University of Surrey: Engineering education that meets the grand challenges of our time

University of Surrey: Engineering education that meets the grand challenges of our time

A degree from the University of Surrey’s School of Mechanical Engineering Sciences prepares engineers to create a resilient, green and healthy future. 

For this episode of the “Extra Credit” podcast series, Study International speaks to Lizzie Sergeev, on the knowledge, skills and opportunities she gained from her MEng in Aerospace Engineering and PhD in Robotics and Autonomous Systems from Surrey. 

We also talked to Professor Robert Dorey, Head of the School of Mechanical Engineering Sciences, to learn more about the new MSc in Advanced Mechanical Engineering.

Listen below, and wherever you get your podcasts.

The transcript below has been lightly edited for grammar, spelling and clarity.

Shekinah KannanHello everyone and welcome back to the “Extra Credit” podcast. Every month, through compelling conversations with international students, graduates, and professors, we highlight the beauty, boldness, and benefits of studying abroad. My name is Shekinah and today we will be diving into the world of mechanical engineering at the University of Surrey.

For those who don’t know, the University’s School of Mechanical Engineering Sciences is home to several courses accredited by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE).

It is also known for its cutting-edge research and industry-standard facilities — two aspects that definitely enhance [the] learning experience. But to find out what that means, we will be speaking to Lizzie Sergeev, a graduate of the school who decided to stay on for a PhD too. So, without further ado, let’s jump into her journey. Hi Lizzy, how are you?

Lizzie Sergeev: Hi, I’m good. Thank you.

Shekinah: Well, thank you for joining us. We’re looking forward to knowing more about your time at school so far, beginning with what motivated you to pursue a master’s degree in the field of engineering in the first place. And why at the University of Surrey?

Lizzie: The University of Surrey was actually the first university I went to as an undergraduate. I started my MEng degree here; I was 17 at the time when I started the university. The first time I visited, it was for a campus tour; I went with my dad [when] I was 16. At the time, it looked really big and intimidating. I thought this was really scary. This is a new experience.

I chose the University of Surrey because of the facilities that I saw, like you can see the Formula Student car through the windows of the engineering buildings and how beautiful Surrey University was when I visited it. It was really great to see. Additionally, it’s connected really well to airports, and like travel in general. As a European student, it was great to have that sort of connection to home.

So, I chose engineering because, at 16, I wanted to be an RAF pilot. I chose aerospace engineering because it sounded cool and I wanted to become a pilot after graduating. Obviously, those plans have changed, [but] that was like my goal in life. Now, I’m a PhD student at Surrey again and it’s been a great experience. I think it really taught me a lot.

Shekinah: Sounds like it’s been quite the journey. Going back to the beginning, could you tell us more about your MEng experience? 

LizzieI did a five-year course. I did a bachelor’s with an integrated master’s and then a placement year right in the middle. So my first two years at the university were really basic — the lecturers tried to reach all the students to the same level. In the second year, it gets more difficult. You still do in-person exams and just go into more individual subjects. 

It is divided into four branches: mechanical, biomedical, automotive, and mechanical. I was part of the aerospace branch and we got to learn things like aerodynamics, flight mechanics, and everything to do with planes in general. 

Then, I had my placement year between my second and third year, where I worked for a company in Chertsey, a town not far from Guildford. They were still in Guilford at the time. I worked at a company that designs and manufactures electrical equipment for fuel testing purposes, so I just did CAD for that, and that was a great experience. I learned a lot because [it] was my first real job. 

I learned a lot about working, being able to provide reports, and working in the industry for the first time. I learned a lot of social and soft skills, as well as technical. My third and fourth years were a lot more specific, so we had a lot more options. I decided to go into the space branch and now I’m doing a space-related PhD research programme. 

Shekinah: Very cool. I’d love to know more about your placement. Was that a mandatory component of the program? Or is that something you were especially determined to experience for yourself?

