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An Emergence of ‘Political Engineering’: Unpacking the Civil War between King’s Engineers and Physicists

Staff Writer, Minseok Ryu, asked engineering students and staff for their views towards the other. The political backlash may affect your studies too.

This month officially marks my one-year anniversary of joining King’s ‘Robotics Society’. I have seen many glowing technically-gifted students arrive at Strand, up the stairs past the hallowed chapel into Room K3.11. Likewise, out the emergency exit leading to a refurbished storage room; I have seen just as many formerly glowing students leave Strand, jaded and frustrated by the squalid quality of engineering equipment on offer. I am talking of course about Wheatstone Lab.

Its “maker space for science” tagline is a long-standing source of ridicule among DIY enthusiasts, not least owing to its poor location. On-lookers watching those escaping the unventilated ‘lab’ covering their mouths with double face masks may be forgiven for raising alarm of yet another viral outbreak. After all, the glitchy laser cutter is a convicted deviant not above flashing its nozzle on unsuspecting acrylics. Or perhaps the jittery 3D printer finally offed itself in defiance of its decommissioned cousins blocking a back entrance simply known as the “door-that-shall-not-be-opened” among students.

It is only natural to ask: why on earth is a broom cupboard being used as a makeshift maker-space so clearly unsuited to handle any more than four students at any given time? And so began my quest to unravel this confounding mystery straddling mathematics and modern languages classrooms on Floor 3¾ of the King’s Building, the answer murkier than ever imagined.

Student Uprisings

I started by reaching out to a former colleague from Robotics Society one sunny afternoon. Charlie (not their real name to protect their identity, such is the sensitive nature of this article) earned a master’s degree in electrical & electronics engineering (EEE). Our friendly coffee date inevitably turned sour at the mere mention of King’s lectures; I almost tasted the bitterness with which they sprayed a feeling of being “robbed of valuable skills taught at every leading institution but here” as coffee droplets peppered my face. Evidently, Charlie is not only saddened but vexed to learn the worldwide reputation of their course has been steadily falling “alongside its pedagogical competence in EEE.”

By no means is this an isolated viewpoint. An underground network of volunteers broke to the surface under the ‘Research In Electronics Society‘ banner last month, comprising jaundiced students running the gamut of academic disciplines ready to voice their concerns against the university’s engineering shenanigans. Launched sometime last year to combat the insidious transition towards more business-oriented modules, this student-led activism is the ambitious brainchild of Dimitri, 2nd-year student and outspoken critic of King’s engineering culture. Sneaking into their end-of-month Teams call, I asked about members’ motivations and sentiments.

“Research In Electronics (RIE) is in the business of handing out free handbooks on extended topics to combat the shifting focus away from pure electronics (…) empowering EEE students with theoretical underpinnings critical to employment – like high-voltage circuits and PCB design which is not even taught, unlike at Manchester and UCL,” says Michael, handling society liaison. “While embracing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals is noble and great for PR, who exactly stands to benefit: the department or the students?”

Indeed, there were sweeping nods as Dimitri uploaded innumerable email exchanges with his personal tutor and TAs requesting extra support sessions, newer testing equipment and changes to module content to better reflect real-world scenarios. Their response is firmly curt: his latest concerns will be taken into consideration via the CC’ing of senior staff members – code for “shifting the onus of blame to engineering’s top brass”. Beneath the department’s diplomatic clichés, even I can’t help but sense their thinly-veiled contempt for undergraduates daring to disrupt sacred engineering practice at King’s.

Political Engineering 101

The biggest gripe among student interviewees seems to be the lack of general guidance on their eponymous topic of study. Yet the real tragedy lies in its human element. Senior management has been unrelenting under heavy fire from angry physicists up in arms over limited laboratories, grabbing floors wherever they can in their aggressive expansion scheme. Such political free-for-all concerning ownership of shared teaching space has been brewing below the surface for years. And at its core, hidden four storeys beneath Macadam’s jingle jangle chorus of music practice rooms – an unassuming public front no doubt – lies a high-tech electronics lab firmly guarded by two sets of double-glazed security doors straight out of Batman’s bunker.

The underlying tension between engineers and physicists recently culminated in the latter’s routing an unprecedented war budget towards reclaiming the impenetrable underground installations. The “new Wheatstone Lab will include a resin 3D printer, a new laser cutter, a PCB etching machine and more,” reads an email from Dr James Millen, senior lecturer in physics, who is leading an initiative to open up the makerspace to all King’s students regardless of discipline next semester.

On the other side of the camp, King’s Engineering doubled down on paranoid efforts to choke off access to other cutting-edge laboratories. In fairness, this announcement is not without reason: five blundering freshers had been caught lobbing footballs across the Quad’s workbenches at the dead of night in the midst of Qatar World Cup mania. That being said, such stratified gatekeeping at the major expense of do-gooders only serves to narrow the prospects of inter-year-group interactions.

Engineering For Business

Quite ironically, wellbeing campaigns proudly flaunt the department’s “unique combination of general engineering and robotics modules” which will enable students to develop “practical expertise in computation, programming and hardware design” providing a “foundation for senior roles in industries.”

What is not as clearly advertised on their website is the inescapable fact that King’s “does not have accreditation from IET [Institution of Engineering and Technology] and that has seriously impacted the chances of gaining chartered engineer status” for one engineering alum who helped me navigate the dark underbelly of interdepartmental politics for this piece. Throughout my fireside chats with affected students, it is striking that most have instead opted to pursue high finance careers. “King’s is an excellent uni, but not really known for engineering. If only I had known that before moving to the UK…”. A sentiment that has fed into a greater dissatisfaction with the career opportunities here at KCL.

As an aside, it is interesting to see many new teaching staff since 2018 joining from University of Warwick’s WMG (Warwick Manufacturing Group), a division largely defined by retired consultants and industry practitioners in service of business functions and managerial engineering. From this it is no wonder that, given King’s Engineering’s Head of Department once served as WMG’s Academic Director, gatekeeping is in line with prevailing customs. And I should know as an ex-Warwicker – WMG is the sole department from which I was denied access during my midnight campus crawls.

Future Of King’s Engineering

Circling back to my original question: why does Wheatstone Lab look worse than Harry Potter’s sleeping quarters? To my utter surprise, I discovered that it is operated not by engineering but rather the physics department. Does that adequately explain the shabby state that is the half-furnished broom cupboard?

“The problem is not a lack of funding,” explains an academic intimately acquainted with the laboratory tug of war. “Wheatstone Lab was forcibly removed from engineering facilities to its current location during covid restructuring.” In turn, every single makerspace at Strand was stripped of open access privileges previously enjoyed by multi-disciplinary undergraduates and postgraduates alike.

Compiling this pedagogical catastrophe reminds me of the following joke: three hungry cannibals – who were a physicist, an engineer and a politician – found a human thigh bone. The physicist licked it, and put it in water to try to dissolve it. The engineer tried to break it open to get at the marrow. The politician took it, knocked the other two over the head – and ate them.

Hence, it may very well be that the best of political engineering has glaringly showcased how to knock out competition. However, many students believe it is not too late to pour such energy into actually teaching the modules students wish to be taught, or even collaborating with different departments in a productive synergy. With that conclusion, I mark an end to my quest.

Minseok Ryu is a Neuro & Psycho student at King's. He was until recently terrible at writing, mediocre at pitching, and couldn't even open a text editor without being overwhelmed by impostor syndrome. His profile is glazed in the definitive third-person voice to appear passively objective and aggressively neutral at once.

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