In this episode, EWB CEO Eleanor Loudon talks to Marlene Kanga AM on leading the recent reform of the International Graduate Attributes and Professional Competencies (GAPC) Framework, and how the new competencies link to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s).
We delve into the role of engineers in responding to the climate crisis and cast forward to the global hackathon taking place in celebration of World Engineering Day for Sustainable Development March 4, 2022.
SDGs: #4 Quality Education, #5 Gender Equality and #11 Sustainable Cities and Communities
About Marlene Kanga
Dr. Marlene Kanga was President of the World Federation of Engineering Organisations (WFEO) in 20170-2019, the peak body for engineering institutions internationally representing some 100 engineering institutions and approximately 30 million engineers. A chemical engineer, she was the 2013 National President of Engineers Australia. She is a Fellow of the Academy of Technology Science and Engineering Australia. She is a Member of the Order of Australia, a national honor, in recognition of her leadership of the engineering profession.
Dr Kanga is a board member and non-executive director of some of the largest organizations in Australia in the utilities, transport and innovation sectors. She is an Honorary Fellow of the Institution of Engineers Australia, an Honorary Fellow of the Institution of Chemical Engineers (UK) and a Foreign Fellow of the ASEAN Academy of Engineering and Technology. She is listed among one of the Top 10 women engineers in Australia and among the top 100 engineers that have contributed to Australia in the past 100 years, at Engineers Australia’s centenary celebrations in 2019.
Dr Marlene Kanga led the proposal to declare 4th March each year as World Engineering Day for Sustainable Development. She also successfully led the review of the engineering education benchmarks that underpin engineering education and professional development in Australia and 30 countries around the world. This is the most significant change to the Framework since it was first developed in the early 1990s, and will ensure that engineers will advance the UN Sustainable Development Goals through their work, are critical thinkers, thoughtful about the impact and outcomes of their work, capable of working in diverse and inclusive teams and committed to lifelong learning.
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Eleanor: We’re here today to talk with Marlene, Marlene, welcome and big congratulations. Can you tell me a little more about yourself and your personal journey? What inspired you to become an engineer?
Marlene: Yes. Thanks. Thanks for having me, Eleanor. It’s a real pleasure and I’m a great supporter of Engineers Without Borders and have been for many years. And it very much aligns with my idea for engineering.
So I always wanted to be an engineer. I mean my father was an engineer, one of the first engineers to graduate just before independence in India. And so he quickly to quite senior positions and was involved in all kinds of very interesting infrastructure projects. He was actually an electrical and mechanical engineer, but he was involved in the building of roads and the electrification of large parts of the country airports and so on.
And at that time, India received a lot of aid from the United States and other countries. And he often took me along to this project. That was a big [00:01:00] calculus plan coming in at night. You know, we’d go together to the airport and see the big road rollers coming off the plane. Or if an airport was going to be lit up by the minister the next day, he take me for the test the previous evening and say, you can be the first to turn on the lights.
I had, I had the sense of excitement about engineering. To me, it was just the most exciting profession. And it also I liked the way it, I understood how things worked. I loved that. And that was quite inquisitive. I was very good at mathematics and science, so it just came naturally. And no one in my family or in my circle told me girls don’t do engineering.
So I grew up in a very sheltered you know, family background quite privileged in India, went to an all girls convent school, where they tell you the nuns actually encourage you to think that girls can do anything, but they will also horrified that I was doing advanced mathematics without the teacher.
I was so headstrong. My father started me off and then that was [00:02:00] it. And then finally, in my last six months of high school, they found me a teacher because there were no teachers in that school teach advanced mathematics. So it was a big shock when I arrived at university and found that there were very few women there and that’s where I discovered there wasn’t many girls in engineering, but I, I just enjoyed the work and I still love it.
I have to say, I say to people, don’t tell them how much I enjoy. But even if they didn’t pay me, I’d still do this work because I love the, the fact of the impact that it has, that it improves people’s lives and that it makes a difference. And I think there are very few professions that do that. In medicine that is well known and people understand that but engineers improve health in large numbers, like with clean water and sanitation, but we just don’t communicate that impact enough. And that’s where I’m coming from. That’s the passion that has driven me through my career and through all the obstacles and barriers that I’ve faced. That’s [00:03:00] that vision has sustained me.
