Teaching with respect, engagement and mindfulness - an award-winning formula

Dr Nicolò Malagutti has been recognised with two Vice-Chancellor’s Awards for Excellence in Education — one as an individual educator and one as part of the Systems Engineering teaching team at the ANU College of Engineering, Computing and Cybernetics.

Engineering Students

Dr Nicolò Malagutti
Dr Nicolò Malagutti

Over the past ten years, Dr Nicolò Malagutti has become a perennial favourite among Australian National University (ANU) engineering students. He has been recognised with two Vice-Chancellor’s Awards for Excellence in Education — one as an individual educator and one as part of the Systems Engineering teaching team.

As a biotech entrepreneur and researcher, Dr Malagutti’s teaching incorporates relevant knowledge grounded in real-world experience. He takes pride in and draws inspiration from establishing genuine dialogues with his students.

In our recent sit-down, he spoke about the benefits of the Systems Engineering core, his teaching philosophy, and what the recent recognition means to him personally.

ANU College of Engineering, Computing & Cybernetics (CECC)

You’ve had some good news lately — two Vice-Chancellor’s Awards for Excellence in Education. One is an individual award and the other as part of the Systems Engineering teaching team. Can we ask you to compare them and what they mean to you?

Dr Nicolò Malagutti: Receiving an individual award was nice because it validated my efforts over the years to find creative and engaging ways of teaching, particularly in relation to the challenges of the pandemic and its “distancing” impacts. Even the most difficult circumstances can be leveraged as opportunities for innovation. In this case, I developed methods to establish and maintain a genuine and inspiring dialogue with my students. It was very humbling—and encouraging for the future—to see this being appreciated by ANU at such a high level. With the group award, I feel a different sense of pride. I have lent a hand to a really cool effort that has drawn interest nationwide, and that the university is proud of. It recognises that Systems Engineering is helping ANU stand out in a unique way in the Engineering Education landscape in Australia.

Historically, we have thought that because we can do engineering, then we can teach engineering. The recognition we’ve received for our development work surrounding the Systems Engineering curriculum affirms that there is more to it. There is recognised value and interest in pioneering ways to deliver excellent teaching in this Engineering field.

Teaching with respect, engagement and mindfulness

ANU CECC: What is the teaching philosophy that you bring into the classroom?

Dr Nicolò Malagutti: My teaching philosophy boils down to three pillars: respect, engagement and mindfulness.

Respect means conveying genuine care and delivering top-notch offering that is commensurate with the students’ often considerable investment of time and money.

Engagement means students feeling drawn towards the learning experiences and participating actively in it by incorporating real-world examples and encouraging group work as well as individual expression in the classroom.

One technique I particularly enjoy is integrating dissonant thinking into my lectures. I present challenges that are seemingly straightforward and within grasp but usually lure students towards a problematic response. This contradiction creates a mental trap prompting a cognitive jolt, compelling them to re-evaluate their previous response. This technique is grounded in established research as an effective way of captivating students’ attention. And thirdly, mindfulness — that means considering students as individuals with unique experiences and not just buckets into which you seek to pour expert knowledge. It’s important to create a supportive environment that enables students to produce their best work. This in my view includes attaching the learning opportunities to space for reflection about what is being learnt and how it fits in with a student’s personal and professional journey.

If a student is struggling, my office door is always open for a chat. It is a time investment, but on a human level, it really is fulfilling when you help somebody find their way through.

Our students’ stage of life — essentially a period of discovery both personal and professional — is crucial. As educators, we’re here to be partners in the journey.

ANU CECC: Does your passion for teaching take away from other things, such as your research and your work in the industry?

Dr Nicolò Malagutti: I do have that passion. When I’m in the classroom, I’m not thinking about the research grant that I need to apply for in a month’s time. All I’m thinking is: “Today I’m here for my students and I am here to perform at my best for their learning”.

Research is deeply connected to the classroom because it allows you to keep tabs on the knowledge edge. It keeps your academic brain alive.

As academics, we have a fascination with where things are going — cool things can be done that haven’t been tried before.

I do think that there is a risk of staleness if you don’t remain engaged in the research space. Research gives me ideas on how to trigger inspiration for my students. And in a world where knowledge is evolving so fast, if I taught now what I was teaching three or four years ago, I would be short-changing my students.

My work in industry is a good source of concrete case examples grounded in the practical realities of professional engineering practice. It also helps me develop strong narratives when teaching industry-relevant skillsets. As an employer of graduate engineers, I know what I look for in my staff and it is an amazing opportunity for me and the students when I embed those perspectives in the classroom.

