One of the challenges facing educational institutions in South Africa is to help bridge the skills gap by preparing students for the real world of work, where both theory and practice are vital elements for success.
At the Cape Peninsula University of Technology one of the ways in which the Civil Engineering department approaches this challenge, is to integrate the same software - Knowledge Base’s Civil Designer - that their students are likely to use during their professional careers, into their training.
"We want our students to be ready to hit the road running when they leave," says Raubie Raubenheimer, Head of Department (Civil Engineering & Surveying) at CPUT. "Engineering is a career that requires an in-depth understanding of practical issues. By having students use the actual software that they will use later, it means that their studies are brought from the theoretical to the practical."
Civil engineering students at CPUT are exposed to Civil Designer throughout their studies. In addition, AllyCAD is also provided to first-year students. The department is proud of the fact that the programme has already sent more than 1500 fully trained people into industry from the three disciplines of civil engineering, surveying and cartography. Currently the department has about 160 students in the first year and about 150 students in their third year. Their second year is devoted entirely to practical, in-job training.
One of the most important reasons why Civil Designer is useful both to lecturers and students, is that it helps to integrate various subjects that form part of the overall civil engineering programme at CPUT. This integrated thinking is mirrored, not only in the way the software is integrated into the course, but also in the way that the software works as an integrated design suite.
Two of the lecturers in the department, Anton Thiart and Patrick Neal, agree. They explain the importance of Civil Designer for the successful completion of the third year of study by saying that a computer subject was added as a compulsory element of the latest curriculum.
"We did not want everything to be compartmentalised, so we took out the computer elements from some of the subjects and incorporated them into one integrated project and the evaluation for the subject is done solely on the content of the project portfolio handed in. This means their technical and theoretical knowledge of all aspects of the three-year course is tested in addition to their knowledge and use of the industry standard in civil engineering design software," explains Neal.
"These projects form an important part of their studies. Group work is limited to two students per group to ensure maximum participation by the students. Every group receives different data to work with for their projects, and they have to present them in the same format that they would have to deliver work to employers and clients after they qualify," he adds.
Civil Engineering students learning how to use Civil Designer from Patrick Neal, Lecturer at the Dept of Civil Engineering & Surveying, CPUT|
The department has had a long-standing and mutually beneficial relationship with Knowledge Base and the lecturers say that the support given to the lecturers at CPUT has been excellent.
"We can phone the people who are actually working on the program and we are encouraged to help identify problems. It is not often that you find that kind of open relationship," Thiart explains.
"In turn, we have been able to assist directly and indirectly with some testing of the programme. In fact, this is very important – we believe that if a student cannot crash a program, nobody can!" he quips.
Raubie Raubenheimer adds that students and past students "tell us that they highly value being able to include their Civil Designer Certificate on their CVs together with their academic qualifications. Some say the reasons they got their jobs included their basic competence in Civil Designer."
"We appreciate the affordable rates at which the software is made available to our students and the fact that our lecturers receive training in the use of the program as part of the company’s support," he concludes.
The academic approach followed at the Civil Engineering Department at CPUT that allows for such close integration of the relevant software into their course, has earned the enthusiastic approval of the advisory committee of the department as well as the accreditation committee of the Engineering Council of South Africa.
This is clearly an example of industry and the academic world working together to help bridge the skills gap in South Africa in a practical manner.