Eleanor: So you can feel the potential, you can feel the impact that’s possible. And it’s interesting. I hadn’t actually thought about it like that before about that, that impact at scale, you know, cause we do know that, you know, doctors and lawyers and so on, they can make significant change, but engineering does play a particular role.
It, must’ve been challenging, you know, growing up in India and being in a girls school and not having access to a maths teacher , you’ve had challenges in your life and, and here you are today with this incredible outcome.
What are some of the problems that we need to solve now? What do you see are the critical sort of issues that we’re facing in the sector?
Marlene: Well, I think that the most critical is the fact that we don’t have enough engineers and in many countries of the world, I mean in Australia, in fact, we depend we rely on a migration and in 2012, I think it flipped. With more than 50% of engineers in Australia, overseas born because for more than 25 years, we’ve had about the same number graduating in [00:04:00] Australia. And in other countries, the issue is even more acute.
And when I say engineers, it’s not just professional engineers, but technologists and technicians as well, who have an important role. I think the other issue is to engage more women in engineering because it’s basically, it’s 50% of the world’s brainpower. If we want to increase the number of engineers and to have more sustainable solutions, we need a broader perspective and we need to harness that brain power.
And that message is slowly getting through in, in, in some countries in Asia. In Africa and in Latin America, where engineering is a relatively new profession. So some of the norms of behavior and culture, aren’t that entrenched. So you have, you’re getting up to 30 to 50%, which is what we’re looking for women, but in the profession, but many in the developed world, this is where the numbers are still very new.
Eleanor: So, what do you think it is that we’ll, switch those statistics on, you know, women and other [00:05:00] diverse cohorts onto engineering as, a potential career path.
Marlene: So there’s two parts. One is within organization. It’s clearly is a leadership issue. It’s up to the leaders to change the culture.
In engineering the culture is so endemic. So entrenched people don’t even notice that there’s a particular culture. But it is possible through leadership. And for example, in engineering, we’ve made huge changes in the safety culture. In the last 20 years and I’ve got photographs of workers on sites in shorts and thongs, no safety helmet you know, hard hats, no gloves, et cetera, no PP at all. And she’ll be right attitude. Whereas today, even if the chair of the board turned up without the safety gear on, they wouldn’t let them onsite. So safety culture has transformed, and this is a leadership. The leadership has done it in engineering organizations they c learly put out the message that this is important to us. It’s [00:06:00] important to us as, as a team to look after our employees together, it safety is non-negotiable and and it’s a just culture as well. So if there is an incident, no one gets punished, but, but you investigate what happened. You try to learn and do better. This strategy can be applied to diversity and inclusion.
And in fact, I developed such a strategy which has been implemented quite successfully in several engineering organizations and. It’s you know, for engineering leaders, because they’ve done it for safety. They don’t even have to read the strategy, they get it straight away and they get that. You record a moment that’s when it starts to be implemented.
So I think it really needs a change in culture. The second part,is to encourage more young people to into engineering, it’s a communication issue where we’ve got to go out more into the community, into schools, you know, at high school level to career advisors to teach us to parents and talk [00:07:00] to them about engineering, because it’s got such a low profile that engineering is not considered as a career choice today.
Eleanor: Do you think that there’s a intersection between your passion for the SDGs and sustainable engineering and the positive impact that engineering can have on the world and, and the message that we tell young people. Do you think that intersection would help to generate interest?
Marlene: Absolutely. Okay. Because young people more than ever today, want careers that make a difference. They don’t want to just sit at a desk and push paper around the top of the keyboard, but they want to know that what they’re doing is having an impact and engineering, like no other profession enables you to have that impact and the link with the sustainable development goals.
It creates a wonderful narrative of how engineering is important for everyone of those sustainable development goals. And I started on the journey of creating this narrative. When I was planning was working with non-engineering staff in London, in the institution of civil [00:08:00] engineers.