Lizzie: So, it’s an option. However, we were quite encouraged to do this. In the beginning, I was part of a four-year degree, so I didn’t have a placement. Then I changed my degree programme to have a  sandwich year, so to speak, with a placement year in between because all of my friends were doing placement and I kept asking them: “Why do you want to do that?” At 16, 17, [or] 18, I didn’t even realise how useful it would be. And they were like, “Well, you get money and you get paid for this,” so that was part of the reason I decided to try.

Applying for those placements was incredibly stressful, as I understand it for any 19- or 18-year-old — but it was an incredibly good experience. You get to go through all of the application processes of being a graduate, but you’re not a graduate yet. You can choose to have your placement year between the second and third or third and fourth year if you’re doing a four-year programme.

A lot of my friends that I had couldn’t get into a placement after the second year, so they did one after the third year instead. Obviously, we still graduated at the same time, so that was still very good — and they also gained a lot of skills.

A few placements I know were outside of the UK as well. I have friends going to America, Spain, and Italy. You can get quite a lot of experience and in those placements, you can move between departments — it’s a little bit like a grad scheme but compacted into one year.

You also have the opportunity to start your chartership by doing the MPDS. MPDS stands for Monitored Professional Development Scheme. It’s led by the IMechE which will help you with your chartership in the future. So I believe that you have to do four years of this in total, but it doesn’t have to be all together. And you can take your first year as the placement year and then only need to do three more years to be able to achieve chartership. I believe you do an annual report with quarterly reports in between as well. That can come towards your chartership if you decide to do this one after graduating.

Shekinah: It’s amazing that you got the chance to change routes once you discovered the benefits of a placement. It also sounds like quite a big step for a student in their late teens, at still such a young age to go into the industry. But tell me a bit more about the support that was provided to you to help you prepare for this opportunity.

Lizzie: Our Employability and Career Centre in Surrey is one of the best in the UK, if not the best. They provide you with an incredible amount of support. You can do CV workshops [or] you can attend a one-to-one meeting with a career counsellor and see whether they want to help you with your CV or your cover letters and help you find placements through something called Pathfinder, which basically advertises all the placements that the Career Service are connected with and are aware of. The University itself has quite good connections with industry in general. If you have a wish to go to a particular industry, they will be able to put you in contact with somebody depending on who and what and when. A lot of students take advantage of that programme and that helps them get placements.

Shekinah: It’s great knowing that there’s so much support available to students looking to put knowledge into practice and get a better understanding of the fields they’re interested in. I’m sure it’s quite eye-opening, and I’m sure it also somewhat influenced your shift. You mentioned starting out specialising in aerospace engineering and eventually transitioning into more space-related topics, which you’re still exploring today as a PhD student. Could you walk us through what influenced this evolution?

Lizzie: It began really with the projects that I had to be involved with as part of the course. The first project that was heavily research-based was my MD DP, which is a multidisciplinary design project which is part of your master’s programme, where you get to work with a group of students from different departments and different engineering courses. I think two of us were aerospace, two of us mechanical and two of us were electrical. Other groups have civil and chemical engineers in them as well, I believe. We were all working together to produce a solution to a problem that we were told that we had to solve.

Our problem was space debris removal, which is a big issue today and we’ve designed a robot satellite to fix that problem. We did the CAD for it and researched the problem. We saw how this could help in real life, [calculated] how much it would cost all the sort of related aspects of the project, and we presented it like a poster presentation, and then a proper presentation that was in front of all the other students. That was incredibly fun. That was the proper, real first research project that we had to do together. And it was also like a group project. I learned a lot of skills then.

The project’s topic is why I’m doing that PhD and the topic I’m doing my PhD on it is incredibly similar.

Shekinah: When it was time for you to start figuring out where you were going to pursue a PhD, was remaining at the University of Surrey always your first choice?

Lizzie: After my placement, I decided that at least industry at the time was just not for me. It wasn’t because I didn’t enjoy my placement — I loved it and it gave me great skills, but it taught me that I wanted to look for something else as well.

