How does an engineer fare with the Leaving Cert paper?

UCD’s David McKeown sees whether he can ace this year’s Engineering examination

Dr David McKeown, a research engineer in the UCD School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering. Dr McKeown sat this year’s Leaving Cert Engineering paper for ExamWatch. Photograph: UCD

Dr David McKeown, a research engineer in the UCD School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering. Dr McKeown sat this year’s Leaving Cert Engineering paper for ExamWatch. Photograph: UCD

 

Could one paper sum up my profession? Engineering was not a subject I studied for my Leaving Cert: had I missed out? I managed to get a PhD in engineering without it. Could I now ace the exam? I opened this year’s higher level paper to find out.

With my pencil sharpened to an exact point and my calculator set to stun, I started out by following rule number one of exams: read the questions first.

There were lots of them, mostly short, but overall my impression was that the topics covered represented only a small section of what I know as engineering. This makes sense really because other topics such as physics, mathematics, chemistry and applied maths are already covered by their own individual subjects.

Engineering is simply too broad to be examined in three hours, especially when you consider there are so many flavours: mechanical, electrical, electronic, chemical, civil and biomedical – oh, and Rocky Road.

What the exam did seem to cover was manufacturing processes, ie how things get made (“Identify one automatic welding process”) and material science, ie what these things were made from (“Explain the term metal fatigue”).

Flashbacks I had

learned these as an engineering undergrad and they instantly triggered exam hand-cramp flashbacks, which led me to look for a numerical problem to sink my teeth into. There were none.

No calculations to be done. Not even an equation to be gawked at. These were replaced by the phrase “Describe, with the aid of a diagram”, which is fine, because if it’s understanding that is being tested, a good diagram can show that.

Still, when it comes to getting into a third-level engineering degree, a higher level C3 in mathematics is generally a minimum requirement.

Technologies change fast, definitely faster than a syllabus. So keeping a subject like engineering relevant is probably difficult. Still, rollercoasters, robots and carbon-fibre bike frames all make an appearance.

Sometimes this is a little forced, like in question 3(a) which starts with “Precision screwdrivers are used in the disassembly of modern smartphones” and gives a picture of a mobile phone. The question then asks detailed questions about the less sexy precision screwdriver and not the phone.

So this subject isn’t a fast track to an easy first year of an engineering degree, but it is a taster. Most of the 5,500 student who take engineering won’t become engineers, but understanding how things are made is well worth knowing.

We shouldn’t be afraid to open the devices we own (I recommend using a precision screwdriver) to see what’s inside. This is how we learn to fix things and as a result improve things. I hope the practical side of the syllabus gives the students the confidence to do this.

Dirty hands from trying things out is often what turns a good engineer into a great one.

Dr David McKeown is a research engineer in the UCD School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering and is a co-founder of Dublin Maker

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