1990s - Engineering a strong future

The growth of engineering at ANU stems from some smart decisions made in the 1990s, according to MICHAEL CARDEW-HALL.

From an education perspective, engineering is a relatively new discipline at ANU but our alumni show what an astounding and unbelievably rewarding career path it can lead to.

A number of attempts to establish engineering as an undergraduate program were tried in the early 1970s but they were met with resistance.

Obviously such an applied discipline did not sit well with the fundamental research nature of ANU at that time.

However, in 1991, then Deputy Vice-Chancellor Ian Ross championed a new engineering degree program that embodied the social and management aspects of modern engineering.

Ross once famously said that “the engineering graduate of the future would be a woman who knew how to design Black Mountain Tower (then under construction) and knew and understood why it should not be built”.  

From its inception, the practical nature of engineering was seen as core to the ANU engineering education and research programs.

Technical staff were seen as an integral part of the teaching staff. Marshall Shepard in electronics and Rob Gresham in mechanical engineering were key members of staff.

Initially started as a program within the Faculty of Science, the Department of Engineering was established in 1993.

Professor Darrell Williamson, from the Department of Systems Engineering, was tasked with creating a program from scratch.

Staff were recruited from across the world to create a vibrant and highly committed team with a high degree of collegiality and sense of purpose.

Full of energy, Williamson was an ideal foundation Chair of Engineering. Often seen riding his cycle up Mount Stromlo in the early morning before coming into the office, he would have no time to change and it was not uncommon to have meetings with him in full Lycra.

Working closely with Head of the Department of Computer Science Robin Stanton, they led the establishment of the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology.

The first years of the Department were exciting times, similar to being in a start-up company.

Led by Michael Green, the Engineering degree program was created around a Systems Engineering core, with majors in Mechatronics, Telecommunications, Mechanical Materials, Photonics, Renewable Energy, and Electronic Systems.

Early cohorts of students were small. An initial intake of 50 students had more than half combining degrees with science, IT and commerce.

The first graduating year of 1993 contained 12 students. By 2015, this number had grown significantly.

Motivated by getting their hands dirty, students have engaged in co-curricular activities such as the SAE Aero-West, SAE Formula Student car and other flagship projects.

The student-led Sol Invictus project launched this year is the most recent example of this. It aims to enter the World Solar Car Challenge in 2017, travelling from Darwin to Adelaide.

These programs provided a valuable environment to bring together threads of theoretical concepts in a practical way.

In recent years, I have been fortunate to travel across the world, which has allowed me to meet up with 20 years’ of graduates of the engineering program. Sometimes it’s in an airport lounge, at a function in San Francisco or London or even in Woolworths in Canberra.

What is astounding and unbelievably rewarding is the career paths they have followed.

Our alumni enter the workforce as design and project managers at defence companies, aerospace companies and automotive companies or into the public service, IT and management consultancies, even NASA.

Some have started their own high technology companies, or work in social enterprises bringing clean water to developing countries or work for start-ups in Silicon Valley.

I know I can always get a free lunch at Google with the ANU cohort there. Some have even ventured into academia.

What is clear when you meet them, is that the aims and aspirations of those who set up Engineering at ANU have been well achieved.