In my third and fourth year, I was looking into research programmes and how I would be able to do research. Between my third and fourth year, I interned at the University of Surrey in a lab called Peerspace, to do a research project over the summer. That was like a three-month experience, and I gained a lot from it. I managed to learn a lot about real independent research before my fourth year started, so that was very helpful.

And that research project was all about space robotics and on-orbit servicing, which is also part of my PhD now. So that was the first real job experience that was paid. That was to do with research and that helped me a lot. Then, in fourth year, we also got, at least in my second semester, an individual research project that also helped solidify the idea that I liked research and that I wanted to stay in this field. So yeah, I think all of those experiences combined, convinced me that I wanted to do a PhD and stay at the University of Surrey to do it.

Shekinah: It definitely sounds like the MEng programme laid the perfect foundation for it, considering its practical elements. I know it’s still early days for you, but how has your doctoral journey been so far?

Lizzie : It’s been great. I mean, though, it has only been two months, I’m really happy with everything that I’ve done. Obviously, there are days when I get to do a lot of progress and days when I don’t do a lot — and that’s completely fine. But I haven’t felt any regrets about the decision I’ve made to stay in Surrey and do research as part of my further education, so I’ve been learning a whole lot and I’ve learned a whole lot already.

I’m also involved in other projects, like leading a competition and demonstrating as a module for second years because I also realised while working as a course representative and the student ambassador and doing this research project over the summer that I wanted to teach and share my knowledge with others. So, while doing that altogether, during my PhD, learning how to teach was also just amazing. So I get to see all of that. It’s a lot of fun.

Shekinah: Is it safe to say that this is the route you’re hoping to take once you complete your PhD?

Lizzie: Yeah, definitely. So, I would love to be a lecturer. I think it’s really fun, obviously not full-time, I would like to do my research and lecture at the same time. So, I hope to be an academic eventually. But that’s quite a bit down the road; I have to do quite a lot to get to that stage.

Shekinah: You definitely sound ready and I guess that’s because of the amount of exposure you’ve received so far, and the professional development opportunities that have surrounded you since you got here. Do you feel like the collective experience so far has impacted your future career?

Lizzie: Definitely. So if, for example, you’ve just finished your bachelor’s, and you’re not sure whether you want to go into industry or you want to do research and you just want another year to not just think about what you want, but also develop your skills further, whether you had or hadn’t had a chance to do a placement year, or if you had a chance to be involved.

Otherwise, say for example, because of COVID, you didn’t manage to do all those extracurricular activities and develop yourself further. You can do this master’s year — it’s the best of both worlds because you have the time to decide whether you want to go into industry or not and the programme won’t just prepare you for one or the other. It prepares you for both, so you can do either at the end. It’s a really good way to develop yourself further if you feel like you’re not prepared yet.

ShekinahIt sounds like a great place for students who are still hoping to solidify their plans for the future. Thank you so much, Lizzie, for spending time with us today and walking us through what it means to study mechanical engineering at the University of Surrey. So far, we’ve covered industry experiences and unwavering support. We’ve also touched on pathway customisation and career readiness.

Another factor we must speak about is how the School of Mechanical Engineering Sciences evolves with time to keep its learners ahead of the curve. Just one of the ways it does this is by updating its lineup of academic offerings. For example, the school just launched its brand new advanced Mechanical Engineering MSc.

Walking us through this new addition now is Robert Dorey, who leads the school, making him the perfect person to elaborate on what this new programme entails and how it is preparing students to meet society’s grand challenges. Welcome Robert, thank you so much for joining us.

Robert: My pleasure, really nice to be here.

Shekinah: Jumping right in, starting with the basics, can you tell us about your background in mechanical engineering and your role as Head of School? 

Robert: As you rightfully said, I’m Head of School of Mechanical Engineering Science. The sciences are really important. We don’t just do mechanical engineering; we do everything that’s associated with mechanical engineering. So there’s automotive, biomedical, and there’s aeronautical aerospace. We do a lot around design. In fact, I’m a materials engineer by training. So, when I was an undergraduate student, I graduated as a materials engineer. I then did a postdoc where I got into manufacturing and design of active devices and then built my academic career around there. So I’m very much coming from a background of developing new materials, developing new ways of making things and designing mechanical, electrical type-based systems.