And they said, oh, engineering has nothing to do with sustainable development goals. So I set out. Prove them wrong. And that became the core of the second UNESCO engineering report, which is actually called now engineering for sustainable development. But that message has been embraced around the world, enthusiastically, because everybody gets it, they see that connection and they love it.
And the engineers, most of all love it because it suddenly gives them a meaning and an impetus to their work. Most importantly, to talk about it in a non-technical way, in a way that relates to two people, because everyone wants to know what’s in it for me. And you can relate that quite clearly. Yeah.
Eleanor: So you had this vision of, integrating the sustainable development goals and looked at the global competencies and professional attributes. Talk to me about that journey and how and how you ended up here with this incredible outcome. Well, it was, it was very strategic.
Marlene: I’m a bang for buck girl. And I try to get things at maximum impact with [00:09:00] minimum effort not that this had, didn’t have a lot of work and didn’t involve a lot of work, but I was thinking far ahead, I had this great vision to transform the engineering profession from the inside out and how better to transform it then how you teach and train graduates at the university level. That’s where you’re laying the foundations for culture, for the commitment to lifelong learning, for critical thinking for working inclusively in teams, that’s where you learn. And then you take that through. Your professional life. And so, you know, rather than doing research and talking about the need for, for all these different aspects, you know, there were so many that had to be included in a, in a contemporary forward-looking profession that ready to solve the, you know, the most challenging problems that the world is now facing.
You know, I decided to do something about it and doing it from the inside out was, was the way we went. And that’s was the impetus for reviewing the [00:10:00] graduate attributes and professional competencies. And it w it took a lot of. Todd thinking and developing the path, the pathway, the roadmap, and then communicating that to our partners, including the international engineering Alliance.
So there’s a journey that started in 2018 and I spoke to a lot, a lot of people and had to convince them and convince them not in a theoretical fashion, but in a show in a practical way, how it could be done. And. It’s because we’ve thought it through so deeply, we were able to progress it very quickly.
It’s quite remarkable. We really only started in November, 2019 and we had a cut in June 2020, very fast. And then it was embraced wholeheartedly by, the world by even non signatories of the international engineering Alliance. And I’m so grateful for the support from Engineers Without Borders and all your chapters.
Because you represented the [00:11:00] voice of young engineers and we wanted everyone to have a voice. We had consultation with industry women, which had never happened before large numbers. We talked to the research engineering education groups around the world in Asia and Europe and Latin America. And EWB.
Crucial in bringing the voice of young engineers from so many chapters and collectively everyone, you know, there were tweaks here and there, but at the end of the day, there was huge support. The signatories of the IAA also participated very strongly and had many webinars you know, right up to the time that they approved it.
But I have to say it wasn’t a slam dunk. Right to the end. We weren’t sure how it would go. And it was, and go for a while. Yeah, I know. I remember that guy crossed the line and I think it’s incredible. It’s also incredible that UNESCO. Supported it all the way. And its logo is now on this standard, which is really historic because it’s saying that this is, this [00:12:00] is the way we want a future engineers to be.
And yeah. And, and some of the areas I might add also like the ethical framework, we broadened the meaning of what is meant by. I’ve got professional technical ethics, but environmental inclusion, social and so on. So I think that there were many, many significant changes. And even now when we sit back and ponder it, we can see how much there is in there.
But it’s also, devilishly simple, it’s simple language straight forward, but there’s a whole lot in. Well, even when you touch on, like you just mentioned the S the change, the ethical framework and, and social ethics and environmental ethics, and then there’s a whole, I imagine now globally, a whole unpacking of what that means.
And, and how do you actually assist that? Is there any sort of next steps? Yes, there is absolutely next steps. And it’s very interesting that one of the things we were very careful about was not prescribing how it should be. And that was done very deliberately because we wanted. Each [00:13:00] member nation, each signatory to take it on and, and interpreted and make it its own.
