Coastal Engineering - The learning process adopted in the course

The learning process in a university course should be conceived and structured according to an up-to-date assessment of societal requirements. In fact, the mission of researchers and professionals is to provide solutions to society, and in particular to emerging local and global challenges and threats for humanity. Speaking of humanity may seem a bit pretentious within an education process, but actually the mission of education is to evolve and forward to future generation the knowledge that humanity has gained, for the benefit of individuals and communities.

If I had to identify a keyword to characterize the current time I would use the term "change". The natural environment, the societal assets and everything is related to society is changing at an unprecedented pace. This is a positive feature, because it is unquestionable that the quality of life and the human knowledge are improving and improving, even if disparities and threats are still present. However, if on the one hand change is positive, on the other hand it makes education and profession even more challenging. A substantial effort is needed to stay up-to-date. New information means, new progresses in science, increasing computing power and global challenges make the role of the teacher, the technician and the administrator harder and harder. Continuous study and learning are needed, in order to get aware and familiar with the so called 21st century skills, which comprise skills, abilities, and learning dispositions that have been identified as being required for success in 21st century society and workplaces by educators, business leaders, academics, and governmental agencies. These skills have been grouped into three main areas (see Figure 1):

  • Learning and innovation skills: critical thinking and problem solving, communications and collaboration, creativity and innovation;
  • Digital literacy skills: information literacy, media literacy, information and communication technologies (ICT) literacy;
  • Career and life skills: flexibility and adaptability, initiative and self-direction, social and cross-cultural interaction, productivity and accountability.


Figure 1. 21st century skills. By Creator:Charles Fadel - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13303557

From the perspective of education, one notes that the boundary conditions have radically changed in the past 20 years. The advent of personal computers and modern communication technologies revolutioned the background of engineers. Theories that were necessary 20 years ago are not necessary anymore nowadays, while new concepts and skills are emerging and becoming necessary pieces for education.

Furthermore, one should note that a paradigm shift is necessary in environmental science education. In fact, the past 30 years have marked a tremendous advance in the science of engineering and coastal engineering. Increasing computing power and innovative monitoring techniques have provided exciting perspectives for assessing and managing the status of beaches and seas at the global level, within the broad context of geosciences. However, the technical progresses in beach protection and marine science in general have been less evident. As a matter of fact, our capability to address local and global challenges did not improve much in the past 30 years.

The reason why the achievements in observing and understanding marine processes were not finalized into technical and practical progresses is still debated. In my opinion, the main weakness has been a lack of focus on the final step that science needs to make in order to improve technical tools. Therefore, the gap between research and engineering, between knowledge and solutions, became larger and larger. To resolve the gap, a solution-oriented approach is needed, in view of the global call for improving management of sea and beaches and mitigating the related risks. The paradigm shift needs to be orchestrated by recognizing the solution as the main target for environmental science, while research and education should in turn be considered as inseparable propellers for stimulating a solution-oriented development.

In education, a classical top-down approach is usually adopted worldwide, which starts from learning the theory first, and then the methods and their application. Such approach unavoidably puts a lot of emphasis on the theory, with the risk that the latter is taught by following redundant and obsolete learning schemes, therefore not recognizing the opportunities given by modern technologies. Application is usually quickly treated in the final phase of university courses, with lower priority and limited profit from recent research. The above classical approach to education needs to be reverted to a bottom-up scheme. Learning should start from the analysis of the required solutions in view of recent research achievements. Then, the learning process should dedicate attention to the technical tools allowing to reach the target and finally to the theory that is necessary to understand the methods that can lead to the required solutions (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. The bottom-up learning process.

Furthermore, education and research needs an innovative focus on the human impact. Scientists dedicated substantial efforts to analyze the interaction between oceans and humans for many decades already. New interdisciplinary tools and methods are needed to effectively decipher the role of uncertainty and random processes in ocean sciences. In this case as well, recent innovation provides food for thought and propeller for getting to target, but a change of perspective is again needed.

This course on "Coastal Engineering" would like to address the above need for a paradigm shift by adopting the bottom up learning process depicted in Figure 1. The bottom-up pathway will be followed many times, therefore making the whole process circular. In fact, a specific design variable will be considered at each single phase of the course, therefore focusing on the required solution first, to end up with the study of the necessary theory. Then, the process will start again with a different design variable. The human impact will be considered in each step of the above learning process, by highlighting the key role of uncertainty.

Last modified: Feb 27, 2018