Nicholas Field, Engineering Student at the University of St. Andrews

From building skyscrapers, to developing renewable energy technologies and producing confectionery delights for people to enjoy around the world, engineers are working hard behind the scenes to create, make and innovate for today and the future.

COVID-19 has, however, shone a much-needed spotlight on the talented engineers, scientists and mathematicians helping solve the big challenges and make a difference in society. Inspiring the next generation of engineering leaders is key to a brighter future yet currently there is a significant skills gap in the industry with an annual shortfall of 124,000 engineers. Part of the challenge is that many young people do not have access to opportunities where they can experience engineering for themselves.

Children’s STEM educational charity, The Smallpeice Trust, has created a summer programme of virtual engineering courses to engage young people with the dynamic world of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), and help develop their practical skills and knowledge.

Here, Nicholas Field, Arkwright Engineering Scholar and The Smallpeice Trust engineering courses alumni, shares how getting hands-on with engineering expanded his understanding of the industry:

Engineering: more than meets the eye

If you were to ask someone what they think of when they hear the word ‘engineer’, most people would imagine someone who builds and fixes things, which in some cases is true. Take, for example, the mechanical engineers building world-class planes for the RAF or designing more efficient aero engines at Rolls-Royce. Originally, I had also thought that engineering was just about construction, making cogs turn and things fly. However, there is far more to engineering than meets the eye.

This past year we have all seen the power of STEM in action, helping combat the challenges posed by COVID-19 and re-build the country for a brighter future. As a result, a recent study by Thales UK found that one third of children surveyed had been inspired to explore careers in STEM, after seeing the incredible impact of scientific innovation during this period. However, a significant obstacle remains – that many children and young people still don’t know enough about what a career in STEM actually involves, or worse, they see it as a job which is inaccessible to them.

EngineeringUK found that just 24 per cent of young people knew “a lot or quite a lot” about what engineers actually do. The same Thales UK study saw 28 per cent of respondents report a lack of role models as preventing them from considering STEM as a career, while 21 per cent cite STEM as too hard or difficult to do well in academically. With an annual shortfall of 124,000 engineers in the industry, it’s clear these misconceptions, and lack of opportunities for young people to experience the real world of engineering are preventing many from pursuing their passions and realising their full potential in STEM careers.

The wonderful world of engineering

Growing up, I was always interested in making things - from constructing transistor radios to making model cars with my friends. This hobby developed into more of a passion at school when I got to put my skills to the test in Design and Technology class, exploring new subjects such as woodwork and 3D printing and even joining my school’s Engineering Society.

It was here that my teacher suggested I try The Smallpeice Trust’s Engineering Experience residential course, to learn more about engineering and see first-hand its real-world applications through fun, practical activities. This sparked my interest in different areas of engineering I hadn’t considered before, like nuclear engineering. The Smallpeice Trust had courses spanning all the engineering specialisms, including these new subjects I was curious to learn more about.

Prior to the pandemic, I attended The Smallpeice Trust Nuclear Engineering course held at Lancaster University and The Smallpeice Trust Astrophysics at Royal Holloway, University of London which was a brilliant opportunity to develop my knowledge and skills and meet like-minded people also interested in engineering.

Before, I had only been interested in aerospace engineering However, during the courses, I discovered how much chemistry is involved in the field which ignited my interest in nuclear engineering. I still remember the moment a professor at Lancaster University passed around Uranium-coated glass, so that we could see it illuminated, and thinking how cool this was!

As a result, I applied for The Smallpeice Trust Arkwright Engineering Scholarship to learn more about nuclear engineering, and particularly benefit from professional mentorship and careers guidance. I got to see the science at work on-site and speak with experts in the field, from the Nuclear AMRC in Sheffield to the Mondelez factory in Birmingham, where Cadbury chocolate is made. Seeing the food processing factories showed me just how interdisciplinary the industry is, from chemistry to mathematics; each element has a role to play in engineering.

Furthermore, it was inspiring to meet fellow Arkwright Engineering scholars from all parts of the country who each had their own areas of interest. This certainly influenced my decision to study Chemistry at university and explore further how the different science and engineering disciplines intersect, to help me determine which specialism I may wish to explore as a future career.

Real-world STEM learning

Creating more real-world learning opportunities, for students to experience engineering in action, is the key to dispelling the myths and stereotypes that exist around STEM, and inspiring the next generation of engineering innovators.  From my own experience, attending The Smallpeice Trust engineering courses challenged my thinking around engineering and helped me to specialise my interests further.

The Smallpeice Trust programmes are very hands-on and collaborative, which allow you to develop your critical thinking, problem solving and team working skills.  All courses aim for at least 50 per cent girls, and there are engineering courses exclusively for female students, to help inspire more girls into the field and make the experience more inclusive for everyone, which is so important.

The great thing about extracurricular learning opportunities is that you get more variety in the teaching and learning, compared to what you might receive in a STEM lesson in school.  Learning more about engineering through practical courses opened my eyes to the diversity of career pathways available, and all the disciplines involved which make engineering such a dynamic and exciting field.

Engineers are helping solve the big social and economic problems we face in every day, but often this work is behind the scenes.  It’s time to put the spotlight on engineering and equip young people with the skills and confidence to explore the industry and see how they can help make a difference. 

Nicholas Field, Engineering Student at the University of St. Andrews

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