'Innovation, Research and Education in Engineering'- Address to Faculty

Military Technical College, Oman

04th October


Good afternoon,

It’s a great pleasure to be here and I thank you for inviting me and giving me this opportunity to talk about engineering research, education and innovation in Trinity College Dublin.

Let me begin by introducing myself.

As Eugene (1) has said, I’m the president of Ireland’s leading university, Trinity College Dublin, which is also among the 20 leading research universities in Europe and is ranked among the top 100 universities in the world. I’ll talk a bit more about the university in a moment.

Before becoming President, I was the professor of Bioengineering in Trinity, and I’m also a graduate of the university – I studied engineering there in the 1980s. After my undergraduate degree, I spent a few years researching and teaching in universities in Italy and the Netherlands, before returning to Trinity as a member of the Engineering faculty.

Because Ireland is an English-speaking country, with a highly-developed open economy, and deep historic links to the United States, Canada, and Australia, the country is an important ‘gateway’ state for multinational companies wishing to trade with the European Union.

Today Ireland is European headquarters to nine of the top ten global software companies, and nine of the top ten US technology companies, including Facebook, Twitter, and Google. And also headquarters to Pharma giants, Pfizer and Merck. The World Bank lists Dublin as one of the top 10 places in the world to do business.

This has helped to create a very rich ecosystem in Dublin and Ireland in terms of innovation, R&D, and highly skilled workers. My university, Trinity College, benefits from this ecosystem and of course we contribute to it. I will come back to this shortly.

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The focus of my talk today is Engineering. But, of course, engineering doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Like all disciplines it’s subject to global developments in education, research and innovation. 

I’m very aware of how pervasive these global developments are because my university, Trinity College Dublin, is highly multidisciplinary. We have 24 Schools across three faculties in arts, humanities and social sciences; engineering, mathematics, and science; and health sciences. And there is a lot of cross-faculty activity – we encourage our researchers to collaborate outside their disciplines.

So when I focus on ways to improve innovation, research and education, I’m always looking at the whole university. I don’t isolate health sciences, or humanities, or engineering. Of course, each discipline has specific requirements and imparts specific skills to students, but all disciplines are subject to the same global developments, and all students need similar attributes in order to navigate the 21st century workplace.  

So, before I focus specifically on engineering, the first question I want to look at is: how is higher education changing in the 21st century and how is it adapting to the 21st century workplace?

This is a key issue because we’re in the middle of a huge transitionary period in terms of technology, globalisation and communications – one of the most rapid transitionary periods, I believe, in the history of the world - and this is directly impacting higher education and the workplace.

Let me give you some examples of what I mean:

1) Technological advances have entirely transformed the way that we learn.

2) Meantime globalisation has revolutionised research collaborations and student exchange programmes; and, within the workplace, it has transformed recruitment, hiring and career trajectories.

3) And the growth of industry-academic collaborations mean that university research is now commercialised and fast-tracked much more rapidly than ever before. Today, when academics make discoveries in any field – in arts, humanities, sciences, engineering, medicine – they immediately start thinking about how they can bring that discovery to the world – whether through a product or service or an artistic performance. This has totally radicalised the way that we teach and research in universities as well as our connection with industry and the workplace.

And all these advances – in technology, communications, innovation and globalisation – mean that the traditional model of a job and career for life is evolving into something more flexible and variable, which in turn is greatly impacting on employer needs and student expectations.

And all this is happening as fast as the new iPhone is being developed, which means that we’re looking at a moving target.

And this can make things difficult to plan and prepare for. There are lots of great things about the way education and the workplace are changing – it is for instance brilliant that students from Oman to come to Trinity for a few terms, and Irish students can come to Oman. That’s wonderful for the students and for the university campus which benefits from diversity.

And on the larger scale, we cannot deny the relationship between globalisation and technological advance, and climate change and loss of biodiversity.

Every generation faces challenges, and in periods of change, these challenges are more acute.

Our job, as educators, is to prepare the upcoming generation as best we can for the challenges that are to come. How can we do this?

Let me tell you about what we’re doing in my university, Trinity College Dublin.

