Written By

Michael Thompson

College

College of Science and Engineering

Publish Date

31 May 2024

Related Study Areas

Celebrating progress and achievements

This June, engineering alumni will gather for a reunion more than 50 years in the making. Hosted at JCU’s brand new Engineering and Innovation Place, the event will mark the opening of this incredible space and celebrate how engineering has shaped and changed our world.

The upcoming JCU Engineering Reunion will provide an opportunity for students and graduates to reflect on how the profession has changed since 1970, when engineering was one of the foundation courses offered by the newly proclaimed James Cook University.

The reunion will also be an opportunity to look ahead at what the future holds, and what role engineering could play in the progress of society.

JCU Head of Engineering Professor Bouchra Senadji never imagined working in the rapidly evolving world she does now. A major reason for that is how quickly change can happen, especially in engineering.

Having recently been appointed to her leading role at JCU, Professor Senadji works in the Engineering and Innovation Place - a marvel of engineering itself.

JCU's state-of-the-art Engineering and Innovation Place.

A state-of-the-art home

The $100m four-storey building features 23 new lab spaces, industry engagement and garage space, workshop, multi-modal studio and conference rooms, and many other start-of-the-art features.

“The new building is a representation of what engineering is. It’s vast,” Professor Senadji says. "We held a workshop recently with some young students and in the morning we talked about engineering and the perception of engineering, and then in the afternoon we brought them to the EIP for a tour. Their reaction was like ‘this is incredible’.”

It’s a long way from the early years of Professor Senadji’s career when she worked in offices with emerging technology such as fax machines and cordless phones.

“Very early on in my work I was in France and we were discussing the GSM (Global System for Mobile communication) and moving from analogue to digital systems. I remember during a meeting someone said it would be nice to conceive of a mobile phone that could also be an office where you could do everything,” she says. “At the time I was thinking ‘I don’t know what this person is talking about’. It is now a reality.”

Professor Senadji could never have imagined she’d one day be teaching in a classroom where each and every student would own one such ‘mobile phone office’.

“But that’s basically an explanation of how engineering works. There is an idea that is out there, and the capability may or may not be there, and the idea is developed to reach it,” she says.

JCU's new Engineering and Innovation Place.
One of the old JCU Engineering buildings
Left: JCU's new Engineering and Innovation Place. Right: JCU is farewelling its old engineering buildings.

Building society on fundamental principles

Engineering has always played a fundamental role in society by providing solutions to daily problems, along with using knowledge, skills and creativity to design and maintain technologies that improve our quality of life.

Engineers are at the forefront of developing new solutions and creating a better future as technology evolves and new challenges emerge.

But Professor Senadji says engineering will always be required to meet society’s basic needs.

“We always need housing, we always need food, we always need to socialise as humans,” she says. “That’s what engineering is, it’s a service to communities. It’s a technical service but it’s a service to support our communities.

“Basic needs are always going to be there. The way we achieve those basic needs might be different, but the need to live, connect and explore will always be there. That will never change.”

“That’s why we are passionate about engineering at JCU. We have a strong focus on our local region with teaching and research, including important topics like renewable energies, sustainable cities and waste-to-resource technologies.”

Working through change from the start

JCU Engineering Alumni Nikki Thomson graduated from JCU with a Bachelor of Civil Engineering (Honours) in 2017 and now works as a civil engineer at Energy Queensland.

Since entering the workforce Nikki has experienced significant changes in her profession, and they have directly impacted her work.

“I've seen a major shift towards sustainability, including a big push to meet renewable energy targets,” Nikki says.

“Many of the large projects I have worked on have had some driving force due to climate, whether that's increasing resilience in water supply to overcome droughts or electrifying our cities to eliminate reliance on traditional power generating methods such as coal or gas.”

Nikki has already seen enough change in her profession to know even bigger changes are coming.

“So much has changed in the last 20 years, I can only imagine the next 20 will be just as drastic if not even more so. I think sustainability and climate will continue to be big factors, as well as emerging technologies that we haven't even fathomed yet,” she says.

Professor Bouchra Senadji is Head of Engineering at JCU.
JCU alumnus Nikki Thomson at work as an engineer.
Left: JCU Head of Engineering Professor Bouchra Senadji. Right: JCU Engineering graduate Nikki Thomson.

The future of engineering is already here

Professor Senadji says an emerging technology that has the capacity to change engineering forever is artificial intelligence (AI).

She believes the technology can be incorporated into society and become an everyday part of life. Perhaps most importantly, AI can become an essential learning tool.

Some learning institutions have placed restrictions on AI applications such as Chat GPT, which is used for generating content, answering questions, engaging in conversations and providing explanations.

“This is something that’s going to be part of our students’ lives forever,” Professor Senadji says. “Just like calculators; originally they were banned as a learning tool but they became part of everyone’s lives, so you don’t need to always do operations by hand now. They support a different type of learning.

“The challenge is how to use AI to still teach the fundamentals that all engineers have, which is essentially critical thinking; the way you solve problems, the way you communicate and analyse.

“You want to master AI rather than have AI master you.”

JCU engineering students learn to use and apply critical thinking to AI tools from their first semester of study. As their studies progress, students also have the opportunity to take several in-depth subjects on building their own AI tools.

This approach encourages critical thinking about AI technologies and equips JCU graduates with a unique and essential skillset in responsible use of these important tools.

The future of engineering promises to be awe-inspiring.

Embracing the new wave

Third year JCU Bachelor of Engineering Student Jakson Gardnir is part of a new generation who are excited about the changing face of engineering.

He also believes artificial intelligence will be one of the emerging technologies that changes how engineers perform their tasks.

“It is such a powerful tool that is being used all over the place and can be applied in so many different ways. Its use is only going to become more ubiquitous as time goes on,” Jakson says.

“I see the future of engineering evolving through increased use of sensors, coding, computing and AI in all fields.”

Jakson is on track for a promising future in the engineering industry after winning the Merv Short Prize for STEM, which is awarded to the College of Science and Engineering student who obtains the highest GPA in their first year.

At first he had enrolled for a Diploma of Higher Education (now JCU Prep) so he could study marine science. But after accidently joining a group of engineers for a campus tour during O-Week, Jakson’s mind was set on a new path.

“Engineers are extremely important to society. Just about everything people use in modern day society has been created by engineers."

JCU Engineering Student Jakson Gardnir

Professor Senadji said the possibilities for engineers, whether they be experienced industry professionals or eager students, were always expanding.

“A lot of professions create a narrow path and always do the same thing. With engineering there are so many possibilities to learn, re-learn and re-invent yourself all the time, so the possibilities are enormous,” she says. “The path is broadening rather than narrowing.”

Want to join the celebrations and learn more about JCU Engineering? Register today to attend the JCU Engineering Reunion on 15 June.

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