Tim Ibell, Associate Dean (research) at The University of Bath, is President of The Institution of Structural Engineers for 2015. Here Tim, who has been a Chartered Member of the Institution since 2001, talks about his vision for structural engineering.

Becoming President of the Institution of Structural Engineers is, without a doubt, the proudest accomplishment in my career to date.

Funnily enough, my initial choice for a career was chemical engineering, not structural engineering. I changed my course after seeing the curriculum - I was particularly taken by the concepts of structural design and bridge engineering, because they sounded creative.

We need to get better at explaining the creative, fun aspects of structural engineering, because misconceptions about what we do still linger. For instance, if you Google 'engineer image' you get a screen full of hard hats. What a load of rubbish! These images don't represent what it is to be an engineer, and certainly not a chartered structural engineer, who spends perhaps 3% of his or her time wearing a hard hat. Ours is a profoundly creative profession, which relies on all parts of the brain. We don’t just ‘do the structure’.

We need, I believe, to start at grass roots and explain WHY we are structural engineers. It is no good just telling people what we do or how we do it, we must say WHY we do what we do. Like architects we should talk about the wonderful outcomes for society which our profession provides. That is why we are inspired to become engineers.

It’s vital that we talk about this if we’re to inspire young people into engineering careers. School children already treat sustainability as the most important necessity for humankind right now, and we need to fuel their desire to make a difference by demonstrating the vital role structural engineers will play shaping a sustainable society. Explain that and we can inspire future students and future structural engineering professionals alike.

I find teaching structural engineering a thrill, especially when trying to think of ways to make complex concepts as simple as possible. I also particularly like being with students in a design-studio atmosphere, which is relaxed and conducive to deep learning. One only learns when one is happy and having fun. The joy of teaching is to keep it fun for serious reasons.

Tim at his inauguration as Institution President

Structural engineering research is equally exciting, but in a different way. It is very exciting to discover something new or to finally understand why something does what it does. But there is an even bigger joy than this, which is to conceive of a structural concept, based on observation and conversations with many others, and then lay out how one might prove or disprove the idea. This is a highly creative process, and so it’s fun!

During my time as President, I wish to see this true soul of our profession – creativity - being celebrated and shouted about. Coupled with this, I wish to see universities begin to embrace the concept that we should not over-assess our students. All of us learn through making mistakes, and our formal education structure should allow the same learning to occur. By continuously assessing students, we suggest that mistake-making is a bad thing and must be punished. This stifles education. Alex Wright, a colleague of mine and an architect, summed it up beautifully recently: 'You don't fatten a pig by weighing it'. We are weighing too much and not allowing enough foraging. We must change if we’re to build the kind of profession we need to face the challenges of the future.


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