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In Trinity, we seek to imbue our students with our mission. What is this mission? It is as follows:

Because of the way the world has evolved, the education we offer has to be more flexible, technological, global and entrepreneurial than the one that I experienced.

Let me focus on what I mean by these four: flexible, global, entrepreneurial and technological.

First, flexible: as I’ve said the old model of a job for life is evolving. This means that the way we educate also has to evolve. We can all think of countless recent examples of students who studied one thing and ended up working in an area that is quite different. A famous example is Steve Jobs – founder of Apple – who did a calligraphy course in college in the United States. If he hadn’t studied calligraphy we would not have all those beautiful fonts on our computers. His was not an obvious route to being a tech whizz kid!

I’m example of this myself, to a certain extent. When I was a post-doc, a new compound discipline was emerging: bioengineering. This wasn’t something I’d imagined doing as an undergraduate but I ended up founding the Masters in Bioengineering in Trinity and being at the forefront of research in the Medtech industry in Ireland, which is now one of Ireland’s leading industries. And then of course I gave that up to concentrate on running a university.

What does this new emphasis on flexible career trajectories mean in terms of pedagogy and designing our curriculum? It means that we have to embed flexibility into the curriculum. It means that, from the start, we have to keep our students’ minds open and make it possible for them to combine disciplines and discover new ways of doing things.

As I’ve said, Trinity is a large, multidisciplinary university, with 24 Schools across three faculties. Having many disciplines gives great opportunities for interdisciplinary research and teaching. We put a huge emphasis on interdisciplinary – on researchers collaborating across the university. Our cross-disciplinary research themes include Neuroscience, Digital Humanities, Immunology, Inflammation and Infection, Creative Technologies, and Ageing – a full listing is shown here:


Researchers from different schools and departments feed into these thematic areas. For instance, Creative Technologies brings together computer scientists, engineers, artists, writers, scientists and educators.

What we research informs what we teach, and vice versa, and we’ve embedded interdisciplinarity into our teaching programmes – for instance we offer a Masters Programme in Music and Media Technologies which is delivered jointly by the Schools of Music and Engineering.

And the new undergraduate curriculum, which we’re currently designing and which will be rolled out in the next academic year, is going to make it much easier for our undergraduate students to combine subjects and to take modules outside their core disciplines. So for instance, an engineering student will be able to take Trinity electives to broaden their knowledge outside of their core discipline.

The aim is to keep our students’ minds – and options – open. This is really important to me. College years should be a wonderful time of self-discovery. The idea of a student feeling trammelled and trapped and boxed in is anathema to me. One should not, at the age of 19 or 20, feel defined and shackled by what you’re studying. You should feel your horizons opening out.

We are also embedding flexibility by offering new ways of assessment, moving away from too much focus on exams. And we’re continually ensuring that our curriculum leaves plenty of space for co-curricular activities.

In Trinity, when we talk about the Student Experience we also mean what happens outside the lecture room and library. We recognise the transformative power of higher education in its broadest sense - not just academic learning but what students learn from developing responsibility through event-organising, fund-raising, competing, debating, and taking on leadership roles in College clubs and societies. We seek to educate not just for the first job, but for a career - and for an active and participatory citizenship. The academic curriculum does not define the boundaries of a student’s learning.

Many of these societies are linked to charities. Involvement in volunteering develops students’ social conscience – this too is fundamental to our mission.

Finally, when we talk about flexibility, we’re also talking about how you learn, and that’s also changing all the time. When I was student, the norm was sitting in large lecture theatres, listening to the professor who would talk, without interruption, for up to an hour.

It’s still important to learn from experts, but we understand better now the significance of peer-to-peer learning and small groups.

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That’s flexibility. Now let me talk about globalisation.

A ‘transformative education’ has long involved studying abroad. In the 1970s, when Ireland joined the European Union, student exchange programmes with other EU members were made available. In practice however, only the language students really took these up – I have long been an advocate of all students spending time abroad.

