Improving Training of Engineering Students For Hydro Careers

By Gareth P. Harrison, D. Ewen Macpherson, and David A. Williams

To encourage interest in the hydro industry among engineering students and to better prepare them for hydro careers, the University of Edinburgh in Scotland offers an interdisciplinary engineering program. As part of the program, students design a hydroelectric facility.

Many engineering firms report that engineering graduates have skill gaps in problem solving, application of theory to real problems, and breadth of knowledge. This situation is compounded by the fact that the role of engineering graduates is changing. Traditionally, engineers were trained in a single discipline (civil, mechanical, or electrical) and expected to work within that specialty. As a result, they were usually ignorant of other disciplines. However, large employers today expect graduates to join multi-functional teams developing complex systems. And smaller companies, particularly in the hydro sector, need graduates who can cross disciplines.

To better prepare students for future engineering careers, the United Kingdom’s Royal Academy of Engineering recommends promoting ‘systems thinking’ within undergraduate degree programs. In other words, universities should take a holistic approach to training engineers.

With this in mind, in 2004 the Royal Academy of Engineering launched a “visiting professors” program in the area of integrated systems design. The goals of this program are to foster relationships between industry and academia and to help universities teach engineering design in a way that relates to real professional practice. In essence, the government finances the involvement of professionals in the engineering industry — the visiting professors — in the design, delivery, and assessment of university courses.

Developing a multi-disciplinary training program

Five universities, including the University of Edinburgh, took part in the pilot of the integrated system design program in 2004. As a multi-disciplinary unit (civil, electrical, mechanical, and chemical), the University of Edinburgh’s School of Engineering and Electronics was well-placed to bring together students from the major disciplines.

Rather than implement a formal systems engineering course, the university developed a program that would involve students in the design of a realistic interdisciplinary project. Students choose one of three projects to complete. The three projects chosen for the program represent complex interdisciplinary undertakings that strongly reflect the school’s research expertise: hydropower, potable water supply, and micro-systems. Each project is led by an academic from the university, together with a visiting professor.

After the pilot program, 11 other universities launched similar programs. The University of Edinburgh recently secured funding to extend program activity to at least 2008.

Hydropower design course

The hydropower design course challenges students to complete the design of a hydro project. By working together and tapping expert assistance, students gain insight into real-world working conditions.

The aim is to develop a complete feasibility study for a 1-mw project at Glen Kinglas in western Scotland. (The hydro project was already under development at the time the materials were prepared for this course.) This involves producing a study that can be presented to a bank for funding, as well as fully investigating and calculating all technical aspects that must be presented in the final report. Aspects that the groups must investigate include hydrology, civil construction and pipelines, turbine and generator selection, control and auxiliary systems, and the connection with the local electricity system.

To reinforce the idea that engineering activity is not independent of the wider market, the group also must produce a design that is economically viable. The key feature of the hydropower design process is that to achieve a viable project, all major project components must be considered and optimized as an integrated whole.

Students at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland work in small groups to complete the design of a potential 1-mw hydroelectric facility. Students must investigate all aspects, including technical and financial feasibility.
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Students are provided with modest amounts of information to assist them, such as maps and external datasets. Otherwise, they are generally expected to find materials themselves. Although students are limited to staying within the boundaries of the valley in which the project would be situated, they are free to use any credible approach, megawatt capacity, and equipment. The goal is to deliver maximum economic return from the proposed project.

Organizing the group

Successful completion of the project requires strong collaboration within the group. Most groups have at least two students from each discipline, and most components of the project rely upon interaction with other disciplines. Students must collaborate to analyze and select the optimal design.

In the first year, we made a particularly interesting observation regarding team leadership. From the outset, one group was ‘taken over’ by a dominant but diplomatic personality. As a result, this group was well-organized in its planning and presentation. The other groups did not have a clearly defined leader and, at the extreme, consisted of a loose committee structure. Technically, all the groups were competent. But the group culture and interfacing skill in the one with the defined leader was much more effective. Based on this experience, we now advise students to carefully weigh the benefits of appointing a project manager.

The entire exercise takes place within a strict ten-week period. This tight time frame motivates the students to manage their time effectively and provides a reasonably realistic simulation of the pressures of a professional career.

We deliberately give the students as much latitude as possible to organize their time, the scope of their individual work, and how they operate within their groups. We factor into their course work one day a week when all students can work together. This day includes lectures on particular topics, as well as access to the visiting professor for “surgery” sessions where groups or individuals can seek guidance. This day also is used for the reporting sessions, which are built into the project program. Finally, we set up a website to provide administration, instruction, guidance, reading lists, reference contacts, and tutorial presentations.