Shekinah: And how long have you been with the University of Surrey? 

Robert: So, I came to the University of Surrey in 2016. Head of School for the last two years. So, I’ve had a bunch of different roles. I used to look after our postgraduate students. I’ve looked after the engineering materials research centre. I’ve looked after the research portfolio for the school. But yeah, for the last two years, [I was] Head of School.

Shekinah: It’s safe to say you’ve seen the cchool grow with time. That’s great. Could you tell us more about your involvement in bringing the advanced Mechanical Engineering MSC to life?

Robert: Yeah, so it was an interesting time because, obviously, two years ago, we were just coming out of the COVID era. There were a lot of changes and we are developing a new way of looking at the school. We are trying to grow the school’s impact and one part of that is the Advanced Mechanical Engineering MSc and trying to really develop the skill sets of our students.

As you would have heard from Lizzie, Surrey is really good at engaging with industry and creating high quality graduates that are really valued by industry. And that’s where we’re heading. That’s what we’re trying to do for our students.

Shekinah: And how is the advanced Mechanical Engineering MSc helping with the school’s goals and what do you think sets it apart?

Robert: The Advanced Mechanical Engineering MSc is offering graduates from a bachelor’s programme the opportunity to really hone and develop their industry skill set. So, we’re not looking to simply deliver a bunch of additional taught material to the students. Our programme is very different from a traditional “sit there, listen to a bunch of lectureers talk at you” type mentality. We based our programme around an engaging series of projects and there are technical modules, because obviously, there are skill sets that you need to grow and develop.

But actually, the core of the programme is a group project that runs across two of our semesters, and then an individual project that comes out at the end of it. And it’s that core group project that is really designed to instil and develop those professional skills within our graduates.

Shekinah: How do these projects and the overall programme incorporate cutting-edge technologies and industry-relevant practices to prepare students for real-world applications? 

Robert: Because we are focusing on this group project side of things, what we’ve not done is simply create an academic exercise. This is not our kind of a thing where a bunch of academics go: “Wouldn’t it be nice to try and look at this type of thing?”

What we’ve done is look at what the industry needs in real life. We’ve engaged with those industry partners; we talk to the partners quite frequently. We’ve got a lot of projects that actually collaborate with industry. We’ve got a lot of academics who are embedded in various learned communities and societies which interact with industry. So, we are identifying a series of grand challenges and we are setting our students loose on this.

So this isn’t a sort of idea where we necessarily know the outcome; we are simply starting the project where there is a challenge.

So, for example, one of the challenges that our students will face next round is we need energy. We need a method to have a resilient energy supply or solution for various activities. So one of the things we’re trying to do is to create an energy platform that you can imagine you just drop into a disaster relief area. Or if you’re living in a really, really remote, off-grid kind of location.

We provide you with your energy, so it’s kind of a decentralised energy solution instead of big central power stations like nuclear power stations with big wind turbine infrastructures that generate the power that sends it to your various homes, which works fine for a developed country like the UK, but actually, as you move to build more rural occasions or if you’re off-grid type environments, or like I said, the sort of disaster relief area, what you want is this power being generated nearby and looking at solutions where you can share that power with your nearest neighbour. So it’s kind of a community-based power generation system that we’re looking at as part of our first series of group projects.

To the students, we are working together with teams of between five to six kinds of students, a bit like the multidisciplinary design projects that we’ve historically run with our undergraduate programmes. So we’ve got the track record on how to work with these kinds of projects; we’ll take these groups of students together and set them loose.

There won’t be a clear design brief at the start. That’s part of what the students have to do; they have to develop ideas, they have to talk with each other, they have to talk to other potentially interested parties outside of the university within the university, and they have to do this in a professional manner. And hey, guess what? That is exactly the skill set you need to demonstrate when you get your first job.

