Engineers and architects require effective communication and interdisciplinary team working to be successful throughout their career which, is often overlooked during formal undergraduate education, write Dr Jennifer Keenahan and Dr Daniel McCrum of University College Dublin's School of Civil Engineering.

Historically, the engineer and architect were the same person before the spilt between art and science. In modern times, their relationship can be strained as they each have their own subculture and stereotype.

There is a lot of focus on the quality of communication and teamwork skills in graduates. Communication and teamwork might even be more important that engineering knowledge (Engineers Ireland, 2019).

Architecture graduates are expected to have strong teamwork and communication skills (RIBA, 2015). The National Strategy for Higher Education notes that teamwork skills are essential for graduates of the 21st century.

Curiously, the educational system has separated these two professions completely in their formal training. There are currently two key initiatives happening in University College Dublin (UCD) to address this:

  • The creation of joint teaching modules for engineers and architects where they will learn together and be assessed on their joint projects;
  • The construction of a new ‘Centre for Creativity’ building that will be a shared home for both the school of engineering and the school of architecture.

These represent proactive interventions designed to break down the tribal barriers and begin to improve the dialogue between engineers and architects.

Joint teaching module

This module is taught to a diverse group of typically 100 first-year students every year. It was carefully designed to ensure constructive alignment between learning outcomes, assessment, content and teaching and learning strategies. Students participate in a variety of formative and summative group tasks and projects.

First, students are presented with the concept of hitchhikers. These are team members who refuse to do their share of the work but still get the same grade. Then, an ice-breaker activity.

Students discuss what each profession is typically good at and ideas of how they can work best together. Engineers explain engineering to the architects, and likewise architects explain architecture to the engineers.

Next, teams prepare and sign a team contract. Each team decides on realistic expectations for their group that all members agree to honour. Then students engage in a role play activity. It allows them to explore realistic situations they will encounter in their future careers in relation to building projects.

For the first summative assessment, students create a poster of free-body diagrams, depicting forces shown in photographs. They sketch the geometry, add dimensions, forces, and notes explaining their reasoning. The engineers tend to be strong with force-diagrams, whereas the architects tend to have better sketching skills. 

For the second assessment, students participate in a table quiz. Questions are drawn from content delivered in class and students debate their answers as would occur in any typical table quiz.

Students then perform a precedence study of five structural types and then focus on one in detail. The project focuses on the structural form, layout, loads and how bending moments and shear forces dictate the overall structure.

Architects are familiar with precedence studies whereas engineers tend to have a better understanding of structural forms and bending moments.

For the final assessment, teams design and create a model timber tower to demonstrate stability and how lateral and gravity loads are transferred to ground. Each team is given one sheet of MDF and access to a laser cutter. The goal is to achieve the tallest, lightest and most load-resisting structure possible.

Of the feedback received from students, 34% commented on communication skills, 41% on the engineering student’s technical knowledge, and 25% mentioned teamwork. A sample of both positive and negative comments from students are presented in the figure below.

To learn more about this work, see our paper published in the European Journal of Engineering Education.

Authors: Jennifer Keenahan, assistant professor and Chartered Engineer in civil engineering at UCD. She teaches first, second- and third-year engineering and architecture students at UCD, with a particular focus on communication skills and collaborative teamwork.

She is the head of teaching and learning for civil engineering and has recently completed a professional diploma in university teaching and learning. She was a member of the bridge team and the CFD team at Arup from 2014 to 2017 before taking up her current role in UCD as assistant professor in engineering.

Daniel McCrum graduated in 2005 from Trinity College Dublin with a first class honours degree in civil engineering. He completed an MSc in Structural Engineering and Mechanics from the University of Glasgow in 2006. His MSc scholarship was awarded by the Scottish Awards Agency scholarship.

He worked as a consulting structural engineer for a couple of years in Dublin prior to undertaking his PhD at Trinity College Dublin in 2008 under an Irish Research Council Scholarship. The topic of the PhD was hybrid testing of steel plan irregular structures. Upon completion, he worked as a data analyst for a year in Accenture Analytics Innovation Centre. He then joined Queen's University Belfast as a lecturer in 2012.

He joined UCD as an assistant professor in structural engineering in September 2017. He is a chartered structural engineer with the Institution of Structural Engineers (2016) and a Chartered Engineer with Engineers Ireland (2012).