Stepping in to Engineering

Wow !!!

Wow !!!

Last week, we had some visitors to the University – boys and girls from a local school on a Maths experience day. For most of them, it will have been their first time at a University, the first step on a journey. In a few years, they will have choices about subjects to study at school and college and we hope the experience they have with us will inform these choices. It is interesting to think about the starting point of the engineering career journey. When do young people decide to take this path? What inspires and supports them?

Recently, I met Bill Harvey who decided to be an engineer when he was seven years old and was inspired by the magnificent Clifton suspension bridge. After that ‘nothing else would do’. On hearing that he wanted to build bridges, Bill’s grandfather advised ‘you need to become a Civil Engineer and you need to go to University.’ He encouraged Bill’s ambition and guided him in taking the next steps. Almost 60 years later, Bill is still inspired by his work as a structural engineer, expert on masonry arch bridges. In 2010, he became one of the engineers responsible for the care of the Clifton suspension bridge.

I was impressed that at such a young age, Bill made a conscious choice to pursue his interests and that this fascination with bridges remains to this day. On the engineering career journey, encouragement and guidance helps but this is not always available. In recent years, Engineering has something of an image problem.  A survey reported by Professional Engineering Magazine reports that although almost a third of young people would consider a career in engineering, many had incorrect assumptions about the industry. These included thinking that it was mostly about physical labour or just about the car industry.

How do young people find out about engineering? Some may have friends or family members or attend an inspiring outreach event. There are many initiatives such as Tomorrow’s Engineers which provide more information and resources to guide young people.  Social media also allows engineers to engage and communicate about their work. A really interesting initiative is ‘My Day Engineering’ this is a Facebook group and Twitter account which encourages engineers to share their daily work experience under the hashtag #mydayengineering . By following this, potential students can see the diversity of what engineers do all day and be encouraged to step in and find out more. Twitter is a surprisingly good meeting place for engineers. Perhaps the 140 character limit appeals.

As engineers, we need to think about communicating and encouraging others starting out on the journey. What can we do to encourage those first steps?

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6 Responses to Stepping in to Engineering

  1. Alex Kowalewski says:

    These are a few of my thoughts on this topic rather than any particular answers.

    Twitter is an excellent networking tool ( I sometimes find that I’d like a few more than 140 characters, but that’s the point) and can be used to promote various initiatives, but I find these are usually between people who already know.

    I think the image problem is one partially caused by the lack of “trumpet blowing” done by engineers to highlight what they do – a highways engineer can cover a large number of diverse roles, but does little to describe what they might actually do, and the importance of what they do. It doesn’t even indicate what training the person may have done.

    Another problem is the language used in descriptions by the media. “Construction industry” sounds like it’s just builders moving bricks and drinking tea – tea is only a small part of what goes on in the construction industry (Thought – why do other sectors not have this affiliation with tea? The majority of adults dote on tea, but apparently only builders seem to drink it. Indeed, would much get done if tea and coffee were not allowed in the work place?). Crossrail is a massive program of projects, but the exciting bit of design, finding the complex solution to the problem whether its a structural problem, or one caused by a tight construction site, isn’t portrayed on television – it’s of the 1000 tonne TBMs and of large cranes.

    As for communicating to others about inspiring people into engineering, a lot is being done by various organisations, but there is not enough collaboration and the efforts are fragmented in my opinion.

    The ways into the industry are a little rigid – either progress through school studying specific subjects, get a degree in specific subjects, and get a job or leave school a little earlier and get an apprenticeship, work for a company and get trained on whilst working.

    University College London have altered the subject requirements for their engineering degrees – the grade is the fixed requirement. This allows a greater diversity in the creative minds available (for example women put off from maths and science in school). This in turn should provide a greater flexibility in problem solving within the workforce surely? Banging on about “you must be good a maths” to become an engineer is quite shortsighted – For the last month I’ve not used anything more than simple arithmetic at work. Not every engineer is sat, huddled over his desk frantically differentiating obscure functions.

    I must get back to work now, with my cup of tea. I’ve got Euclidean algorithms to solve 😉

  2. Thanks for the comment Alex. I went to secondary school in Ireland where we studied many subjects until we finished Secondary school. The choice is made when applying to University and all of the subjects contribute ‘points’ towards the entry requirements of the course. I still find it concerning that subject choices made at a very young age (for GCSE for example) have such a big influence on career path. There are alternative routes into Engineering for those who do not have A levels in Physics and Maths. For example, Foundation courses which are a preliminary year offered at many Universities before proceeding into a degree course.

    Builders tea is another topic! I think this deserves a longer blog post. All the best, Therese

  3. Alex Kowalewski says:

    I agree on the issue with pupils aged 16 making decisions about their futures so early. How many know what they want to do? Or even know what they can do? The careers advice I received at school was sadly lacking in it’s depth and breadth, especially with regards to the available routes into the workplace.

    Foundation courses are hugely beneficial. I think that they provide crucial extra skills and develop students to help them cross from further education to higher education.

  4. Anna Clisham says:

    My father is a Civil engineer, so I have had a unique insight into what Civil Engineering is all about, from a very young age. I find it interesting, and a bit confusing that girls are put off engineering, simply because they were girls. Having said that, I did not consider engineering until I was choosing my A-levels! What put me off as my ability at Maths, rather than my gender.

    My mother is a primary school teacher, and I often go in to her school to help out. Just before I was going to university (to study Civil Engineering), my mum asked if I could talk about engineering to her class. Before I did this, they answered the question, ‘What is Engineering?’. Most of the answers were ‘car mechanics’ or ‘bridge builders’. (One of the more awake children said ‘Mrs. Clisham’s husband!!) I found it interesting how narrow they thought it was, and privileged to have known how broad the industry really was.

    When I told the class what it was really about, from transport to roads, bridges to tunnels and pipes, docks to water reservoirs and flooding protection (and so on) they light up! They were so interested in what they could do. Even the girls were excited…. until my mum mentioned the Maths.

    I remember it well. Being so interested in what my Dad had done at work, and then seeing some alien-looking formula on some notes…

    Why not go into schools and talk about engineering to younger children? Why not make the good work engineers do even more public, instead of the huge amount of tax-payers’ money it would cost? Why not talk about science-based careers and how to get them to all teenagers, not just the ones in higher sets?

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  6. Thanks Anna and Alex for your comments. The discussions prompted me to write another Blog post about my own journey.
    I have shared with the school that I attended. I encourage you both to blog and share your experiences.

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