Account Executive, Rozi Pearson, examines the question ‘what is an engineer’ and takes a look at how we can engage more students in engineering…

What is an engineer?  This is a question many of us may answer along the lines of ‘a person who designs, builds, or maintains engines, machines, or structures’.

But explaining the role of an engineer is far more complex. There are so many ‘living’ examples of innovative engineering around us every day that we have a tendency not to notice them. Whether it’s the building you live in, the train you get to work, the iconic landmark you walk past, the lift you hop into to get to your office, or the microwave you use to heat up your breakfast, there’s no limit to engineering’s contribution to modern life.

If you were to ask this question of a school pupil, the chances are he or she wouldn’t be sure what an engineer does. Not only might they find it hard to visualise, but they may think it’s a ‘man’s job’. And more often than not, an ‘older man’s job’.

To combat these preconceptions, schools are using dynamic teaching methods to bring science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) to life and to spark the interest of both boys and girls of any age. Attracting girls to the subject is a huge priority as they are still scarce in the engineering profession despite the career opportunities it offers. A recent report published by the Department for Education, highlights the benefits for girls studying STEM. According to this report, studying science or maths at A level sends girls’ earnings soaring by a third.

Nicky Morgan, the Secretary of State for Education said, “More girls are studying maths and sciences than ever before… Encouraging more young people, especially girls, to study STEM subjects is a vital part of our plan for education and it has been vindicated by this in-depth research.”

Philippa Shaw, the careers coordinator of Cavendish School in Hemel Hempstead, says that times are now changing and employers are trying really hard to attract and keep women in the infrastructure and engineering industry whilst Manon Bradley, the development director for the Major Projects Association, believes a lack of self-promotion could be holding women back. Manon draws attention to the fact that women do not tend to practice the skill of “showing off” and uses the analogy of women in high heels to explain what could be, if only women thought of self-promotion as they do of heels. She says that most women have perfected the art of wearing heels by the time they are in their 30s (the career powerhouse years), by which time they have learnt not only to walk in them but to strut, and are often more comfortable in heels than in flats. And as Linda Ellerbee once said, “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels”.

Copper has recently been working with National Grid in Essex and Suffolk to promote STEM in schools, to challenge stereotypical views of engineering, improve understanding of what engineers actually do and bring more fun to the classroom. And what better way to do this than through the medium of robots…!

The robotic invasion of East Anglia began when National Grid sponsored four schools with a ‘VEX Robotics’ kit last year – a kit including all the mechanical parts, controllers and the software to programme the robots. The VEX kits are designed not only to inspire and motivate young people to become more involved in STEM, but also to encourage team work as they have to design, build and operate the robots together. The teams can then compete against others in local, regional, national and even international competitions.

Initiatives such as VEX Robotics offer a completely fresh approach to learning as well as teaching, and provide the opportunity to explore engineering in a way that many schools may not be able to fund on their own.

As well as emphasising the importance of STEM to pupils, male and female, it is just as important that teachers and parents are aware of the benefits that engineering apprenticeships can bring and the scale of opportunity that engineering can provide for their children.

It is therefore up to us, those currently involved in the engineering and infrastructure sectors, to spread the word and boost the appreciation of a career which knows no bounds, and continue to do what we can to “engineer” our future engineers.