We are treating our master’s students as if they are employed; we are training them throughout that whole year as if they are professional engineers. So when they graduate from us, they are professional engineers, and they can go straight into the company and just crack on with that work.

Shekinah: Definitely an underrated approach, I would say but it sounds incredibly effective. And keeping in mind everything Lizzie mentioned previously about professional development as well. 

Robert: We have embedded professional training within our PhD programme. Again, our employers who employ our graduates absolutely love it because our doctoral students exit their doctoral studies, day one, they are a useful member of the company. And that’s what we’re striving for our master’s graduates.

Shekinah: Could you share examples of industry collaborations or partnerships that students in this programme might get to be a part of?

Robert: For example, in the energy programme that we just talked about, we’re collaborating with the big winds generating people, like Siemens and EDS. They are the kind of industrial collaborators that we’re talking with.

Historically, we’ve done other ones. I mean, we’ve actually just finished up a project working with CERN, that big particle accelerator people in Geneva, and you think, well, there’s a bunch of physicists. Well, actually, most of the people who work at CERN are engineers. The physicists who do all the science are visitors. To keep CERN working requires engineers. And there are 3,000 odd engineers, and we’ve been working with the fire and safety team to look at engineering solutions for how do you handle a tunnel fire.

These particle accelerators are underground. It takes a series of times for the fire brigade to get there should there be anything on. So we’ve been working with CERN and the CERN fire and safety team, to look at solutions to automate that. How can we get mechanical engineering systems in there that monitor the fire, tell the fire brigade what’s going on and maybe even intervene and try and fight the fire in an autonomous manner. So, the type of people [and] the type of companies we engage with are across all of the engineering sectors. It’s not discipline-specific — mechanical engineering features across all disciplines.

Shekinah: Nice, a pretty extensive lineup, which I’m sure will only grow with time as the sector evolves. But speaking of this, in your opinion, what are some of the exciting trends or advancements we can expect to see in the field of mechanical engineering in the coming years?

Robert: I think mechanical engineering, when you hear the word you hear the word mechanic, and you automatically think it’s just gears, levers, knobs, and dials.  The world has moved on. Mechanical engineering isn’t just limited to the mechanics side of things. Really, we need to be including more of the  electronics, and more on the control side of things.

So any mechanical object that you interact with, in this modern day includes electricity, I mean, ultimately, you think about something like a car. It’s not just four wheels, the steering wheel and the engine anymore. It is that exciting world of electronics and mechanics coming together. And that’s really where the exciting part is: it’s how do you electrify your mechanical systems? How do you control these things? How do you bring in artificial intelligence? How do you bring in the wider kind of sustainability issues? How do you power this sort of stuff? How would you make your mechanical engineering system not just sustainable from an energy perspective or a use of raw materials perspective but from a societal perspective? How do you ensure that that mechanical engineering product is valued by the people who use it and it’s not just a disposable commodity? How does it add value to someone’s life? How does it grow a community? How does it make that community, make that country, makes those groups of people more prosperous? And that’s really the changing ethos of mechanical engineering and mechanical engineering sciences.

It’s about how you make the world a better place through your design choices, through your manufacturing choices, and through how you operate that system.

Shekinah: Well, it definitely sounds like a discipline that leads to a wide range of career paths. Could you provide some examples of the professional titles that an Advanced Mechanical Engineering MSC graduate could pursue once they complete the programme?

Robert: Across the various sectors, we’re going to be graduating students that are aiming for leadership positions, so they’ll probably be going into, at the starting stage of kind of technical managers, ideally leading a small group of 10 and then very rapidly building their career from that.

So historically, our graduates have gone into those sorts of positions. And within a very few number of years, they are then becoming section leaders. They are then becoming managers of much more grander ranked entities and activities. So that’s certainly the sort of thing we’d expect to see them doing within an engineering type discipline, if they’re going into an engineering company. That’s traditionally how that activity goes.

