Engineering education in Ireland is currently, and quite rightly, experiencing a resurgence, as evidenced by the most recent (2019) CAO point for engineering courses across the country, writes Prof Peter McHugh.

Points are generally up across all engineering disciplines and this should give significant encouragement to the sector as to the academic abilities of the students coming through and for the future pipeline of engineers, to meet the present and future demands for engineers, both in terms of graduates and engineers with experience.

Critically important for Irish economy

This is critically important for the Irish economy and for Irish society, given the critically important role that engineers play in ensuring the high quality of manufacturing and construction of today, and through R&D and innovation, creating the technology, industries, infrastructure and services of tomorrow, all the while giving increasing emphasis to the critical importance of climate, the physical environment and the health and wellbeing of our citizens.

Biomedical engineering, my own academic discipline, is very much an integral part of this growth trajectory, in terms of CAO points and numbers of students.

For example, in my own institution of NUI Galway, CAO points for biomedical engineering (dominated entry) rose to 519 in 2019, and the number of students in the biomedical engineering programme at NUI Galway is now 28 per cent of our total undergraduate student cohort in the School of Engineering.

This very strong and sustained growth in biomedical engineering in Ireland is very interesting given that biomedical engineering is a relatively new engineering discipline, in comparison to civil, mechanical, or electrical, for example.

Growth and importance of medtech

This rapid growth and consolidation is, of course, intimately linked to the growth and importance of the medical technology (medtech) industry in Ireland (what was originally known as the medical device industry).

The enormous importance of this industry to Ireland is borne out by the statistics (for example, Ireland is one of only five global medtech hubs internationally; 38,000 people working in the sector; 450 companies; €12.6 billion in exports annually).

Biomedical engineering emerged and came to prominence from the early 1990s, internationally and in Ireland, and the term is more or less synonymous with the term bioengineering.

Internationally, biomedical engineering developed as an interdisciplinary evolution of the traditional disciplines of mechanical, materials, electrical, electronic and chemical engineering, combined with the biological sciences, materials science, and clinical practice.

In the Irish educational context biomedical engineering has emerged primarily as an evolution of mechanical engineering and electrical/electronic engineering programmes.

Currently in the CAO (2019) there are seven Level 8 programmes and two Level 7 programmes in biomedical engineering (some with common/undenominated first year entry routes) , and Engineers Ireland currently lists six chartered engineer accredited biomedical engineering programmes (CIT, DCU, NUI Galway, UCD, TCD, UL).

Perhaps the most significant development in engineering education in Ireland in recent years has been the move to the five-year master’s paradigm, allowing for the direct meeting of the educational standard for chartered engineer; at the time of writing, there are three accredited biomedical engineering masters (Level 9) programmes listed by Engineers Ireland (NUI Galway, UCD, TCD).

In my view, it is critically important that the move to the five-year master’s in engineering (be it through four plus one or five plus two routes) continues apace in Ireland so that the five-year (Level 9) master’s becomes the norm.

This is essential on many fronts, including that our engineering graduates will be better able to compete nationally and internationally for employment and academic research opportunities in this rapidly changing and unpredictable world.

In the international context the Level 9 master's is fast becoming the standard engineering qualification; this is certainly the case across Europe, and the trend is also evident in the US, where the four-year bachelor’s (like for ourselves) has been the traditional standard.

Additionally, the five-year structure gives more time and scope to expand the breadth of engineering education to combine the essential strong rooting in the fundamentals, with more exposure to innovation, business and social sciences, and experiential learning through work placement.

Thematically, for biomedical engineering, as for engineering generally, the future is being built on a platform of ‘convergence’ between disciplines; it has been well recognised that the most challenging problems in science and technology and greatest scope for revolutionary developments are at the boundaries of traditional disciplines.

The future will include the following:

1.) Furthering the synergy with the biology and biomedical science domains to develop the next generation of drug and cell therapies and delivery technologies.
2.) Enhancing the development and use of computational modelling for medical implant and device analysis and design and the prediction of host biological responses.
3.) Enhancing the synergy between mechanical/materials engineering on the one hand, and electronic/electrical engineering on the other to generate ‘smart’ medical devices and implants, with enhanced sensing, actuation and self-powering features; such technologies will include externally applied and implantable sensors, robotic catheters (for angioplasty and other treatments), self-powered implanted devices, electrical stimulation and denervation technologies, soft robotic devices, and so on; a good example of the future in the smart technology domain is the work of Professor John Rogers at Northwestern University, including his work on devices for wireless monitoring in neonatal intensive care.
4.) Enhancing the synergy with artificial intelligence (AI) and data analytics, to deal with the massive volumes of data being generated by sensing, monitoring and diagnostic systems, in the context of the overarching theme of ‘connected health’.
5.) Furthering the synergy with clinicians and clinical practice to continue to ensure that all our biomedical engineering technological developments are directly clinically relevant and address evolving clinical needs.

Our educational programmes, through their structure, syllabi and modes of delivery, must continue to develop to generate graduates capable of leadership and impact in industry and academia in these and other areas.

Enhance graduate skills in innovation, entrepreneurship, business and social sciences

Beyond the purely technical, as indicated above, engineering (including biomedical engineering) education needs to evolve to enhance graduate skills in innovation, entrepreneurship, business and the social sciences, to make graduates sufficiently agile to deal with an increasingly fast-moving and unpredictable industrial landscape, and to ensure that our engineering graduates are fully focused on the generation of technologies that are environmentally friendly and indeed environmentally corrective.

There is an acknowledged need for engineers in the Irish economy across the board, including in biomedical engineering, and this would point to increasing the number of engineering graduates and the number of engineering students in our higher education institutes (HEI).

The reality check here, however, is that to maintain our current high standard of engineering education, being delivered to the large number of engineering students already in the system, leaving aside completely the prospect of increasing engineering student numbers, the HEI sector in Ireland needs a significantly expanded funding base.

One hopes that sooner rather than later the enormous contribution that engineering education makes to the Irish economy, and Irish society in general, will be properly acknowledged and supported through enhanced HEI funding, so that we can to continue to deliver, and indeed enhance, the world-class engineering education that our country needs and that our young people deserve.

Author: Professor Peter E McHugh, established professor of biomedical engineering, head of School of Engineering, College of Science and Engineering, National University of Ireland Galway