Letitia Wright with Shell Eco-marathon students (Left to right: Shaniyaa Holness-Mckenzie, Hannah Clark, Letitia Wright, Kim Everett and Olga Posopkina) – Credit: BP
Engineering Real-life Heroes
On Monday (25 June), Shell launched a commendable online film — Engineering Real-life Heroes— as part of their annual #makethethefuture campaign to inspire the next generation of innovators. The film aims to shift current perceptions of STEM subjects and help reduce entry barriers to the sector for young people — young women in particular.
The representation of women in the UK within technical fields compares poorly with the rest of Europe – idling around 23% of the STEM workforce. As Dr Larissa Suzuki — the 2017 WES Young Engineer Award winner — recently highlighted, one of the main reasons for this low entry rate is the scarcity of visible role models in the profession for women.
As we’ve discussed throughout this month, there is a systemic underrepresentation of females, and people from black and ethnic minority backgrounds, in engineering. Promoting engineering to a wide audience is important to raise the profile of the profession. However, young people entering high school are one of the key players in changing this underrepresentation, as they can help to produce a generational shift in diversity. Encouraging young people to study engineering, and promoting engineering colloquially, are therefore part of a long lead strategy aiming to tackle this issue. As such, events that create a fun interaction with the field early on in life are therefore central to both improving diversity in the field, and to lessen the skills gap.
Jamie D’ath is a mechanical engineering apprentice at MBDA. She was a finalist for the 2017 WISE One to Watch Award and won the 2017 Mary George Memorial Prize for Apprentices. We asked to hear Jamie’s thoughts on the benefits of engineering apprenticeships, as well as her opinions on potential entry barriers to a career in engineering.
Who am I?
I’m a fourth-year apprentice engineer at MBDA, Europe’s leading developer of missiles and missile systems. I’m currently in the final stages of completing my HND in Mechanical Engineering and am working with the trials department for my final placement where I will stay once my apprenticeship is complete.
I got into the world of engineering through the World Skills Mobile Robotics competition. I was asked to compete as programming was a hobby of mine and the robotics team needed an expert. We came third in the competition and I met some of the experts from MBDA who told me about opportunities there, which encouraged me to want to work with them.
Imagine that you’re in the middle of a festival crowd, dancing away to the most dynamic names in music. 50-foot fireballs are exploding into the air, audience members are being abducted by acrobatic performers and luminescent creatures are swooping from the sky. Oh, and imagine that you’re looking up at a 50-tonne mechanical spider.
Arcadia is a performance art collective renowned for engineering mechanical monsters that they use as large-scale performance spaces. Perhaps the most recognisable of these is The Spider, a 360-degree structure built from recycled materials. Created by sculptors, engineers, painters and pyrotechnicians, the arachnid is an experiential dance stage for festival attendees.
How do you inspire the next generation of engineers? It turns out that a batch of ‘flying’ eggs, some eye-catching PowerPoints and a whole lot of spaghetti can make a pretty good start.
On 21-23 March, a team of three Ambassadors visited Ashmount School in Islington, to inspire students as part of their STEM week. Their lessons were inspired by engineering ‘heroes’ in the form of Andrea Beatty’s characters, ‘Iggy Peck, Architect’ (year 1) and ‘Rosie Revere, Engineer’ (year 2). Year 3 learned about Lonnie G Johnson (NASA engineer who invented the super soaker).
My career in materials engineering and management has been possible through a mixture of hard work and a passion for my subject. However, there have been a few people who have made a big difference to my journey:
Unnamed woman: I met a female chartered engineer on holiday in Turkey at the age of 12. She was so enthusiastic about the application of science through engineering. She inspired me to pursue this career.
My parents: I grew up in rural Dorset as an only child. No one in my family is an engineer. They encouraged me to follow my interest in science. With their support I won a place to study mechanical engineering at Imperial College London.
Dr Sean Crofton: I failed my first year of mechanical engineering at university. Luckily, my senior tutor, Dr. Crofton, threw me a lifeline: “You passed the materials module easily” he said. “If it interests you, why not study materials instead?” I took his advice, and in doing so I found the branch of engineering where I belong.
As chemical engineers and chemists, we often don’t get to see what we create – molecules are too small to see and chemical processes often happen in closed systems. As such, when we do get to see the fruits of our labor, the result can be incredibly exciting and motivating.
This was the case in the founding of my company, Sironix Renewables. During my PhD at the University of Minnesota, I worked with a team of scientists to develop new, eco-friendly replacements to existing chemicals and fuels. The process involved making renewably-sourced products, like fuels, detergents, and plastics. Finding a suitable replacement to an existing product is great, but for us the ‘holy grail’ was finding something that worked better than what existed.
One of these ‘holy grail’ moments struck us when we were looking at a set of vials – all but one was filled with a cloudy, white liquid. We were looking at the hard water stability of new detergent molecules for things like spray cleaners and laundry detergents, and the cloudy, white liquid meant it didn’t work well. The one clear vial, however, was our new detergent molecule and it performed flawlessly. This was one of the few moments where we got to see the result of our work.
I’ve been in the building services industry since I was 18, and yet it wasn’t until I started progressing within my company that I realised there was a problem.
Once I left my ‘bubble’ at the office and started to attend design meetings, I realised that I was the only female at the table. When I looked around at conferences, I was one of a handful of female visitors, and when I measured up a plant room on site, all the construction workers looked at me.
It was then it hit me; girls need to be told what a great industry and career choice engineering is. I started to look for ways that I could communicate this directly to school students, when it matters most.