A career in engineering provides endless opportunities. Whether it’s designing parts for Formula 1 cars, or developing the clean energy systems of tomorrow, becoming an engineer means you can do anything and go anywhere.
And yet, despite offering such enormous potential, engineering – as a subject and a profession – is widely misunderstood. Many youngsters think that it involves wearing greasy overalls and fixing things. But it’s so much more than that.
Fortunately, collaborative efforts to address engineering’s image problem have gained momentum and are starting to make an impact. Primary Engineer, a not-for-profit organisation, has joined forces with major industrial organisations such as Bosch to promote engineering to local schools and colleges across the UK.
In particular, the Leaders Award competition sees children in primary schools invited to interview an engineer, identify a problem, and come up with a solution. All children receive a certificate, and shortlisted entries are displayed at regional exhibitions and awards presented to the best from each year group.
Stephanie Alexander, an application engineer at Bosch who works on technology programmes to develop new vans and trucks, recently took part in such a session, talking to more than 1,300 pupils from four schools. She thinks such direct educational outreach is the most effective means of engaging with 5-11-year-old children and changing their perceptions of engineering as a career.
“Engineering is exciting, rewarding and creative, but we have to a better job of getting that message across,” says Stephanie. “It’s also important that we start talking to children at primary age, because as soon as they get a bit older they start to make subject choices which can impact their careers. We need youngsters to make informed choices so that engineering remains a viable option.”
Stephanie spent around 15 minutes talking about her role at Bosch, before opening the floor for discussion. That’s where the fun really started, she says.
“The children came up with some brilliant questions. They asked what device I’d like to invent that could change the world. And they asked how my parents felt about me becoming an engineer. The variety of questions showed just how open-minded children are at that age. They have no fear or embarrassment in front of their peers. That’s another reason to start talking to them when they are young.”
The success of the Primary Engineer Leaders Award session has encouraged Stephanie to volunteer for other outreach activities. These include talking to A level students at girls’ schools about the gender imbalance within engineering.
“We need to raise the visibility of women in engineering,” she says. “The portrayal of engineering on TV – whether it’s motor-racing or Robot Wars – is very male dominated. That puts women off. There needs to be more female role models.”