When I became Provost of Trinity I could see the opportunity afforded by globalisation for our students to go very far afield, further than Europe, and to spend meaningful periods abroad, not just a few weeks. And in turn, for Trinity to get global students whose experience would enrich the campus.

So with my team I started to put in place a global relations strategy. We set up research partnerships and student exchange programmes with universities all around the world.

Globalisation also extends beyond study and learning into work placements. We have long sought to prepare our students for the workforce by finding them work placements and internships in interesting companies. We now seek internships around the world as we pay our part as a globally-connected university.

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Now let’s turn to Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

What do we mean by this phrase? Well it’s about bringing research and ideas to the marketplace. It’s about fast-tracking discovery, not sitting on it for years but getting it out there, bringing it to the people who will benefit from it.

As I said earlier, universities now collaborate with industry to commercialise research. This happened first in the United States, in California, it’s now happening all around the world.

This is something my university, Trinity College Dublin, is good at.

To date, Trinity’s spin-out companies have generated over 3,500 jobs, €1.3 billion in exports and over €500 million in venture investment. And all this has happened within the last decade, because we only really got going on this eight years ago.

Spin-out companies are headed up by professors in departments and might involve postgrads. About four years ago we started thinking about undergraduates. How could we release the innovation and entrepreneurial capacity of our students? How could we get them to start thinking about scaling up and funding and marketing their business ideas? We were sure that they had wonderful ideas – we had to find a framework for them to work in.

And so LaunchBox was born. LaunchBox is an initiative to encourage student innovation and entrepreneurship and it’s been a huge success. Within a year of being rolled out in 2014, it was assessed by the international University Business Incubator Index as a ‘Top Challenger’ and placed just outside the world’s ‘Top 25’, from 800 student incubators assessed.

In its first four years, LaunchBox has supported 38 student companies which went on to raise a total of €3.7 million in venture capital.

Engineering and computer science undergraduates have featured strongly as founders of successful LaunchBox companies. To give two examples:


  • iDLY Systems is a software-as-a-service company offering digital identification services to higher education institutions in Ireland. It was set up by a mechanical engineering and a computer science student after they launched the highly successful Trinity Digital Student ID.
  • HaySaver is a temperature and humidity sensor that gets inserted directly into your hay bales to assess for nutritional losses, mould defects and over-heating which can damage your forage. It was established by two mechanical engineering students.

These companies were created, scaled up and marketed, from conception to product, by students. We’re hugely proud of them.

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Finally, the last game-changer I spoke of: technology.

Technology, of course, comes into every sphere of education and research. Our impressive results in innovation and entrepreneurship are founded on technology. Of LaunchBox projects, well over sixty or seventy percent of them every year are driven by technology.

Students are early adopters and drivers of technology – so it can be a question of us trying to keep up with them, rather than teaching them! But we’re very aware that advances in technology have to be embedded in every aspect of how we teach and learn.

And of course, we have to explore and discover the potential of online education to the full. We have developed fully online postgraduate courses as well as MOOCs or Massive Online Open Courses. This is a way for us to share our learning with thousands around the world who can’t come to our campus in Dublin.

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Now, let me focus now on how the changes we are making will impact engineering.

Engineering is a core discipline for Trinity. The School of Engineering was founded over 170 years ago, in 1842, making us one of the earliest universities in the world to teach engineering.

It’s a large and prominent School; collectively, staff have published over 1,000 academic research papers over the last five years. There are three research centres located within the School, including the Trinity Centre for Bioengineering, and staff contribute significantly to two of Ireland’s most important research institutes: CONNECT, for future networks and communications, and AMBER, the Advanced Materials and Bioengineering Research centre.

And Engineering has come together with Computer Science and Natural Sciences to advance one of the university’s most exciting initiatives: the Engineering, Energy and Environment Institute, which we’re calling E3.

This will be one of the first institutes globally to integrate engineering, technology and the natural sciences, at scale, to address challenges of a livable planet.

E3 will co-locate staff from the three Schools, and it will link-up with our centres for nanomaterials and raw materials. It will be a key partner for government, industry and NGOs, in Ireland and internationally, in meeting the emerging opportunities in energy and engineering design, while sustaining natural capital.

