Educating Engineers for a Holistic Approach to Fire Safety
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Problems can be solved using existing knowledge and methods derived from past experiences; and in building design, where buildings are sufficiently similar to those already built, this process can be optimised by creating standardised solutions to common problems. There is significant demand for specialist engineers who can apply these standardised solutions to established problems quickly and accurately; but novel designs generate entirely new problems for which established solutions are not always applicable. Generalist engineers working on novel designs must first define the problems before they can develop options and if necessary, create optimised solutions. Fire safety engineering (FSE) is the process of achieving fire safety in our built environment. The field requires both specialists trained in current practice and generalists skilled in creative and critical thinking. Current fire safety engineering education is mostly aimed at producing specialists, yet there is growing demand for generalists in high-end architecture, hindered by a lack of generalist education. Current education literature in FSE explains in detail what to teach, however they do not explain how to motivate students to learn what is taught; how to create the ‘need to know’ - the purpose that drives learning. The purpose can either be intrinsically motivating (i.e. the subject is interesting) or extrinsically motivating (i.e. if you don’t learn it then you will fail the exam). The former is sustained by autonomy and choice; the latter is sustained by control. Control increases the likelihood that the predicted outcome will be realised, but by definition reduces the likelihood of realising any other outcome, including potential innovation.Initially a study was created to test the effects of creating an autonomous learning environment within a traditional lecture-based ‘fundamentals’ course at the University of Edinburgh. This study, along with observations at a range of US universities led to the formation of an overarching theory of education. Ultimately, purpose is the goal students strive to achieve; autonomy creates the opportunity to think and learn independently; and structure provides the constraints that converge students towards an optimised result, supported by sound evidence and reasoning. Thus the key to generalist education was to provide purpose, autonomy and structure (PAS) in that order. The PAS concept was trialled at EPFL (Switzerland) and the participating students, with no prior knowledge of fire engineering, produced work of exceptional quality. In summary, the present study offers an observational validation that Purpose, Autonomy & Structure (PAS) can be used to effectively support the generalist way of thinking and although the examples given in this paper are related to fire safety engineering (due to the need for generalists in that field), the qualitative evidence on which the conclusions are based is not subject-specific, implying that the PAS methodology could be applied to other disciplines.