This week, another introspective event takes place as I interview Mr. Robert Birch PHd candidate at the University of the West Indies (UWI) at the Faculty of Engineering. Mr. Birch has completed his Bsc and MPhil in Agricultural Engineering at UWI, a program that has since been discontinued at the undergraduate level. However a much more extensive, specific and well structured program exists in the form of a Bsc in Material Engineering with a Minor in Bio systems Engineering.
Keron: Could you briefly tell me about the work of an Agricultural engineer?
Mr. Birch: Previously the agricultural engineer would be trained to solve problems in agriculture and food systems He/she is expected to apply technologies to the field. The sector demands someone who understands structures, materials, water management, soils and other areas. He/She should receive this training from the Faculty of Engineering at the University of the West Indies.
However the agriculture sector in Trinidad has over time been given a negative stigma, leading to a decrease in student application for the program. Therefore the Faculty in its wisdom restructured the Bsc program, re-branding it in order to ensure that when students leave the University that they are employed.
Keron: I understand, the undergraduate program became a special program called Mechanical Engineering with a Minor in Biological Systems. Can you tell me about that programme? I’ve only heard about it once despite attending to this University for quite some time.
Mr. Birch: Students learn the basic engineering concepts in their first two years with courses in, Mathematics, Applied Mechanics, Dynamics & Design, Materials Technology, Instrumentation, Thermodynamics, Control System Technology and so forth. In their final year they branch off in an in-depth fashion into Mechanical Engineering with emphasis on Bio-systems. Environmental Engineering, Food Engineering, Soil & Water engineering, Electro-mechanical conversion, Engineering Management, Maintenance and Safety Engineering are compulsory courses whereas other courses such as Traction & Power hydraulics, Field machinery, Post Harvest Technology, Irrigation and Drainage Engineering and Basic Engineering infrastructure are electives.
This allows the student to function as a Mechanical engineer and as a Bio systems Engineer. Therefore, in addition to their Mechanical Engineering degree, they understand how living things work and how man made systems can interact with them. Students also work closely with professionals in the relevant industries and are given free range in their final year projects which tests much of their learning
Keron: Therefore if students are truly learning and the program is catering to the needs of the real world of work, won’t they be of great benefit to the local agricultural sector?
Mr. Birch: Yes they can function as agricultural engineers as well as engineers in other traditional fields such as the energy, construction, services and manufacturing etc. They are referred to as Mechanical engineers. So in fact just the name change from agricultural engineering to mechanical & bio-systems engineering has opened the door for our students simply due to the negative stigma on the agri sector.
Keron: In that case, how do these students make an impact on agriculture if they are primed for other industries?
Mr. Birch: Students have created some interesting designs such as food dryers and contraptions that can truly benefit the value added process. Machines such as the Cassava peeler, chataigne peeler and dasheen peeler have all been successful projects. We work with agri stakeholders such as the Trinidad and Tobago Agribusiness Association to see what are the needs. Remember students learn multiple skills making them suitable for multiple industries including agriculture.
Keron: Well, as I mentioned earlier Mr. Birch, I come from the Department of Agricultural Economics and Extension, over at the Faculty of Food and Agriculture. I feel there is a disconnect between our faculties and even within the departments of my own faculty. What do you think of students like myself doing courses in engineering?
Mr. Birch: We welcome any student who wishes to learn the Mechanical and Mechanical with Bio-systems Engineering. However, the students should understand the requirements of the courses. These courses are carefully planned and involved certain concepts such as Calculus and linear Algebra, strengths of materials, dynamics, thermodynamics etc that must be learned gradually. Basic Engineering builds on itself and this must be understood to make a real world impact in which complex theories are needed. If they truly wish to learn, they should begin from year one.
If a student wishes to enroll in a course they should seek advice from our experienced coordinators as well as the course lecturer before enrollment But it will be a pleasure to see students from other faculties engaging in some of our courses especially our bio-systems courses. They could be allowed to do one or two Bio-systems courses, but they should find out from the individual lecturers and the Head of the Department first.
Keron: Mr. Birch thank you for the information. Much appreciated.
This brings us to the end of the interview. Much was learned, especially on my end, right here under my own University. Hope you did as well! Stay Dedicated!