around the world?

That was when I thought to myself, I had to do the course I have always dreamed of doing, but I had to be able to discover it for myself. I wanted to go and be taught to learn and discover . A place where everything is explained in the order they were discovered or invented, with reasoning behind every assumption or law. Somewhere where people realise that understanding is much more important and more permanent than memorising and remembering. Somewhere where I could go away with what I have learnt and be able to use it straight away; where I would be able to build on what I have learnt and take it as far as I please and more. A place where making a mistake isn’t wrong - because you are still learning . That was where I wanted to pursue my long-lived dream course – Aerospace Engineering with Materials.

My thoughts were cut short abruptly by my friend nudging me with her elbow, and when I looked around the teacher was looking at me expectantly and all eyes were fixed on me. “Well, do you know the answer?” she asked. I’ll leave the story there for your own imaginative endings.

So, I came away knowing one thing. I needed to find this place – this education centre and the course had to be as short as possible to save time and money. I searched and found the perfect place – the UK. Although it was quite an expensive course for an international student, it would take me 4 years to get my Masters degree and I could get a scholarship, if not, a sponsor.

To cut a long story short, I applied to the University of Liverpool among other places and finally obtained sponsorship. Soon September 2004 came and I was in the place I had dreamed of – the perfect educational centre. I was very excited to be here.

In my first few weeks I was very happy to be learning everything just as I had thought it would be. It opened up a whole new world. The teaching method was fantastic. All we were given was the basic understanding of the subject. We then built on it, knowing exactly why and how we would apply what we learnt later. The labs we did were very much related to what we were learning. It put concepts we had learnt in lectures into practice almost immediately. There were optional lessons and programs that you could take to enhance your learning. In the second year itself, we were introduced to actual designing of an aircraft, which required us to combine everything we had learnt and put it all together and use it.

The use of the flight simulator was something I had looked forward to from the day I first saw it in the University of Liverpool’s prospectus. It was definitely a motivating experience for me, as I had never flown a plane before.

We also had a well-rounded knowledge of key subjects such as Materials and Electronics. Our Materials modules dealt very well with today’s aerospace materials. For example, we concentrated on titanium, nickel and aluminium manufacturing and joining processes, such as rivets, which are used extensively in the aircraft industry. Our labs involved reverse engineering and testing methods for various types of failures. Video presentations of actual industrial processes were also among the variety of methods used to teach us.

Another good aspect (and one which I did not expect) was the better technology we use here. I rather naively assumed we would use the same design techniques I had used in my college earlier. There are some drawbacks to doing this, but I think the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. For example, the use of ProEngineering in the design process is very much applicable in today’s world. Prior to studying in the UK, I was expected to draw designs on a board even at engineering college. It was definitely a good skill I had gained, but at this level of professionalism more appropriate and suitable software to match the complexity of the matter must be used.

Besides all this modern technology, I knew we would also have workshop practice as we had done in college before. However, the way it was organised at university was well set out. We first had to design material components to be made with ProEngineering (ProE), and then we were taught to use various machinery to make the material components and test them. The environment certainly made you want to do the job perfectly, because firstly it was your design which you had worked on for a few weeks on ProE, and secondly there was a good competitive atmosphere to come up with the best component using a range of materials.

All these experiences I believe have the mark of a good educational centre for engineering. Not to be outdone, a whole new learning centre is being planned at the university to enhance learning further, so that the student is in complete control of his/her learning process and career.

There is something to learn everywhere you go and there is always an idea lying somewhere. What university does, is allow us to bring out, and test our ideas, learn from them and keep going from one level to the next.