So there’s a principle of equivalence in terms of the signatories and mutual recognition of SU of the engineering education across the international engineering Alliance. And so you recognize equivalents, but each nation can do it their own way, adapt the engineering curriculum and how it’s taught and the practical work to make sure that it’s relevant to that country, to its culture.
And so, and so it makes sense. It’s not imposed from outside it’s from within. And so. This again is an idea that has been embraced by the signatories and some are going faster than others. In fact, it was quite interesting in June while some signatories were saying, oh, it’s going to be very difficult.
One of the signatories, relatively new ones said we’ve already done it. We implementing it in retraining, our academics, which is Pakistan. Oh, fantastic. So I know that China is [00:14:00] moving very fast. They’ve got a big event coming up early next year to implement. They’re very excited about it. They’ve embraced.
Aspects of the new technologies, the way it prepares engineers for new technology. So each, each nation has found something new in there, but the underpinning of the UN sustainable development goals, there is also very important. And, and you know, is again informing that broader impact of engineering that comes from that education.
So when they’re looking at all parts of the framework now, are they referring back to the UN SDGs? Is that how that’s the sort of foundation? Yeah. And again, what we did very deliberately was not to list the 17 goals specifically and say, you’ve got to do A, B and C, but , reference the UN sustainable development goals.
So again, leaving it, it’s like an open exam question, leaving it very open-ended for, for various signatories and nations to take on as much as, or as [00:15:00] little as they wish, as, as long as they maintain, they can demonstrate that equivalence. And I think over time, this is going to evolve. We’ll start to see a model of implementation as this interpretation goes through.
Eleanor: And how does it work then going forward? Is there an opportunity to come back together every year and hear how China’s doing it and how Pakistan is doing and others are doing it like community of practice almost?
Marlene: Yeah, absolutely. They will be there, there will be ongoing webinars.
So I actually spoke at one a couple of days ago on a last Friday. You know, where they were addressing this question. And so each, each jurisdiction will have their you know, discussions with their academics. And then the International Engineering Alliance will I’m sure have their discussions bringing together their signatories and the World Federation of Engineering Organizations will have their discussions with their members.
So there’s some crossover between members of the two groups, but not everyone’s , in both. [00:16:00] So, so we’re suddenly, you know, it’s very early days, but this is just beginning. This is, this is going to have a life of its own.
Eleanor: It’s so inspiring. It’s so wonderful. And of course EWB is always happy to help. I’m interested to know what kind of, you know, for, for the women engineers out there and those who are moving into, cause we’re going to need to see more women engineers in leadership roles. And you’re an excellent example of how change can happen when you’re in these kinds of roles what did you need to to remember or hold true to through this process? The last two years of getting these changes through as, as a, a woman in a man’s world. I mean, I don’t know how many other women they were around that table, but you were leading, leading on this. I’d love to hear some of your sort of you know, what, what you carried, carried with you through that process.
Marlene: Yeah, I have to say that I’ve throughout my career. I’ve been the only woman woman in the room. In fact, I, I have worked with other women on very rare occasions, so, [00:17:00] so I’m, so I’m not phased by that.
And, and I’m carried by, I suppose, my my conviction and vision of what needs to be done, the work that needs to be done. And I also prepare thoroughly, you know what makes the topic, the subject matter and so on. So I put in a great deal of work in that as well. And I, and, but the bottom line is I actually didn’t think about the fact that I was a woman there never occurred to me I just, I just went on and just did the work. So. Yeah, and I, I consider it a privilege, I, to have the opportunity, so to have the opportunity to, to make such a change even though it was an enormous amount of work, you know, seven days a week, you just put everything else aside, personal and family and social, but, you know, for me, it was just a must do. And because it was an opportunity for me in my hands, I just could not say no. Yeah. It was just a matter of just had to get on [00:18:00] with it and do it. And I do, I do see it as a, as an enormous privilege.
I wanted to also go back and add on EWB. I think in terms of implementing, I wanted to add the, the graduate attributes.
