STEAM - unlocking the next generation of engineers

A blog post by Philippa Oldham

The UK Government declared 2018 as the Year of Engineering. The campaign celebrated the world and wonder of engineering, aimed at raising the profile of the profession. Though it may no longer be the ‘Year of Engineering’, we must keep up the momentum to ensure the UK is viewed as a world leader within this profession.

One of the key ways to achieve this is by attracting the numbers of talented individuals required to support this profession in the future. We must improve the engagement with schools, ensuring that the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Maths) subjects are promoted across the education system starting with our Primary schools.

Our schools need to deliver a curriculum that is balanced and providing good groundings in these STEAM subjects. However, to inspire the next generation in STEAM it is important to get out of the classroom and do practical initiatives. There are a multitude of engineering and science clubs, many of which are fantastic, but they tend to attract those already declared as STEAM advocates. As a school governor, engineer and mother I believe (and have witnessed) initiatives such as Eco-schools and Forest School teach our children from early ages about their environment and surroundings. This helps them to understand nature’s fragility and the importance of sustainability. These activities are a great way to encourage creativity and have lots of fun, whilst subliminally teaching the practical applications of STEAM.

There has never been such an important time to make sure our children understand the challenges faced by the decisions that mankind has made. Whether that be plastics in our oceans, emissions from our vehicles, or challenges with rising temperatures, all of which are having an impact on our environment. It is our duty to educate and inspire children, helping to explain why these things have happened and working with them to reverse them. Everyone can make a difference, whether that be spending time picking up plastics in the park or on the beach, walking to school or by saving energy and water.

However, it is not only engagement of our children that is needed. We must get better at retaining those who do engineering apprenticeships or degrees, continuing to inspire individuals already working within our businesses. Engineering companies need to do more to re-engage their own employees into the transition of future technologies.

Take the automotive sector as an example. In 2017 the UK produced over 1.6m cars, with the estimation of a car rolling off an assembly line every 18 seconds, this included the manufacturing of over 2.7m engines. However, globally we are facing a seismic challenge with the shift to electrification. This is reflected by Government’s Road to Zero strategy, which has the expectation that at least 50% (ideally 70%) of all vehicles are to be zero emission capable by 2030.

So how do we make this shift towards electric vehicles when a large percentage of workforce is traditionally skilled in internal combustion engine technologies? These changes in capability and skills need to start within our design offices flow through our manufacturing facilities and end up at the garages, supporting those who maintain the vehicles. Questions on whether or not we are developing the right skills within our schools, apprenticeships and degree courses is something coming up in conversation more and more.

The UK has a really exciting opportunity as globally we are starting on a fairly level playing field, and have the opportunity (and skills) to get involved in developing batteries, advanced electric motors and power electronics that all these zero tailpipe emission vehicles will require. However, what is key here is the technology and skills that are required around Power Electronics, Motors and Drives (PEMD).

PEMD technologies provide the control systems and driving forces for the technologies. Delivering products support the fundamental building blocks for a plethora of sectors not just automotive. PEMD solutions are needed for the next generation of robotics and automation, electric aeroplanes, hybrid trains, smart renewables and grid distribution technologies.

The UK has a real opportunity to anchor and incubate this PEMD technology in the UK. However, to achieve this we must have the people. Success will rely on the ability to feed the pipeline with the next generation of engineers, as well as reskilling and retraining those already engaged within the profession. We have a once in a generation opportunity to protect and grow a manufacturing supply chain, capitalising on the imminent global transition to clean technologies, and ensure that manufacturing and industry remain a key thread in the fabric of British Society whilst delivering a low-carbon transport network.

If you already have a great idea or a project that could help the UK push forward in the PEMD revolution, you should take a look at our latest funding competition – APC12. There’s up to £20 million investment available to support low-carbon technology developments. Find out more info here.