I mentioned climate change earlier as one of the great challenges confronting us. This can ve appreciated by understanding the interaction between natural capital and economic activity,


It’s about using the revolution in technology and engineering design to work with the earth’s resources, to sustain and grow them, rather than exploit them.

To do this properly will require a completely new way of thinking. A much more adaptive and flexible approach.

E3 is about changing the way we educate engineers and computer scientists and natural scientists, and that’s not just about designing new subjects but also new ways of thinking and teaching.

E3 is being developed in two phases: the learning institute, which we’re calling the E3 Foundry, and the Research Institute.

The E3 Foundry is already substantially funded and we are planning that it will open in three years’ time. It will change the way that engineering, natural sciences and computer science students learn, both in terms of content – with more focus on the challenges of managing the earth’s resources – and in terms of methods and teaching techniques.

Following the current trends in higher education which I’ve been talking about, E3 will mean students spending less time inside traditional classrooms, and more time working on projects outside these rooms. This means that students will develop transversal skills by learning and implementing.

To achieve this, we want to develop more student learning spaces. Let me say a bit more about these learning spaces because they’re fundamental to the new education environment which we’ll be pioneering in E3.

We’ve done our research, and we know that for the learning spaces to be effective, they have to be: student-managed, flexible, smart and innovative, and interactive and collaborative.

We want students to feel ownership over their learning environment. If students feel that they belong in a space and have control over it, they will want to use it and will respect it. So we’re ensuring that the spaces are student-managed and run.

The learning spaces should give students access to new learning opportunities through innovative tools and technologies – we know that this makes students more self-motivated to learn new skills. So these learning spaces have to be ‘smart spaces’.

Interaction is a key part of any space, so students should be easily able to communicate and interact with each other and with staff.

The Foundry is the first phase of E3.  The second phase is the E3 Research Institute which will bring researchers together with industry and policy-makers in an interdisciplinary environment.

In Trinity our researchers already have substantial collaborations with the companies nearby; and locating the E3 Research Institute in the centre of Dublin’s ‘Silicon Docks’ will facilitate many more collaborations.

We’re tremendously excited about E3. With focus on combatting climate change, finding new energy sources, and encouraging sustainability and biodiversity, we expect staff and students to make ground-breaking discoveries and to contribute towards new ways of living on this planet together. This is essential. Collectively, as a species, we need to rethink and rework our relationship to the planet and to each other. No one country or institution can do this alone, but we can all make a contribution.

E3 addresses, of course, a fundamental need for the planet, and it will unleash the creativity and innovation potential of staff and students.


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I thank you for your attention. For me it has been very useful and interesting and instructive to share with you our initiatives like E3 and to focus on how universities must take into account and preparing for the changes that are affecting the global higher education landscape.

This year is a special one in Trinity – because we are celebrating our 425th anniversary – that’s 425 years since the University was founded by charter by Queen Elizabeth the First. To celebrate this, we have produced a book, Trinity 425. I’ve presented a copy of the book to Professor Eugene early this morning on behalf of Trinity.

It’s a book of photos taken in very recent times by students and staff and alumni. It shows Trinity College in the 21st Century. I provided the opening essay for the book and this gave me an opportunity to reflect on where the College has come from, what challenges we have surmounted, and where we’re headed to.

What I take most from Trinity’s long and often turbulent history is the college’s formidable ability to adapt and surmount challenges.

Trinity has survived and flourished through the centuries because at crucial moments, people have come forward and shown leadership, taken the decisions necessary to advance the cause of the university.

Today as we find ourselves in a period of remarkable expansion and transformation for higher education, we must make sure, as institutes of higher education, that we meet these challenges with courage and leadership.

No university or institute exists in a vacuum. We are all a part of this world. We are all affected by what happens in this world. The way for us to grow, and to best unleash the talents of staff and students is to grow with the world. To be part of global challenges and opportunities. That is, I think, the key message for all disciplines – health sciences, arts and humanities, and engineering.


Thank you very much.

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(1)Professor Eugene Coyle, Dean of the Military Technical College, Oman