Originally published in August 2004 in the Engineering Physics Group Newsletter (EPG), Institute of Physics (IOP), UK

Raising the Profile of Engineers in the UK

(and encouraging youngsters to become engineers)


Who's noticed that the UK public's general perception of an engineer is of one who fixes motor cars or installs TV aerials, or similar? Whose noticed that in France engineers are rated above medical doctors or lawyers in the general public's perception of a prestigious profession -- perhaps something to do with the fact they have almost 60 nuclear power stations? In Germany the public’s perception is somewhat in between, but closer to the French. In fact I don't know any other country and I've worked extensively in many and been to many others, where engineers have a worse image amongst the general public than in the UK. Might this have something to do with why so few students want to study engineering here? Why do dwindling numbers pursue the entry subjects of; maths, physics and chemistry at school. At GCSE they don't now do enough science to separate the different scientific disciplines. As a rather apologetic junior school teacher told me, "It's just science they do these days. They get allocated two GCSE credits for it."

During your committee's last meeting on the 16th June one of our members said that at some time in the past he had made a well received presentation to school children about the delights and attractions of engineering. A week later when driving past one of our local senior schools, on a not too busy, hot summer's afternoon, its stark mass and sparkling windows drew my attention and jogged my memory of our committee meeting. On the spur of the moment, 'no time like the present', I dropped in and outlined my case to the secretaries on reception. They reacted amiably and directed me in the direction of the head of the science department but pointed out that she was 'tied up' with exams for the next few days.

Since in our committee meeting someone had suggested that we ought to address the fairly young before they perhaps became predisposed and committed to arts subjects, I asked the secretaries for the names and phone numbers of some of the schools that supplied them with 11 year olds. I was given details of four of them. Because it was a warm sunny afternoon and I wasn't too bust I popped in one of these junior schools right away. They were all nearby of course. The head teacher of one of them was away at a meeting; the other two reacted favourably and provided some dates when I might be able to make a presentation. One thought to allow me an hour, the other half an hour. I had no idea, I said, "Thank you."

Over the next week I began to think of what I might say. I made some enquiries about how much eleven year olds might know. I needed to be able to pitch the presentation at an acceptable level didn't I? I hadn't much idea about what kids of that age knew. My own are now in their mid to late twenties and were away, with their homework, at boarding school since the age of nine. Anyway, over the last twenty years things have changed in Britain's education system. I made some notes, I collected some slides. I discovered that neither school I was planning to make a presentation to have a projector. I was going to have to use my own aged, semi-functional dilapidated specimen. I rubbed, blew and wiped aluminium oxide off its now roughened surface. We used to live in Malaysia where temperatures seldom dropped below 28 deg C, nor humidity below 90%.

After a few days one of the schools e-mailed me saying that, for the children's security, they needed an introductory letter from the IOP, and suggested the chairperson of the EPG committee. Alison did the honours.
The fist school I attended was said by the head teacher to contain children of very mixed abilities because it was a rather old, slightly run down area of terraced housing but just round the corner from some of Oxford University's colleges, where some parents worked. Although allocated thirty minutes for the presentation I found I over ran by about forty percent. Nobody seemed to mind.

My approach was first to ask the children to give me their idea of an engineer, then a physicist. As expected their idea of an engineer was, for the most part, that of one who fixed cars and washing machines, or similar. What we would call technicians, and at that far less able and less qualified technicians than in most large companies or the military. About physicist they were perhaps closer, “People who work in laboratories and measure things” was the best answer I got.

I then went on to ask the kids how people made; houses, bricks, steel, plastic, aeroplanes, engines, how people made aeroplanes that ‘balanced’ and flew nicely – when their paper darts usually didn’t. In short got them thinking about the man made world around them and who designed and made things. It seemed remarkable how little many of them seemed to have thought about it. It was just part of the world they grew into. I pointed out to them that in some parts of the world things were not so much developed and it was easier to see how things came to be by way of human thought and effort.

I went on to simple arithmetic, two apples plus two apples = ?, then 2 + 2 = ? (a bit more abstract, note) and so on to X (the name of my right pocket) + Y (the name of my right pocket) = A (for answer), i.e. a possible simple mathematical model of something, and then to why they did controlled experiments, which a teacher had previously told me they had done. They didn’t seem too clear of a connection between the two so I endeavoured to very briefly illuminate.

Meandering through things scientific I then came to proposing a number of questions such as; “Who likes travelling, history, geography, meeting people, building things, etc.” To most of which I got a good show of hands. I pointed out that if they did engineering they could, if the manoeuvred into an appropriate route, peripherally indulge themselves in all these, as I had done during my working life. I then shoed about 35 slides, some on various engineering things I had had involvement with during my life, others of interesting far off places, animals, people, geology, buildings(some very ancient) etc.

Altogether I got a favourable feed-back from the teachers present at the presentation. There were several classes together. I had pitched things correctly, their perception of what engineers were had been raised. They were interested in science and engineering as possible career paths, and all this when I hadn’t pulled any punches, in the nicest way of course, about pointing out that they would have to do well at school and take a keen interest in all their lessons, especially science and mathematics. I’ve long believed that science and engineering needs children of greater intellectual ability than does medicine or law, but university selection is loaded the other way these days isn’t it? We might as well give it to them straight from the start!

At the next school I made the same presentation and got similar reactions, to quote a teacher, “Thank you so much for coming to talk to our Year 6 pupils yesterday.” Your presentation was very well received – the children discussed for some time after you left the sort of work that you and other engineers did, what they might like to do. They were particularly taken by the opportunities for foreign travel that might be open to them as an engineer! As an exercise in raising the profile of physic /engineering, it certainly was successful with this group of children.”

Although this school had allocated me an hour for the presentation it again took about 40 minutes. This seems to be about the right length of time for children of this age to hold concentration. The children had a slightly better idea about what engineers did, one of the girls’ father was a structural engineer. Before the presentation a quick survey showed many of the children had a preference for wanting to be a (medical) doctor or lawyer. I asked if that was what their fathers’ did. Only one was affirmative. Later I discovered from the head teacher that the school had some, ‘tame!’ doctors who sometimes visited and gave career talks. We have competition! Perhaps we physicists and engineers should be doing more?

Might I encourage some of you members of the EPG to do as I did? It really is that easy. The above outlines how I presented my case. You will surely do it differently but I’m sure just as effectively. Once you have an presentation outlines you can just repeat it for almost no extra effort. You do need to find a little time during a term time weekday though. Can you persuade your employer to allow you an occasional hour or two during the day to help encourage the next generation? It would raise their profile in the local community, which they should like.

Have a go. At the very least, it’s interesting to try your hand at something else, to view life from a different angle. It helps keep you in touch with reality. Physicis are always interested in that aren’t they?

John Battye