25 Nov 2019
This month, we catch up with Dirk Pons from Canterbury University, and a Fellow of Engineering New Zealand. Dirk is also a member of the Society for Safety Engineers.
What is your role at the University of Canterbury?
I primarily teach engineering management and professional practice. I research those areas and also industrial engineering. I’m something of a generalist and boundary-spanning engineer, rather than a specialist in a narrow field. I do enjoy that generalist role as every project is different, though it has challenges.
What is the most rewarding thing about being an engineering academic?
Curiosity – the ability to explore something via research, extract insights, and move the field forward a bit. For teaching it’s seeing students’ minds open to a new topic they had never considered before. You can see them growing intellectually like bean plants in summer. Also, there is a fair bit of admin work as an academic, and I feel as engineers we have systematic methods that can make us quite effective at this.
Over the years, you would have taught many students. What is one thing that your students have taught you?
They have taught me to expect and accept change. They themselves are going through a rapid intellectual development process, along with a social change from being teenagers to young adults. They handle those changes really well. I think we all admire their adaptability under pressure.
Final year engineering students completing a BE usually undertake a final year research project. What would be your dream project to supervise?
I’ve supervised a large variety over the years, in diverse fields. The best projects are made by supportive industry clients, with project objectives that are a stretch but achievable. I like projects where it’s possible to validate the outcomes, rather than merely doing an analysis and not having a way to check it.
The Washington Accord provides international mobility for students. How do you explain the Washington Accord to your students?
The Washington Accord allows graduates to work overseas without having to re-study. That’s the mobility aspect, and it’s not something all other professions enjoy. You might think the human body was basically the same on every continent, but apparently not given the amount of retraining needed in medicine and health care. The other part of the Washington Accord is that it provides an international consensus on key things that students need to know.
You are a big advocate of students learning and understanding the Engineering New Zealand Code of Ethical Conduct. How do you teach the importance of ethics to your students?
The default mental model is that ethics is a set of rules for obeying. That one ought to remember these rules and apply them. Indeed some codes overseas are written like this. The problem is that people don’t remember rules – at least not until they have already broken them, in which case it’s too late and the damage is done. Ethics is actually something different: it’s a set of principles for decision-making. When the decisions are complex – and the Washington Accord has a useful definition of that – then mathematics will not answer the question. Only principles – kaupapa – will help here. By definition, professional engineers are solvers of complex problems (tohunga wetepanga is the Māori title), and ethics provides the mechanisms for decision making.
Why do you think soft skills are just as important as technical skills for today’s engineers?
People usually associate soft skills with personal interactions and communications. That is valid, but the skills also include competencies in systems engineering, project management, health and safety, natural environment, finance, society, etc. And it’s the last in that list that I’d draw to your attention – society. Our engineering artefacts significantly, radically, and disruptively change society. The internet is an example, as is air travel. Our artefacts benefit society, but they also adversely affect some other part. Cryptolockers use the internet to cripple organisation business systems, air travel adversely affects the environment. Consequently, engineering is much more than simply doing the technical part of the engineering design or analysis. All those soft skills (or ‘professional’ skills as they are sometimes called) are essential, and make the difference between an engineering scientist and an engineering professional.
How do you engage with Engineering New Zealand?
Follow this recipe:
- Apply for membership. Show a bit of commitment back to the profession, even if you can’t see tangible personal or financial benefits. Take the longer-term view and have faith. Most universities and polytechnics pay the membership fee, so it need not cost you anything personally.
- Volunteer when they ask for help. You will find them very reasonable people, not at all bureaucratic, and a pleasure to work with. It’s not onerous. As an academic, you are best volunteering for accreditation visits. You will see things in a new way thereafter.
As a keen photographer, where is your favourite scenic place to photograph in New Zealand and why?
Obviously, I’m prejudiced, but I’d have to say for landscapes it’s the South Island, and within that the Hurunui. Why? Well the Southern Alps runs as a spine down the country, and that creates a greater variety in weather, landscape, and flora than many other places. And the inland Hurunui is where you can see stars at night like you would not believe possible because the air is so clear. At the smaller scale is the inner life of plants and animals, which is sub-millimetre (macro) photography. This you can do anywhere. There is a whole new world to be seen at the smaller scale. You look at drops of water caught in a spider web, and then you look closer and see one drop, then closer still you see the surface tension, and you just have to marvel.