The implementation is not so much, you know, learn theoretical topics in the curriculum, but it’s also includes hands-on work. And I think the opportunities that EWB provides in terms of its projects is huge because those projects bring together many elements. The graduate attributes framework in terms of leadership, working in teams, communicating, being innovative, developing solutions in tough conditions with limited resources and, you know, protecting the environment and so on.
You know, I think in one of the activities and promoting this framework is to promote to have a hackathon, a problem solving challenge for young engineers that will relate to the sustainable development goals and some of the[00:19:00] graduate attributes. And we’re hoping that universities will see that and encourage young people to participate in that.
In future. One of the ideas we have is to showcase the work being done by Engineers Without Borders and the chapters around the world and demonstrate how they align in a practical way to achieving the graduate attributes. And hopefully that will give many young people around the world, the opportunity to work on real life projects, and most importantly, to see firsthand how they can have a positive impact through engineering.
Eleanor: Yes. Thank you. I’m more than happy to help with that. Even in Australia, this is as an aside, even in Australia, we, we actually looked at the professional competencies too. And we worked with EA on t he competencies that engineers who’d been on our field trips and worked with us overseas and how that aligned with the, the professional competencies too.
There’s a huge urgency around the world, around the environment and [00:20:00] environmental ethics engineers have a huge role to play and a leadership role to play really in, in what’s going to happen next for our planet. When you were discussing this over the last two years and putting these, these changes into the framework, what was the general sense , around the table? What did people say was important for engineering around environmental sustainability and ethics?
Marlene: Yeah, there was no question that that was important, that that was recognized. And I think what’s lacking is the ability of engineers to feel that they can speak up. Even if you’re in a junior role, my, my messages that you are still a leader, you’re a leader, whatever position you are, and you need to lead that thinking and, speak up and make those changes that make a difference because very often engineering solutions can be changed to achieve the outcomes that, the customer wants or that, the stakeholder needs that you’re looking for while also delivering on those social ethical sustainability [00:21:00] ideals as well. There’s always a way, and that’s the beauty of engineering.
It’s, you know, you, you can be innovative and creative and think through how that can be done. And it’s a bit harder, but, but, you know, I don’t think it’s impossible. And I don’t think that that there’s is an exclusion issue there, but, but really it’s a matter of inclusion and, and same with diversity and so on.
You’ve just got to find the way and, and we found that, for example, in COVID we found a way we quickly found a way to work online and so on because we were forced to do so. And we’ve just simply got to find that way and i hope for climate change, that we start to make those changes now because the next 10 years are going to be so crazy.
Eleanor: Absolutely. Engineers are often invited into the room, aren’t they, you know, you will often see an engineer at the, in the room and yet there does seem to be a hesitation in speaking up or is it, do you think it’s a confidence or is it, is it just not the natural bent?
Marlene: Well, I think as engineers, [00:22:00] we, we stick to the technical stuff, but, but the fact is that n othing can be done, for example, with respect to climate change without engineering. So engineering absolutely has to be in that room. It’s not the policymakers or the politicians or the financial people, or the lawyers who are going to make it happen.
It’s the engineers and the scientists like my dad who will come up with those clever solutions and we’ll employ design and implement them. So we have to have that voice and we need to have that confidence of saying we are the people that are going to make this happen. And here’s how we think it should happen and not get dictated by those who don’t have scientific or technical background. So it’s just a matter of confidence in being able to speak up as, as a community and as a profession. And I I’m hoping, for example, students through the new framework, education framework will develop those attributes in being able to communicate. Communication was considered one of the key [00:23:00] areas.
It was very interesting. It was one of the top areas, teaching engineers to communicate in everywhere, written and verbal and in different contexts. As well use of IT tools, which has become ubiquitous across all the disciplines. So, so these are some of the areas that are so important and that I hope will inform the way engineers engage with society and future.
Eleanor: Hmm. Yeah, because it’s concerning if that doesn’t happen, isn’t it like, you know, I think that there needs to be more engineers and they need to be confident to speak up. And I think that’s completely right. And I think the framework helps to clarify that.
