Saturday, 1 May 2021

How SELA has taught me more about my field of engineering

Mathew Boland, Cohort 2019

As a mechanical engineer, I have been lucky enough to enjoy a varied and interesting course. I’ve experienced everything from electronics to thermodynamics and material science, as well a boatload of physical mechanics. A lot of my experience as an undergraduate engineer has centred on equations and learning how to use them in an individual exam environment. These are really important skills, and help build the kind of understanding that is essential for modern engineers, but the focus is heavily on the theory. At Sheffield, I have been a part of some fantastic group work modules that focus on more than just the theory, on soft skills such as team work. However, it has been my time at SELA which has really reinforced my team working abilities.

In my personal statement three years ago I rated my teamwork abilities very highly,  but after some first year group work, it was glaringly obvious that it was largely hot air. Working in a multifaceted technical environment with new and unfamiliar people is worlds away from playing with your local rugby team. I came away from these early group work modules mainly with gripes about workload splitting, but the fact that in any team some people will do more work than others is an unchangeable fact of life. What I didn’t know was how to kickstart and maintain a productive and positive team environment.

My first year with SELA has taught me about how to handle this critical aspect of real-world engineering. Mechanical engineering is conducted, by and large, through teams, and for this you need skills that you can’t really learn through a Google search. Wherever you are, you can look up facts and formulae in a book, but good interpersonal skills? That’s not so easy.

I have learnt that teams are as crucial to engineering as the brush is to Basil, and being able to understand the people around you – even if they’re unfamiliar or new – is an invaluable skill. You could have a group of world-class engineers together on a project, but if there’s that disjoint, born through miscommunication and mismanagement, you’d get nothing done. Being able to establish this kind of understanding can come largely through experience, as you start to recognise traits and attitudes in different people, but it is helped massively by taking the time to carefully reflect. Taking a beat to think about yourself and your position within a group can do wonders for the dynamic going forward, and really help productivity.

As such, awareness is key. Being self-aware, and understanding your own strengths and weaknesses is crucial as this will let you focus your efforts in the most effective way, and help you recognise where and how you can improve.

SELA’s workshops and projects have already helped me massively in this aspect and in my course group work and really helped refine my skills before leaving the university bubble. In particular, our first project – Project 2050 – was a fantastic experience; pushing my creative, technical and communicative skills far beyond the scope of my academic career. Working with the cohort, the University and countless private companies has been eye-opening, and much more enjoyable than I expected. I now feel so much more confident applying myself in the real world, beyond all the problem sheets and coursework.

I chose mechanical engineering to create solutions to difficult problems – to make real change. This requires innovation and free thinking to apply our theoretical knowledge and experience to make an impact on the world – but SELA has taught me that, to be a truly effective engineer and to work to the best of your abilities, you need to be able to work well with everyone around you.

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