Engineering – bet you don’t really know what it is!
It’s like Mathematics but louder! Says Dr. Will Whittow @willwhittow
It’s ironic, with so many exciting engineering opportunities afforded by tech it seems people are still stuck in the past when they think about Engineering.
If you consult Wikipedia, that won’t help either. This definition was written in 1960!
Dr. Will Whittow is a Senior Lecturer and Admissions Tutor at the Wolfson School of Mechanical, Electrical and Manufacturing Engineering at Loughborough University. These views are his own. He is a man who is just a tad frustrated about all this.
‘People just don’t understand what Engineering really means. Everywhere you look Engineering is all yellow hard hats and hi-vis jackets. That’s not what electrical engineering is all about. Trust me! We actually need people with mathematical ability.
When I was 17 I thought I was too mathematical for engineering. Now I realise I am not mathematical enough for the type of engineering we are involved with today!’
Engineering in the twenty first century is not about fixing things in the traditional sense. It’s more about problem solving. The irony is in this 4th Industrial Revolution, driven by tech requirements, we need 5.5 million engineers in the UK alone. In fact this area contributes to about 27% of the UK’s GDP. So don’t tell me it’s had its day! Not true! Millions of jobs up and down the country depend on the new breed of engineer. I am on a mission to educate and enthuse the next generation of male and female engineers.’
It’s a stark fact that every year we need twice as many engineering graduates as we can produce. In fact this shortage represents the biggest threat to the UK industry and the economy’s continued growth. Mathematics underpins it all. At Loughborough things are changing. Will is brimming with enthusiasm as he explains:
‘Most universities insist on Maths and Physics at A level. To study Electrical Engineering at Loughborough University we stipulate Maths and any science. Why do we do this? It’s simple. 80% of A level physicists are still male. Therefore it’s likely the female cohort will not have studied this subject and therefore they are immediately precluded from pursuing a career in Engineering.’
Why should this be such an important change in policy?
‘Engineering is a big unknown. It’s such a vague word. It covers everything from the person who fixes boilers to building space ships and incredible feats of complex mathematics. People we meet who come to fix things call themselves engineers. Those who have studied Engineering tend to call themselves something else. For example, they describe their job as: I design cars.’
‘We are battling with the problem that parents, teachers and kids don’t understand what engineering is and when you mention electrical engineering the shutters come rattling down. But this is strange because everyone uses computers or mobiles and there are so many electronic systems in cars and buildings too. The issue is that no one really understands what they are using because usually it’s all hidden away.’
‘For example I chatted to a potential student at a careers fair and he said he liked cars and so wasn’t interested in electrical engineering. That’s crazy. An electrical engineer is at the heart of the driverless car revolution for example. Have you ever considered just how much maths is involved in the design system? If a car is driven at 40mph there are cars all around doing different speeds. The brain has to calculate the what, why, where and when and it is doing a million and one equations and calculations. Engineers will have to understand and apply this maths and physics to control the driverless car.’
‘It can be compared to catching a ball. It’s actually a 100 times more complex. Just think how many things your brain has to compute before you can do what we dismiss as a simple task. Driving a car is a 100 times more complicated. Electrical engineers are developing sensors systems radar etc. And behind all of this there’s a huge amount of maths and equations. Mathematics is fundamentally important to engineering and I cannot stress that enough. Choosing Maths A level opens doors to so many careers and of course we need super talented Maths teachers to get students to that level in the first place. For those without A level Maths, we have an excellent Foundation Year course (www.lboro.ac.uk/departments/foundation/).
At Loughborough we are doing a huge number of outreach activities like career fairs, developing our Engineering at Loughborough website and going into schools. Teachers and students come along and are amazed by the message. We also have a fantastic free Maths revision app (www.mathscard.co.uk). We are offering a £9000 prize for our Exciting Engineering video competition (http://lcefilm.lboro.ac.uk/).
‘It’s enough to know that right now studying Electrical Engineering is an incredible opportunity to help shape the future of energy, communications, healthcare and transport. It’s really not just about soldering or becoming an electrician. It includes virtual reality, Renewables, underwater acoustics, plasma sterilizing and engineering of complicated Systems such as airports. Electrical Engineering is so diverse you really wouldn’t believe it. Now try to imagine how many electronic systems we will use by 2025 or 2035.’
Meanwhile Will is part of a team at Loughborough University who has been awarded £3.9 million to develop a totally new way of designing and fabricating high frequency communication circuitry using 3D printing (http://www.symeta.co.uk/).
In addition a national network that will fast-track the UK’s ability to develop and exploit the vast potential of Robotics and Autonomous Systems has just been launched with Loughborough University as one of its founding partners. The EPSRC UK Robotics and Autonomous Systems Network (UK-RAS Network) will bring together the UK’s core academic capabilities in robotics innovation under national coordination for the first time, and encourage academic and industry collaborations that will accelerate the development and adoption of robotics and autonomous systems.