I think it’s very clear in there. So this is an opportunity now for you to. Tell us what’s most on your mind? What are you, what do you want? Anyone listening to our podcast to hear this? This is your opportunity to stand up and say what, next for Marlene Kanga and what next for engineers?
Marlene: Yeah. Well, I think for me, it’s all about the outcomes. It’s not about me personally. And if I’ve [00:24:00] managed to facilitate something and set the ball rolling for for an idea or an issue that will have ongoing impact, well, then that’s the greatest achievement for me. And I think that communicating the role of engineering to the broader community, community, to moms and dads, to teachers, career advisors and most importantly to young people so that they can aspire to be an engineer and have that vision that I can change the world. You know, I have, I will get the tools really make a genuine change. That’s very important and I wanted to advocate for World Engineering Day for Sustainable Development.
It was. A big idea. And when I embarked on it, I had no idea how I was going to get there. Unlike the graduate attributes framework, we had thought it through this one. I hadn’t. And every time I met someone, they told me a little bit more on how it could be done. And at one point I’d actually given up. But every time I thought it’s too hard, somebody else would tell me [00:25:00] something and I would go on and we got, got it across the line. It was an incredible roller coaster ride. I have to say you know, I sat until midnight at the UNESCO executive board meeting in Paris. You know, just waiting for the decision to be made and it wasn’t made and you know, things like that, but eventually we got there and it’s, it’s been a phenomenal success. It’s grown from just in the last two years, reaching 32 million in 20, 22 and year three, we hope to exceed a hundred million with hundreds of events all around the world. We have engineers. You know, celebrating spontaneously, which is what we want. We have one community to celebrate spontaneously.
So for example, in 2021, we had the little town of Rochester in the UK light up a bridge Rochester bridge for world engineering day. And you know, that’s great. That’s terrific. That’s the message. Of the wonder of engineering being communicated in Rochester. And we want everyone around the world to do something similar to, [00:26:00] you know, to communicate, to have a party or whatever, and to talk everything engineering and to say that really it’s not boring, but it actually makes our work, makes our economy, keeps us healthy, keeps us moving and makes life modern life so good. So really I think World Engineering Dayis another great w ay of communicating about engineering, we’ve sort of opened the door for engineers and giving them the opportunity and many have taken it up.
The Twitter feed was phenomenal, 20, 21, and we think it’s only going to get better in 2022. So that’s my soapbox celebrate World Engineering Day on the 4th of March each year.
Eleanor: And we’ve got the hackathon. Do you want to talk a little bit about the hackathon?
Marlene: I think the hackathon is a key event of World Engineering Day.
And this is one where we focus on young engineers and engineering student. And we would like engineering students to work on one of three challenges, which we’re going to pose in early January which they will have to work in teams and, and [00:27:00] develop a solution that’s innovative creative, advances one or more of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and of the best of all the submissions we’ll pick eight or 10 and make them into videos which will be shown on world Engineering Day in a 24 hour live streaming event that will be held around the world on the 4th of March, 2022.
So I’m really inviting all engineering students in particular around the world to take part in this challenge, it’s being supported by Engineers Without Borders, and it really is, is a way to achieve some of the requirements of the graduate attributes and professional competencies framework.
Eleanor: So here you’ve come from India, turning the lights on at the airport to now having people turn on lights for engineering in Rochester going forward, there’ll be solar lights and they’ll be women who designed them, women engineers, you’ve had an amazing journey and look what you’ve achieved. I’m [00:28:00] really so, so grateful to be speaking with you and so thankful for your time today. If people want to contact you or want to learn more about the hackathon or learn more about your story or where we go from here with the global attributes, where do we find out more information?
Marlene: Well, there’s two places. There’s a website for World Engineering Day, which is www.worldengineeringday.net. And you can also go to the. World Federation of Engineering organization :website,www.WEFO.org and if you do a search under engineering education, you’ll find the framework and you’ll find lots of information on some of the issues that I’ve talked about.
Eleanor: Thank you so much. Thank you so much for your time. I’ve loved talking with you.
Marlene: Thank you. That’s been a great privilege and I really enjoyed it. Thank you very much.