Training new engineers

Engineers are vital to thriving economies, and UK engineers are known to be innovators, so are sought after in starting up new products or projects: but at the moment demand for engineers outstrips supply, at least in the UK – perhaps not so in India or China, where maybe the status achieved by engineers makes the career attractive to many at school. In the USA, the 50,000 engineers spawned by the boom of the Apollo projects are now retiring: in the UK similar boosts in engineering interest were caused by the Harrier and the Concorde projects.

This was the major conference topic at the recent National Instruments professional development conference for engineers, scientists and educators, held at the IET in London. Wing Commander Andy Green, the World Land Speed record holder, introduced the Bloodhound SSC project for the development and trial of a 1000mph car: this is intended as a project to involve schools and inspire the next generation of engineers and scientists – particularly during the early years in secondary school where maths and science subjects are thought to be seen as “more difficult”.

In terms of providing engineering interest to kids, I was impressed with the Lego Education solutions, for 7-11 year olds, providing USB connection to a laptop for movement, position and tilt control, leading on to the Lego Mindstorms robots for older children, where NI graphical programming is built-in. The comment from Frances Griffiths, the NI Europe VP that kids can use and develop/adapt technology amazingly is maybe part of the background that leads to innovators. Certainly the Institute of Measurement and Control local sections have been introducing and donating Lego Mindstorm kits to local schools (Link). Other similar ideas, maybe for Christmas presents, are available on-line from the Eden Project: there are some interesting solar powered models, plus a hydrogen fuel cell powered car, refueled from a solar powered charger. Incongruously, one model is of a solar powered wind turbine! (Link).

The NECR, National Engineering and Recruitment Exhibition, last week saw Atkins, Jacobs, UKAEA, Siemens, AWE and BAe actively seeking future employees and apprentices. Lord Mandelson wanted to see more science and engineering courses with links to industry. I would like to redirect the effort from industry into explaining what their engineering products and systems do, to the 11-13 year olds, either with school visits to industrial sites, or after school presentations and demonstrations. Too much pre-programmed teaching, and not any input to expand their view of the adult world, cannot be right! But then BAe, and other similar companies, would not need to make their experienced 50 year olds redundant (as they still are), they could be used to inspire the next generation.