The art of training engineers

Published Apr 05, 2017

Arnold Pears is KTH’s first ever professor in the engineering subject of didactics. Through his research, Pears hopes to further develop training for engineers and to change the perception of the profession so that more people see themselves as tomorrow’s engineers.

Lena Gumaelius, who is Dean of the School of Education and Communication in Engineering Science (ECE), explains that the new professorship is a part of a KTH’s efforts to become a world leader in the engineer training.

“We want to be the best in the world at training engineers,” she says. “And to achieve this, we need to have a research-based development plan. We can’t just guess the right way forward.”

To help achieve these ambitions, the ECE school has long been searching for someone capable of coordinating and further developing the school’s research efforts in the didactics field. Gumaelius says that in addition to being formally qualified, the right person for the post needed to “have a genuine interest in the nature of teaching engineering subjects and believe it was important to understand how one learns to be an engineer.”

Arnold Pears is a good fit for these requirements. Since he first started teaching as a computer science lecturer, he has been interested in both the design of engineering training and the prerequisites required for it to occur. And, yes, he considers training engineers as something quite special.

“Absolutely,” he says. “It’s special because the focus is on creating results. Elsewhere, science is characterised by the search for absolute truth. But as an engineer, you need to look for a solution that’s good enough, and that can be delivered on time and within a certain budget. There’s no perfect solution, the art is in choosing and being able to present your choice.”

Focus on didactics

Pears obtained his doctorate with a thesis on computer architecture, and computer science was for a long time his main field of research. But at the same time, he maintained parallel research focus on didactics.

“Six or seven years ago, I realised that continuing in this way wasn’t going to work,” he says. “You can’t be excellent within two different areas. And it was then that I decided to focus on didactics.”

Pears was born and grew up in Australia. He gained his PhD from La Trobe University in Melbourne, where he also worked up until 2000, interspersed with a few periods as a guest researcher in France.

He came to Sweden via, what he calls “the usual import route”: a Swedish girl. Pears landed a job at Uppsala University where he has now worked for 17 years.

Broad perspective

A KTH colleague told Pears about the professorship within ECE and suggested that he apply. Pears came into the role on 1 March. So far, he has only been working 20 percent of the time in the new role as he is still in a transition period from his old job where he still has work to complete.

At Uppsala, Pears is Head of the Computer Systems Division and Deputy Head of the Department of Information Technology, commitments he could not immediately relinquish.

Knowing that KTH was home to interesting – and interested – colleagues was one of the reasons that Pears applied for the position. And one of the first things he wants to do is to begin building up a strong research team around the engineering subject of didactics.

Pears says he intends to take a broad perspective of his primary task: using research to contribute to the development of Master of Science in Engineering education. This involves looking at the role of engineers, as well as the perception what an engineer is and who can become one.

“If we only have 15-20 percent women in some courses, then we need to begin thinking about why so many women are choosing not to become engineers,” he says. “What can we do to make the role of engineer an accessible identity for more people? It’s incredibly important for Sweden’s future.”

Changes to teaching methods

Pears believes that in order to meet demand, more research is required into the school’s technical education. What form does it currently take and how can it be developed to arouse more interest in technical training?

“We need to change the way we teach science and technology,” he says. ”We’re currently telling some people, in a very subtle way, that there’s nothing here for them. The question is, how can we get the message across to teachers about creating a more inclusive way of working.”

For this reason, Pears values the fact that didactics research at KTH is focused on immediate practical applications. Having the potential to conduct research that combines teacher education with the further development of the field of didactics was another reason he applied for the position at KTH.

“I firmly believe that to achieve results, change needs to occur at the local level, by engaging the people dealing with the problems on a daily basis,” he says.

Text: Ursula Stigzelius

Personal facts:

  • Name: Arnold Neville Pears
  • Age: 53
  • Background: Grew up in Melbourne, Australia, obtained a PhD in Computer Science at La Trobe University in Melbourne. Head of Training, Head of the Computer Systems Division and Deputy Head of the Department of Information Technology at Uppsala University.
  • Family: Wife and two children aged 14 and 12
  • Lives: In Marielund, right outside Uppsala.
  • Leisure time pursuits: Fencing, trains once a week and competed at one stage.
  • Motto: “Always build with a view to the future”. He arrived at this while working on his PhD after one of his tutors mistakenly erased all the data on the almost complete platform that Pears was working with. “All I could do was start from the beginning – and it actually turned out better.”
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