THEMES – EDUCATION
Engineering continues to suffer from an image problem, but there are signs that increasing numbers of students are taking the subject. Meanwhile, an array of schemes is encouraging youngsters to take an interest. By Dr Will Whittow and Kate Clift
Engineering is an exciting, vibrant sector employing more than five million people and making a vital contribution to the British economy. It is expected to have 2.56 million job openings in the run up to 2022 including 257,000 new vacancies. These interesting, well-paid opportunities will make a real and positive difference to people’s lives across the world. Yet recruiting talented people remains challenging.
In European languages ‘engineer’ is derived from words related to ingenuity. Several countries often have a specific word for engineers with a degree. One issue may be how broadly defined ‘engineer’ has become in English. The majority of engineers we meet in
everyday life do not have degrees. It is impossible to think of engineering and not think of engines. If you Google ‘engineer’ the images are white men in yellow hard hats. The battle is partly to overcome the many misconceptions and prejudices which often deter young people from pursuing engineering – engineering is ‘dirty’, ‘difficult’, ‘nerdy’, ‘for boys’ and ‘is all about hard hats and boiler suits’. If society is not sure what engineering is, then how can we expect young kids to see it as their future?
SHIFTING PUBLIC PERCEPTIONS OF ENGINEERING
It could be argued that the sheer breadth of engineering to some extent diminishes the public’s ability to truly appreciate and be inspired by its impact. It makes it difficult for potential engineers to identify with particular roles and to imagine where their own skills and interests might fit in.
Finding new ways to show potential engineers the various aspects of engineering and how different roles can impact on the world’s challenges in healthcare, energy, communications, transport and manufacturing are important. Weaving these stories across all media channels and consistently making explicit the connections with engineering will go a long way towards creating a shift in the public’s perception
Meeting this challenge head on is a multitude of events and organisations, supported by an army of enthusiastic volunteers, designed to inspire future engineers and to shine a light on the numerous pathways to engineering people can follow. These volunteers do incredible work but the hands-on activities can only reach small numbers of people. The Royal Academy of Engineering recently identified more than 300 activities targeted at inspiring people to pursue careers in engineering ranging from annual events like the Big Bang Fair through to ongoing activities, supported by organisations such as the Smallpiece Trust and Engineering Experience. First Lego League is a brilliant activity for younger children – the final held at Loughborough University in 2016 exuded talent and enthusiasm. These events highlight how hard so many people are working to address one of the biggest threats to the UK’s industry and economy: the lack of engineers.
This huge effort is slowly building momentum and creating a pipeline of potential engineers. In 2012, nearly 23,000 students were accepted to study engineering at University, by 2016 the number had crept up to 28,710 (UCAS data) – not a massive leap,
but a step in the right direction. The Tomorrow’s Engineers scheme run by Engineering UK and the Royal Academy of Engineering is working hard to engage young engineers. It aims for everyone between 11 and 14 to have at least one engineering experience with an employer, and for equal number of girls and boys to aspire to become engineers. Participants in the scheme demonstrate a marked increase in their levels of understanding about engineering and come away with a more positive view of engineering as a career option. In 2015, the scheme reached more than 200,000 people and since April 2015, 850,000 young people and 20,000 teachers have benefited from Tomorrow’s Engineers careers resources. Admissions tutors look for and are impressed by these types of activities on UCAS personal statements.
Our university, Loughborough, is playing its part. It has invested in its own activities to inspire future engineers. The Solar Car Project, showcases Electrical Engineering and already has reached nearly 6,000 people from seven year olds in primary school through to library users and girl guides. Participants work in teams to build fully functional mini solar powered vehicles and then race their inventions against one another. So far, over 1,200 cars have been made giving thousands of potential electrical engineers a taste of what being an electrical engineer in the automotive manufacturing industry might mean.
NINE PER CENT IS NOT ENOUGH
Despite the fantastic work of organisations such as WISE and WES1919, women currently represent only nine per cent of the engineering workforce in the UK, the lowest percentage in Europe. At the time of writing, the hashtag #9percentisnotenough – coined by The IET – was trending on Twitter. Clearly more work is needed to address the gender imbalance and promote role models. A highlight of 2016 was the announcement by the Royal Academy of Engineering that, with support from the Motorola Solutions Foundation, a new programme of Visiting Teaching Engineers would place 15 professional women
engineers into teaching roles in further education colleges across the UK. This programme helps to address the shortfall in strong positive female role models in the engineering sector. Manufacturers’ organisation the EEF also acknowledges the lack of role models for female engineers in its current campaign Women in Manufacturing, which explores the perceived barriers to women considering careers in manufacturing and celebrates the success of female engineers in the sector. Maths and physics are vital to engineering. However, physics is 80 per cent male at A-Level and only three out of 500 girls will study engineering at university.
