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Oil off a teddy bear's back

Calvin Dorion introduces a scheme to change the perception of engineering as a career

Towers for a teddy bear, superhero engineers and the ultimate all-terrain vehicle form the core of a new touring event aimed at enticing primary schools to reconsider the joys of science and technology.

Accompanied by a new website and supported by a team of more than 400 engineers, the British Aerospace and Electronics Systems Roadshow is touring the industrial heartlands this year in an attempt to challenge preconceptions of engineering as a masculine and oil-soaked profession.

"Fun and competition" are the keywords, according to company chairman, Richard Olver, introducing the programme at Dame Burdett Coutts Primary School, in Westminster. In the company of Olver and Kim Howells, minister for higher education, an audience of 50 Year 6 students watched the Roadshow centrepiece: a play about a teenage girl who's aided in her design and technology homework by two clever but silly superhero engineers.

Together they transformed a mysterious metal box into a multi-terrain travel machine, a simultaneous boat, plane, tank, and submarine.

Afterwards, in one workshop, teams of pupils competed to build the tallest newspaper tower to hold up the girl's teddy bear. Assisting the pupils were BAE systems ambassadors, engineers given leave to take part in school career days and workshops, who tailor projects to schools' needs.

"I'm there to bring industrial experience into the classroom," said Kelvin Richardson, an aviation engineer who visits schools in Farnborough.

At Burdett Coutts, he and other ambassadors kept the intellectual tone high, which led to pupils citing the Eiffel and CN towers as inspirations for their constructions.

"I liked everything," said 11-year-old Marco. Four of the five pupils in his winning team said they now wanted to be engineers. The education programme is also aimed at teachers for whom science is not their forte.

A new website includes downloadable lesson plans for key stages 2 and 3, as well as games for pupils. The roadshow itself provides useful arts-based ideas for exploring technology, says Jon Hicks, Burdett Coutts headteacher.

"You can bet your bottom dollar that my teachers will be taking these ideas back into the classroom."

Richard Hamer, director of Education Partnerships, hopes their resources will inspire teachers, save planning and become embedded in regular schemes of work.

The chairman of BAE Systems says the engineering industry has only recently woken up to the need to persuade young students to consider engineering as a career. With a decline in recruitment since the 1990s, and "hundreds of thousands of graduates coming out of China," says Olver, "we won't be able to compete unless we get 'the brightest and the best' into these subjects."

However, with only one in six boys and one in 100 girls taking up the subject, changing their perceptions of this career may prove to be one of the greatest challenges to UK engineering since the Victorian age.

* Teachers can visit the website to contact BAE Systems about visits under the ambassador scheme and dates for the Roadshow for pupils aged 10 to 13 www.baesystems.comeducation

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