Challenging careers in the pipeline

3rd June 2011 at 01:00
Engineering is caricatured as a job done by men covered in oil and grease. But a 10-week schools project aims to open the eyes of all Scottish pupils to the careers the profession can offer.

Kevin Webster's name is slipping down the list of well-known engineers. The Coronation Street character usually comes top when pupils are asked to name a famous engineer, and descriptions of oil and grease abound. But when finalists for a schools engineering competition met in Glasgow City Chambers last month, he didn't get a mention.

The Go4SET Scottish final was run by the Engineering Development Trust (EDT), whose mission is to encourage young people into science, engineering and technology. And for the eight regional winners who competed, the box for "change perception of what an engineer does" was well and truly ticked.

Each competing school had been matched with a company that mentored it through site visits, as well as visiting pupils in class. Groups of five or six S1-2 pupils were chosen to work together on a given project over 10 weeks before reporting back their findings.

This year's brief was to research and design an eco-classroom, taking into account what they had learnt during the company visit. The teams were required to select a location for the classroom which would have an environmental advantage and select and justify their principal source of power.

Go4SET is just one of a series of programmes EDT runs for students aged 11 to 21, linking schools to industry and giving young people experience of what it means to be an engineer.

"All the other programmes are for older children who have already made up their minds, but until now there has been no programme to encourage them," says Caroline Jardine-Smith, head of operations at EDT Scotland. "This fits into the continuum and is purely to encourage STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths)."

This year, 91 schools applied for the project, proportionally more than in the rest of the UK, which was good news to EDT director Duncan McSporran who is keen to catch them young.

"There are lots of programmes of one-day events which are very good, but where do you take them then? We designed programmes to capture their imaginations at a spongeable age. When they say `what next?', we say there is a programme the following year, and the next."

There is a company link at each stage and this can help the industry to find future employees. Good staff is a key element, says Mr McSporran, as is motivated staff. "There is a one-in-three chance of a company getting the right person at graduate level," he points out. "But at this stage the companies are not looking to recruit. It is about changing perception.

"We know from the EES (the Engineering and Education Scheme in England and Scotland) that most go back to the same company. We are holding onto these kids, which means that when they finish their degree they don't have any employment gap."

Viridor Waste Management was the sponsor for Go4SET and the company's Martin Grey was the mentor for Bannerman High in Glasgow. He says: "As a company we have gained a lot. It not only offers an opportunity to put something in; it provides us with potential candidates. It genuinely attracts all students from all abilities - the bright ones to those from poor backgrounds who then come on a visit and suddenly get what it's all about."

In the years he has been involved in EDT, he has noticed that kids all work very differently. "Some are really focused, some have poor communication skills but we see them all bond," he says. "It's good to see the genuine joy on their faces and we are keen to take these pupils to the next level."

Andy Cattanach joined EDT in August as a co-ordinator, after 33 years in the police force. He is aware that the connection between engineering and the police force may not be the most obvious, but it is potentially one of the ones most likely to interest young people, he says: "I worked in crash investigations, which involved using maths to find out what speed the driver was doing. I was also aircrew for the police helicopter."

Having worked with schools as part of his job, taking on the role of company mentor wasn't too much of a leap. He has been kept busy signing schools up to the challenge and finding sponsors and mentors.

He has also not disappointed the children in terms of excitement. "The mounting for an Apache helicopter was one thing the kids didn't expect to see here. They were excited about it, as they see it in war games."

S2 pupil Katie Davie was part of the winning team from St Maurice's High in Cumbernauld, which was awarded first prize for its solar-powered, cellular-shaped classroom. Her class visited the site of Veolia, which provides environmental solutions for water, waste and transport management.

"We went to Veolia's site where they take food and waste and burn it to produce methane, which they convert to electricity. We spent a couple of hours there and it smelled really bad," she says.

"Veolia were really helpful and we asked lots of questions. We wanted to know what they did with the waste afterwards. They told us that it is used to make fertiliser and it's sent to farmers."

The experience has changed Katie's perception of what an engineer does. "Normally when you think of engineering you think of grease and cars, but this was a different type of engineering," she says.

This change in attitude - plus the fact that 54 per cent of the participants were girls - is welcomed by EDT. Mr McSporran tells the story of a Year in Industry information day where one school brought only its boys along; they said the girls wouldn't be interested.

He also cites the importance of the old Protestant work ethic. "Very bright kids are lacking soft skills. Companies want people who are confident, blend in and add value. They also need bright people who are on the ball, particularly if they have work experience. These are the kids who will jump to the top of the ladder."

Seventy-five per cent of companies confirmed that involvement in Go4SET fitted with their strategies, and this year 31 new mentoring companies were added. EDT also feels that schools are starting to appreciate the industry link.

"The project provides good team work for pupils and teachers," says Ms Jardine-Smith, "and also factors in the environment. It maps with Curriculum for Excellence and the whole class can go on and do it."

EDT wants to get the youngsters hooked, says Mr McSporran: "All the reports say that telling kids will interest some, showing them will interest some more, but to really engage them you need hands-on work such as this."

Chance of a lifetime

Eloise Reinhardt, S1, Bannerman High

I hadn't considered engineering. I thought it was a guy's job and that it was more to do with buildings. I was unsure about this project at the start, but once I got into it I really enjoyed it.

Viridor were really helpful. They're in recycling, so that helped. They gave us ideas and showed us how to do things. They came to the school a few times and Martin Grey, the mentor, came for a bit of cake after we won the regional award.

The work was different from what I had expected. I didn't expect it to be about design and planning. I thought it would be more hands-on, but there is a lot of brains behind it.

It is one of the best experiences I have had in school. I am really glad I got picked. I'm not sure what I want to do when I leave school; something to do with science and engineering perhaps.

Programmes to help spark interest and stoke potential talent

Go4SET is part of a series of programmes the Engineering Development Trust runs to get young people interested in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects and help them into a related career.

First Edition offers curriculum enrichment days for pupils from under- represented groups. Designed for 11 to 15-year-olds, they consist of hands-on practical activities in sessions which take place at schools and universities.

Go4SET aims to catch youngsters in S2, before they have made career choices. Teams of five or six students work with companies on a 10-week project.

EESE, the Engineering and Education Scheme in England and Scotland, is a six-month project for S5 pupils, in which they work with local companies on real scientific, engineering and technological problems.

Headstart is held in the summer in 30 UK universities; 16 and 17-year-olds visit universities and are given practical problem-solving activities, attend lectures and presentations, visit local technology firms and meet recent graduates and academics.

Year in Industry provides paid degree-relevant work placements for STEM students on their year out before or during a degree course. Placements last nine to 12 months and about a quarter of Year in Industry students are sponsored through university each year.

Reaching out to the Western Isles

John McIntyre, the Engineering Development Trust's business development manager, has helped set up a pilot of a remote hub in the Western Isles.

"It is not viable for us to visit, so we approached two of the schools - the Nicolson Institute and Shawbost School - to see what we could do. Information was sent to them by email and they have to send us written reports of their work and videos explaining what they have done. If it goes well, we will move to doing it through Glow. It is a trial."

Mr McIntyre is aware of the constraints posed by being an island school. While a mentor from the local area has been found, organising a site visit has been more difficult. Companies that do have a presence on the island tend to be too small to allow staff to help. But the experiment is being viewed positively. Once the report is in, the situation will be examined and it will be decided whether this is something they want to expand on.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today