A number of our graduates have also gone into entrepreneurship. So they just started their own companies, you don’t have to join an existing company. There are a lot of really interesting, innovative products being generated in the engineering field. And often our graduates feel well actually, this is something I feel very passionate about. You heard some of the passion coming from Lizzie there.

They want to grow that entity that activity in their own right, so they’ll do a spin-out company, they’ll form their own company and run with it. And they will be the director of this spin-out company, which then has the potential to grow and develop.

So really, it depends on the passion, the drive of the graduates. Some people like working for companies, some people want to go into research, some people want to go into development, and some people want to go into more of quality, health and safety. Some people strike out and do their own little thing. We graduate graduates are all types. I think across the board, they’re all high quality, and they all end up succeeding, as a lot of highly successful Mechanical Engineering Science MSC graduates out there in the world.

Shekinah: Great and diverse outcomes can definitely attract a diverse cohort. You mentioned that, with this MSc, students engage in a number of projects as team members. And what do you envision this programme’s first cohort to look like? What are their educational backgrounds? And what views do they bring to their teams? Just to give aspiring students an idea of who they will be able to learn from and alongside by enrolling.

Robert: Yeah, the traditional version of a master’s programme, as someone who’s probably done a Bachelor of Engineering type degree, they might have done a Bachelor of Science degree. They want to build on their skills, maybe want to focus in on a specific technical area. So suddenly, there wouldn’t be those students within that body. But I think the students have also had that opportunity to go out into industries they might have graduated a couple of years ago, done two or three years worth of industrial work and go, you know what, I want a little bit more. I want to build my career, I want to develop my career. We’d certainly hope that we’ll be joined by some of those sorts of students. And the value of that is that we then have this really nice mixed cohort.

You’ve got students who’ve got a little bit of life experience, and we’ve suddenly got students coming from different countries and different disciplines. So they’re all coming together with those different experiences and able to learn from each other. Again, this reflects back to that professionalism. If you have this sort of mono-cultural view of how engineering should be done, to develop products that suit a mono culture. If you have a worldview of what engineering should be about and how to challenge and how to address some of those big challenges, you end up with an engineering product that is fit for the world. And that’s really one of the big values. It’s the ability of our students to interact with students from different cultures and staff from different cultures. Again, our staff body is made up of people around the world.

Shekinah: That’s great to know especially for students hoping to build a strong network that will last them throughout their careers. For those who are especially interested in making an impact with a mechanical engineering qualification, how does the advanced Mechanical Engineering MSc prepare tomorrow’s engineers for the green industrial revolution?

Robert: A big part of our advanced Mechanical Engineering MSC is professionalism. I mentioned earlier this need to incorporate sustainability within your design philosophy whenever you’re doing anything from an engineering perspective. Having that view of sustainability. Sustainability is one of the core pillars of the University of Surrey that spans across the whole university, and all of our schools and faculty engage with that.

It’s also embedded across all of our education. So, within the advanced mechanical engineering programme, for example, the group project. You will be assessed on the sustainability or solutions. You will be taught about potential ways of bringing sustainability. You will be challenged on your views of sustainability. We will open those conversations up to talk about sustainability because for the Green Revolution, there is no one answer.

If you look at the media, there’s lots of stuff going on. Some people view sustainability as all about CO2, some people view sustainability as all about the economic side of things, some people view it as all about the societal impact side effects, some people view it as the use of materials. It’s all of that together and you need to balance the various sides of it, and engage with your community and stakeholders to work out what is a sustainable solution, not necessarily the sustainable solution or multiple solutions out there.

ShekinahWell said, I couldn’t agree more and I’m hoping that one day we get to cover what your graduates will go on to achieve in the future. Thank you so much, Robert, for dedicating this time to us and providing such great insights into the University of Surrey Advanced Mechanical Engineering MSC programme. Again, thank you so much to Lizzie as well for joining us earlier. To our listeners keen on learning more about the School of Mechanical Engineering Sciences and its brand new programme, everything there is to know can be found on

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