Building the future

In this month's President's blog in the run-up to Tomorrow's Engineers Week, John Field takes a look at an unusual new engineering competition for young people - and explores what it means for the teaching of engineering, and the future of talent in the industry

At the Joint CIBSE-ASHRAE seminar this month we had the pleasure of listening to a presentation by ASHRAE President Prof Tim Wentz, who introduced us to an engineering course at the University of Wisconsin by saying “"A hands-on approach is how students learn, and is almost always the most effective way of teaching". This, I think, touches on a very important issue with the way we introduce young people to Engineering.

As a profession we’re competing for talent with other high-profile careers ranging from medicine to banking and finance, who do a very good job of demonstrating the virtues of their fields. Engineering, meanwhile, has something of an image problem and is seen as decidedly dull in comparison. One of the reasons for this is probably the way young people are brought into the profession: often a practical design-led route via D&T that lacks glamour, or a technical STEM-led route via Maths and Physics that seems very dry. In comparison with the adrenaline of the trading floor, it’s easy to see why heads are turned at a young age.

Luring young talent away from the City is a top priority for Engineering
Young people don’t have the option to be engineers until much further down the line, and they don’t see the huge variety of careers that an engineering route can take you on, or the day to day life an engineer lives. That’s why I was so excited by an initiative that I was lucky to have the chance to judge, the Design Engineer Construct! Event by Class Of Your Own titled ‘Jamie's Italian Design Challenge’. Simply, schools submitted a team of ten students to fulfill the roles of a design team and submit a plan that transforms a local building into a Jamie’s Italian restaurant – taking into account all the usual issues of their chosen profession, but also factors such as the buildings effect on its occupants, its effect on the area and its sustainability.

Clacton Coastal Academy's winning design transformed a
Napoleonic Martello Tower into a restaurant
This competition is unique because it places engineering in context for the young people who take part. It’s no longer just a vague notion of building sites, mechanics and equation-balancing, it’s an actual activity that has real effects on the local community where they live. It opens their eyes to potential: Whether that’s the potential of a career as a surveyor, an architect or a building services engineer, the potential for a retrofit to make something of a dilapidated building they walk past every day, or the potential for several disparate and unfamiliar professions to come together and build something from scratch.

This is also an unusually high profile competition because of the involvement of and support from the Jamie's Italian restaurant chain; Jamie Oliver is a household name with a strong link to schools. This was a carefully identified and pursued aspect of the competition to bring in some much needed celebrity status. Maybe someone should write it up as a book titled The Naked Engineer, a profile-raising tactic successfully used by the famous chef.

More than 200 students took part to provide the 20 submissions, they demonstrated some fantastic ideas about what can be done with a range of old and new buildings, and the eventual winners from Clacton Coastal Academy really captured the spirit of the competition with a revamped Martello Tower. Because it’s not just about feeding another generation of engineers into the system – we also want them to go in with sustainability and public benefit firmly front of mind as they train. 

Competitions like this, and the way they introduce engineering to young minds, tick both boxes. I’ve always said that engineers are building the future, so we need to show the next generation the future we want to see. By linking the career of engineering with other social benefits like community cohesion, sustainability, climate change and healthy environments, we’re enthusing young people about both.

Myself (far right) and the rest of the judging panel on decision day!
They can see the benefits that these things have on the world around them and in their own communities, and they can see how engineering allows them to be part of that. Whether it’s designing a healthier school, a restaurant in a Napoleonic tower, new housing that prioritises indoor air quality or a zero-carbon factory – all these things are good for the world around them, and possible through working in engineering. It was fantastic to see a group of young people so engaged in the design process, but it’s a drop in the ocean compared with the industry as a whole. 

The UK needs 1,000,000 more engineers by 2020 to meet growth and replace the retiring workforce, and we’re going to have to get creative to meet that target. Ideas like this could be the solution to the shortage, and supercharge the sustainability culture into the bargain. 


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