With investment in large-scale, potentially transformational engineering research projects both in universities and companies it is important to continually consider how engineering
on the grand scale and at the edge of what is possible can be communicated effectively to the general public. It is the blurred edge of science and science fiction which is often the
most inspiring for budding engineers.
Every child has an innate curiosity and a creative approach to problem solving – they are engineers by nature. Experienced and trained (but not necessarily better) engineers in the workplace and academia, share a responsibility to nurture this raw talent and to support the next generations of engineers who will help to solve the big societal challenges we all face.
Engineering Outreach Activities
THE BIG BANG
The Big Bang Fair is the largest STEM event for young students and takes place throughout the whole year across the UK. The fair is inspiring 7-19 year old students about STEM. It is largely based on hands-on demonstrations, interactive workshops and career information from national employers. Its website www.thebigbangfair.co.uk is continually updated with new activities and events. To date, the fair has been visited by more than 130,000 students and 900 employers.
The national Big Bang Fair 2017 will take place at The NEC Birmingham on March 18th. Last year more than 70,000 people attended, and the fair was supported by more than 200 organisations.
Bloodhound SSC is a project to design a 1000 mph rocket car and set a new ground speed world record. Since 2008, the mission of the project has been to inspire young students to take up careers in STEM. Last year the programme reached 100,000 young students through a network of ambassadors and various exhibits. Schools can register teams to participate in a model rocket car competition for students aged 11-16. Registrations can be made via www.racefortheline.com
STEMNET helps schools to inspire pupils about STEM subjects and careers through utilising the experience of more than 30,000 STEM ambassadors. The
ambassadors provide support for STEM projects in the classroom; give career talks; help students with mock job interviews, and help with STEM-related practical demonstrations. More than 93% of secondary schools and a large number of primary schools in the UK accessed STEM ambassadors in 2015-16. The ambassadors also help secondary schools with ‘out of hours’ STEM clubs, to increase students’ knowledge and interest in STEM subjects.
WOMEN IN ENGINEERING SOCIETY
The Women in Engineering Society (WES) encourages young girls to adopt engineering as their career, and to sheds light on the enormous opportunities available for women in the engineering sector. To achieve this WES started National Women in Engineering Day (NWED) in 2014. The purpose was to stimulate government, professional and
educational institutions to hold events to support the cause. Since then NWED has
grown significantly, and UNESCO will join them as a patron from 2017. From 2017,
NWED will be known as the International Women in Engineering Day. In 2016, NWED reached over 350 schools across the UK.
Engineering Experience is a fully subsidised five-day course for 16-17 year olds. Applications are encouraged between Jan and April. Headstart is also a residential course for Year 12 students with an emphasis on gender equality. Loughborough University hosted 300 students at these two events in 2016.
ROYAL AIR FORCE SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING ROADSHOW
The Royal Air Force, Science and Engineering Roadshow is in its eleventh year. The event is based around practical demonstrations, and is aimed at primary and secondary school students. In 2016, the Royal Navy joined the programme, which will reach more than 90,000 students. The event takes place in more than 420 schools all around the UK.
BAE TASTER WEEKS
BAE Taster Weeks have been held every summer for more than a decade. The weeks are targeted at students interested in choosing engineering as a career, especially in the aviation industry. The weeks are held at Warton, Lancashire where the students work on a week-long project, culminating in a presentation. BAE Systems supports the event by providing course content, accommodation and food. Applications for the taster week open in January for year 12 students aged 16-18.
SCARBOROUGH ENGINEERING WEEK
Scarborough Engineering Week is a three-day event to inspire 7-19 years old to consider careers in STEM subjects. In 2016, more than 4,000 youngsters attended. Pre-registered schools and colleges participate, and the event is also open to general public in the evenings. More than 20 exhibitors took part in 2016 providing some inspirational demonstrations like a coach/bus driving simulator, a proposed mining site model, and robotic arms.