We catch up with Mark Dyer, previously the Dean of Engineering at Waikato University to discuss his career, advice for others and his plans for the future.

What is your role at the University of Waikato?

I'm currently on sabbatical. Previous to my sabbatical, for the last five years, I was the Dean of Engineering at Waikato University. When I return to the university, I will help develop degree programmes in architecture and urban design.

How did you become interested in engineering in the first place?

By accident really, even after my undergraduate and post graduate degrees I was undecided about pursuing a career in engineering and instead toiled with the idea of training to a barrister. With hindsight I'm so pleased that I stuck with engineering as a rewarding and fulfilling career even if I could've earned a fortune in the legal and financial worlds.

You've had a varied career both in industry and academia. Tell us about three of your career highlights:

I've spent roughly equal amounts of time in industry and academia over the past 40 years. In industry I worked with consultants (Acer Consultants, Studio Geotecnico Italiano, TNO) and contractors (Cementation Piling, Trafalgar House) building major infrastructure projects in Africa, Brazil, Europe, Middle East for flood defences, oil platforms, major highways, re-sewerage schemes etc. Whilst professional practice was rewarding I was always interested in R&D which led me to participate in the Dutch NOBIS programme during the late 1990’s for the development of novel bioremediation technologies to clean-up polluted land. My involvement was funded courtesy of a UK Royal Academy of Engineering Foresight Award. Combined with being appointed as the UK Research Councils National Coordinator for Civil and Environmental Engineering, I decided to join Durham University and subsequently Strathclyde University, Trinity College Dublin and most recently Waikato University. I don’t deny I found the culture shock between industry and academia quite daunting initially. However, like most things I eventually got to grips with the different mindsight and metrics.

In terms of career highlights, the greatest rewards has always been helping friends, colleagues and students succeed in their careers and lives. This sounds easier than in practice. For example, I took a lot of criticism at Trinity College Dublin for introducing a second year design course called ‘Give Me Shelter’. As the title suggested it involved designing and building shelters for a range of different users from refugees to homeless. My colleagues at the time thought it too simplistic a course but in reality it was the first time these students had been asked to design an open ended problem and actually make something from scratch. The course generated lots of highs and lows but in the end created lots of satisfaction for students. Interestingly one of those students is now a lecturer in Civil Engineering at Waikato, Dr Dani Bertram. Likewise I have enjoyed immensely helping my colleagues at Waikato advancing their careers such as Dr Fei Yang who with a little support created the first joint international PhD programme at Waikato University with Harbin IT. Lastly, I should mention the huge enjoyment I had working with Professor Michael Walmsley over the last 5 years helping to transform engineering at Waikato into the mainstream School of Engineering it has become going from strength to strength.

What advice would you give your 21 year old self?

That is a tricky question. It's always easier to look back with hindsight. I suppose one piece of advice would be to not see engineering as a purely technical endeavour but instead offering a professional career that can make things happen when you combine that unique technical expertise with politics and enterprise. This also makes me reflect on the benefit of gaining practical on-site experience as a civil engineer. My site experience came after spending my early years in a design office or research lab. It was only when I was on site as a contract engineer that I began to appreciate how design decision (however small) can have a major effects on the practicality, cost and safety of building something.

How do you explain the Washington Accord to students?

By demonstrating that Washington Accord Graduate Attributes, guiding young undergraduates to become creative problem solvers for industry by aligning the art and science of engineering rather than simply focusing on the theory and by default becoming an applied scientists rather than engineers. Having written a couple of journal articles on the education of creative engineers, I find it reassuring to know that the Washington Accord supports the need for students to learn how to apply theory not just derive equations. This is where I think we can learn a lot from Schools of Architecture that still retain a great deal of emphasis on professional practice with many academic staff having significant professional experience and often still practicing. This is reflected in the PBRF exercise where professional practice is highly acknowledged in architecture but virtually ignored in engineering.

How do you incorporate Te Ao Maori in engineering courses at the University of Waikato?

The Waikato Engineering 4 year BE Hons programme has 4 societal papers and 4 design papers that each refer to role of engineering in society at each stage or level in the programme. As such we see Te Ao Maori as being part and parcel of those societal and design papers. For some students who want to pursue that line of thought further in Capstone R&D projects, they undertake projects that investigate the Role of Engineering in Maori Communities such as how to integrate Vision Matauranga with decision making about ‘users needs’ for major infrastructure projects that reflect Kaupapa Maori.

How are you and your team addressing climate change issues when teaching engineering courses at the University of Waikato?

By making students aware of UN Sustainable Development Goals from Term 1 Year 1 in our Engineering and Society papers that aims to balance all the traditional teaching of mechanics, materials and mathematics with the needs and impacts of humans in nature and society. This is quite a challenge since it takes students outside of their comfort zones but we have some very committed and enthusiastic lectures that help navigate the students through these challenging issues.

Name two podcasts you'd recommend engineers listen to

  1. Waterways through time – Journey through the history of the Irish Waterways with Turtle Bunbury.
  2. BBC Reith Lectures AI by Stuart Russell (via BBC Sounds)

What is your favourite piece of engineering in Hamilton?

Hamilton Gardens with its creative earthworks and water systems that enabled these magnificent gardens to be built.

Discover - Matt Dyer

Matt Dyer