Friday, 19 February 2016

Dissertations for Good

Dissertations are often the nightmare that keeps students up at night in the final year of their degree, requiring countless hours of careful study in the library, as well as a heap of creativity and gallons of coffee. 

But what if the engineering industry could make use of them as more than just an academic headache? Dr Anastasia Mylona, Research Manager for the Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers, wrote about her experience with a pioneering scheme to do just that.

Every year in the UK and around the world students are putting thousands and thousands of man hours into high-level research at some of the world’s top institutions. While some of them will go on to further study, publish their work or even become famous academics in their fields, most of these works will be handed in at the end of the year and forgotten about. It seems like a waste, but how can this work be turned to the public good?

These students also face a quandary themselves: The famous Catch-22 situation that faces all University leavers looking for their first job is that so many employers also want real-world experience, not just academic qualifications. So what is to be done? Achieving the top grades requires many hours of work and study, yet employers also expect experience of what is a full-time job.

Here, the National Union of Students has seen an opening. They have set up a programme called ‘Dissertations for Good’, which seeks to link students and industry, in order to have them collaborate on projects that benefit the world at large. This is a scheme that CIBSE has been active in supporting, and that I have had first-hand experience of through our work with students.

Students at top universities spend thousands of hours on their dissertations
The beauty of such a scheme is that it works both ways – the student’s knowledge of the subject is enhanced, and this is fed into the dissertation, but the industry also gains from their hard work and expertise. Recently I have been working with seven engineering students supervised by Dr Ali Bahadori-Jahromi from the department of Civil Engineering in the University of West London (UWL) to update CIBSE’s resources, including climate change information for building adaptation and testing the new CIBSE weather files in building performance simulation.

One of the best things about working in this partnership wasn’t just the work that was done during the project, but also learning about the work that hadn’t been done. By exploring this area, we opened the door to countless opportunities for further study and collaboration that have evolved into stand-alone projects of their own. Recent extreme weather events in the UK have shown that now is more important than ever to be studying their effects on buildings, which is why we will now be sponsoring a PhD on resilience to extreme weather at UWL.

Storm Desmond bears down on the UK (Image courtesy of  NOAA)
One of the most valuable part of an engineering degree is the potential to work on practical issues that have a direct impact on industry, and it is often the most important part of a young engineer’s development. It’s also work from which wider society can directly benefit – this particular knowledge will be instrumental in further research which will decide how we react to extreme weather in buildings and construction, and could save lives and millions of pounds a year.

The work done by students has the potential to have enormous practical value. It’s up to the industry as a whole to go out there, and discover these opportunities for themselves!

Anastasia Mylona, Research Manager for the Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE), took part in the Dissertations for Good pilot because she was keen to give students the experience of working on practical issues while also using their new knowledge.


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