TECHNOLOGY IS playing an increasingly prominent role in our daily lives, and that is creating a growing need for skilled and innovative engineers. Yam Yeung, chairman of the department of automation and computer-aided engineering at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, believes these are exciting times to be involved in engineering. 'The developments in engineering in recent years are simply fascinating,' Professor Yam said. The beauty of the subject, he said, was the incredible breadth of its scope, with applications in everything from biomedicine and information systems to household products and space exploration. 'Automation is all about creating machines to reduce people's workload,' he said. 'That could be a large robot to lift heavy machinery or it could be a microscopic device for manipulating cells in a medical laboratory.' As engineering had applications in every aspect of the modern world, it was a very practical pursuit that would give students a real sense of accomplishment, he said. 'Engineering is all about having an effect on life and society,' he said. 'It is a great way to be able to make an impact.' But he admitted that it took a certain type of person to enjoy engineering. 'Not every student is suited to studying engineering. It very much depends on what they enjoy,' Professor Yam said. 'But if you are interested in science and you like mathematics, and you enjoy the application of these subjects in the real world, then you will probably love engineering. It really brings these disciplines together.' Engineering has traditionally been seen as a predominantly male pursuit, but the professor said that was quickly becoming a thing of the past. Women now made up 30 per cent to 40 per cent of the department's classes, he said. 'The school has been going for about 10 years now, and when we started it really was all just boys,' Professor Yam said. 'People have the impression of mechanical engineers always tinkering with dirty machinery and wearing grubby overalls, but that just isn't the case any more. Any student, male or female, can freely flesh out their creativity as facilitated by state-of-the-art design tools.' The advent of computer-aided design (CAD), in particular had made it possible to study mechanical engineering without ever needing to get your hands dirty, he said. 'It is perfectly reasonable now to say 'I'm an engineer' but only ever to use CAD,' he said. The department's BEng course divides into two streams: automation and design. Professor Yam said the latter was a suitable choice for any prospective students who felt put off by the physical side of the course, as it focused on the use of computers and multimedia tools in mechanical design. The automation stream, by contrast, centres on the practical applications of sensors and other automation technology. The department is one of five in the university's Faculty of Engineering. The other four departments specialise in computer science and engineering, electronic engineering, information engineering, systems engineering and engineering management. 'In their first year, students do courses that cover the basics of engineering - things such as computing, maths, electronics and so forth,' the professor said. 'In their second year, they move on to real mechanical engineering, covering topics such as manufacturing technology and smart materials. Then, in their third year, they start to get on to more advanced things such as computer vision, robotics and intelligent systems.' The programme's structure enables students to pursue electives which allow them take aspects of the course that particularly interest them to a higher level. Personal projects play an important part in assessment, especially the students' final-year projects. For this project, students work independently - under the guidance of a supervising professor - researching a topic that they have suggested themselves. That could be anything from a theoretical subject to computer-simulated processes to building a robot of some description. Professor Yam said job prospects for engineering graduates were good, and there was a wide range of challenging options open to them, both locally and further from home. 'The majority of students remain in Hong Kong, finding jobs mostly as industrial, system and quality control engineers,' he said. 'But we find a lot are now being employed by companies in Hong Kong and then posted to mainland China. From what we hear when they come back, they say it is a very good, challenging experience and they learn a lot from it.'