The links between engineering, enterprise and the environment are often overlooked, but as thousands of schoolchildren go out into industry on work experience over the coming weeks they could put their environmental interests to good use, as a pilot scheme is demonstrating.
David Willis, and other students from Milton Keynes, have recently taken advantage of the scheme, which supports work experience for 16 to 19 year old students. David, as part of his advanced GNVQ in engineering at Milton Keynes College, has just spent three weeks as a student environmental reviewer at a local drinks canning factory. Coca-cola and Schweppes Beverages had a problem. More carbon dioxide gas seemed to be delivered to the factory by tankers than was distributed from the factory in cans. The gas adds fizz, taste and shelf-life to the drinks, but can also act as a greenhouse gas when it leaks to the atmosphere.
Steve Gower, the factory's environmental manager, had a hunch that gas was leaking from the production lines but he couldn't pinpoint where, how or when this was happening. Armed with his clipboard, calculator and dressed in shop-floor protective clothing, David calculated that about ten tonnes of gas were leaking each day, mainly as air was pushed out from the cans during filling and as gas was transferred from the road tankers. This amounted to a loss of over Pounds 250,000 a year.
David had provided some of the evidence needed to reduce these costly carbon dioxide emissions and help reach the government target of reducing the levels in 2005 to those of 1990. He had also helped the company on its way to getting the British Standard for environmental management (BS7750). His tutor said that it filled major gaps in practising core skills without having to contrive to fit them into the course. Partly on the strength of this placement, David has been offered a place at Napier University to read Energy and Environmental Engineering.
Countec, the Milton Keynes Education-Business Partnership, with funding from WWF-UK, set up the pilot scheme to meet its targets for post-16 placements in local businesses and to develop environmental education through work experience. It offered post-16 students and employers the chance to learn together about environmental management through project-based work experience.
As a result of this project, StudentForce for Sustainability, a new educational charity, is helping business managers and community groups to alert students to their needs for placements, projects or volunteers related to environmental aims.
With the secondary school extra-curricular season just starting, many employees will be opening their doors to work experience. Nearly every pre-16 student now does some form of work experience. College and university placements are also increasingly popular. The glaring gap in provision is for 16 to 19 years old students.
Work experience, like environmental education and even environmental management in business, breaks down barriers and erodes compartmental thinking. The distinctions between employees, contractors and students are rapidly becoming blurred as education merges into training and employment.
Equally environmental management is no longer seen as an optional extra, more as an integral part of good business, at least by the large multinationals.
However the barriers that this scheme was particularly trying to erode were between post-16 education and enterprise.
The pilot scheme tried to find ways in which work experience could more directly meet the interests of students as well as the needs of business. Many young people, especially girls, are stirred by the media and single-issue campaigns to view any form of manufacture as hostile to the earth. But the scheme has tried to show how the students' environmental idealism can provide the motivation for useful core skills and project-based work experience.
It has also shown that, far from being an optional extra to post-16 education, an environmental context to work experience can fill a much-needed skills gap with employers. Friends of the Earth has recently suggested that about 70,000 new jobs could be created, and Pounds 3.25 billion saved, if Britain applied better existing environmental technology.
Young people may not yet be aware of this new found interest in environmental solutions. Educators can both serve the needs of an increasingly competitive world as well as recognise the need for a correspondingly sustainable world.
However, David Willis's work in Milton Keynes illustrates the potentially fruitful common ground between education, employment and environment. There are well-developed links between employers and schools or colleges, often through local Education-Business Partnerships with their associated Trident Schemes.
There is also a younger, but equally extensive, network of local business-environment partnerships, such as the Milton Keynes Green Business Club. Neither network has fully addressed the three Es, even though work-based environmental learning seems to provide the link.
Adam Cade was formerly education officer at English nature and is now co-ordinator of StudentForce for Sustainability, Brewery House, Ketton, Stamford PE9 3TA. Tel: 01780 722072