Systems Engineering is future-fitted engineering

ANU CECC: Can you provide a quick definition of Systems Engineering before we go deeper?

Dr Nicolò Malagutti: It’s a synergistic, structured approach to finding the best engineering solution to complex problems. It’s not, “Let’s get a bunch of different engineers in a room together and make something clever.” There is a methodology, a structured framework that can help us identify, develop, and deploy an engineered solution that delivers value to its users and stakeholders.

As engineers, we can easily fall in love with the technical details of things but that is a very narrow view of what Engineering is. We try to teach our students that “value” goes far beyond technical quality. It also captures the practical feasibility of solutions, and effectiveness in their operating context. This may all sound a bit abstract, but it is incredibly relevant to real-world professional engineers!

ANU CECC: Some educators argue that Systems Engineering is better taught at the graduate level. Why teach it from the get-go?

Dr Nicolò Malagutti: I see a lot of value in our engineering students being exposed to multi-specialty, synergistic work early in their learning journey.

With the pace of technological innovation and the way diverse technologies are integrated to a very, very deep degree, it is increasingly difficult to gain advanced field-specialised knowledge at undergraduate level that can, alone, lead to a successful engineering career.

You will need to keep training. You will need to pivot.  You will likely find yourself working on diverse projects, with ever-escalating complexity and technical demands. Your engineering output will need to interface seamlessly with that of other specialists, whose skillsets may be very different to yours.

So, systems thinking is inescapable. The question is; what is the best pathway to becoming a professional who can engage effectively with systems-level complexity?

A field-specialist engineer will tend to have a specific focus on a skillfully executed component, while a systems engineer will focus on how various components combine to perform effectively together. These are complementary approaches and skillsets and are both instrumental in the success of complex engineering projects.

At ANU, we want our students to graduate having developed both these perspectives.

ANU CECC: Is Systems Engineering more difficult for the students to grasp? 

Dr Nicolò Malagutti: Systems Engineering may not feel as tangible as designing a circuit, or an engine, or a structural beam. So, teaching it does take a bit of effort. Incidentally, that’s why we need an award-winning team working on this!  

A defining characteristic of our program is that we give students opportunities to engage in group projects throughout their degree. This is a great way for them to learn firsthand how Systems Engineering methods work and how they can extend the reach of discipline-specific technical skills.  

Projects are also ideal for students to grow valuable workplace skills such as stakeholder engagement, teamwork, budgeting, prototyping, et cetera, that go beyond the technical knowledge of any specific preferred specialty. These skills are highly transferable and very sought-after by employers.  

I like to bring in examples from my own work in biomedical engineering, a field that sees engineers, scientists and doctors coming together. One of the biggest challenges I often encounter is effective communication. I have countless times sat in a room with medical doctors who think they are saying certain things and engineers who think they are hearing certain things. Once the work starts, you realise that you didn’t actually understand each other at all. This interface, I think, is where a lot of good ideas just fold—sometimes to a great loss of opportunity for innovation and technological advancement! Being able to develop solutions that correctly capture the ideas of diverse stakeholders and translate them into an engineered product is a key Systems Engineering skill! 

ANU CECC: Is biomedical engineering a good example to help our readers understand Systems Engineering? 

Dr Nicolò Malagutti: It’s certainly a valid example. Since human bodies have multiple mechanical, electrical and chemical subsystems which interact with each other to give rise to complex functions, a systems approach is well suited to biomedical problems. 

Aerospace is another one of the disciplines where Systems Engineering came to the fore as a really important framework. We have chemical and mechanical engineers working on the engine. We have electrical engineers working on navigation systems and telecommunications. We have human-centred design when considering passenger comfort or pilot performance in the cockpit.  

The point is: there is no single engineer that’s going to rock up and design an aeroplane. You need a team. 

You need multiple people with expertise to design their parts, but also to understand how those parts interface with each other to synergistically deliver on the requirements of an aeroplane. An aeroplane needs to fly at a certain speed, find its bearings, and be safe and comfortable for the people inside. There are so many requirements to this, and they are fulfilled by the combined performance of these systems, across multiple technologies. Therefore, you need to combine the brains of multidisciplinary experts to synergise these systems. 

Systems Engineering provides a formal framework to achieve that. It helps you set the requirements and then come up with the ideas, choose the best idea, generate a prototype, to test and validate that idea, assemble the engineered solution, and operate it in a monitored, careful way so you can learn from your mistakes.

Learn more about the award-winning Systems Engineering at ANU and why is is unique.

Learn more about Nicolo and his research.

Learn more about studying a Bachelor of Engineering at ANU.

arrow-left bars search caret-down plus minus arrow-right times