The work represents one-third of students’ course work during this period, the rest being traditional lectures and exams. The project counts as about 7 percent of the final grade for the degree course.

Providing expert support

In the first year of the program, the students had virtually unlimited access to the university academic and visiting professors. However, this resulted in excessive demands on staff time. To deal with common queries and difficulties, we review topics that had not been covered in the degree to date (e.g., grid connection) by providing short, targeted lectures and notes. This situation must be carefully managed in order to avoid spoon-feeding information to students yet minimize excessive staff demands.

However, we also must ensure that students are properly supported by staff in this activity. This is a challenge because it is hard to find academics or industrialists who are competent or comfortable across three or more disciplines. Thus, we nominated a small number of academics to handle the deeper discipline-specific queries.

To assist students in developing the design of a potential 1-mw hydroelectric facility, professors at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland provide lectures on particular topics, such as grid connection.
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Assessment of the work by the university is based around a series of milestones: preparation of an initial planning document, a short mid-project update, and a 30-page final report, as well as a presentation to a multi-disciplinary judging panel. Members of the panel include the visiting professor, typically two academic staff members, and the consulting engineer responsible for the hydropower station that was used as the model for the project. Having this engineer on the panel serves to demonstrate to the students that their work is real and relevant.

Evolution of the program

Formal feedback from the students after the first year indicated they were very satisfied with the project. Most described the work as very interesting and relevant to their future careers. The main negative comments included the short time frame and the fact that they had to complete this work in parallel with other courses. It is interesting to note that students regard this course as being as demanding and stressful as conventional lecture courses. It was certainly not “an easy option.”

The success of the project can be measured by the continuing high quality of the final feasibility study reports and the oral presentations. The students quickly adapted to working in a multi-disciplinary group environment and, in most cases, developed a selfless approach to the tasks. The technical conclusions of the project, although varied, addressed all the necessary issues and were accurate in observations and results.

The 1-mw Glen Kinglas scheme became fully operational in 2005. This posed a problem because we had to prevent students from being unduly influenced by the existing arrangements. We considered using a different proposed site. However, in the end we decided to stay with the original site but adjust the exercise. Groups were required to devise an economically optimal station that, ideally, could beat the performance of the existing station. This adjustment has put additional focus on using economics as the basis for decision-making and justification in hydro project development.

Further evolution of the project has involved additional requirements, in the form of detailed environmental impact assessments and calculation of the station’s carbon footprint. These enhancements serve to broaden the students’ skill sets, as well as reinforcing consideration of sustainability issues. In most cases, this is the first time students will be challenged directly on the regulatory, economic, social, and environmental context of their engineering work.


Feedback from external bodies has been very positive. Representatives of engineering institutions in the United Kingdom visiting the school have commended this and the other interdisciplinary design projects. The consulting engineer who assessed the course was impressed with the degree of understanding, detail, and enthusiasm in the oral reports and the accuracy of the final reports. He also highlighted the potential for successful job prospects within the U.K. hydropower sector. To date, a number of internships have been served, and several graduates are now working in the hydro industry.

During its relatively short existence, the hydropower design course has had several very successful outcomes:

  • Students appreciate engineering disciplines other than their own;
  • Students work as a team, with each member contributing different skills and expertise;
  • Students learn how engineering design and economic viability are inextricably linked;
  • Students are introduced to non-technical topics that are difficult to teach but are required for the degree program; and
  • Students’ interest in the hydro sector is fostered, both in terms of the technology and as a possible career.

Drs. Harrison and Macpherson may be reached at School of Engineering and Electronics, University of Edinburgh, Mayfield Road, Edinburgh EH9 3JL United Kingdom; (44) 131-6505583; E-mail: gareth.harrison@ or ewen.macpherson@ed. Mr. Williams may be reached at British Hydropower Association, Unit 12 Riverside Park, Station Road, Wimborne, Dorset BH21 1QU United Kingdom; (44) 1202-886622; E-mail:


Harrison, Gareth P., D. Ewen Macpherson, and David Williams, “Promoting Interdisciplinarity in Engineering Training,” European Journal of Engineering Education, Volume 32, No., 3, June 2007, pages 1-9.


The authors gratefully acknowledge support from the Royal Academy of Engineering through its visiting
professors scheme; the contribution of Kieron Hanson of Hydroplan Ltd. to course development and assessment; and data provided by Scottish and Southern Energy and the National River Flow Archive at CEH Wallingford.

Gareth Harrison, PhD, is a lecturer in energy systems and Ewen Macpherson, PhD, is a senior lecturer and former head of teaching in the School of Engineering and Electronics at the University of Edinburgh. David Williams is chief executive of the British Hydropower Association. As a visiting professor at the University of Edinburgh, he leads the hydropower design course.

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