Sky's the limit for budding engineers

7th May 2010 at 01:00
Scheme to develop young talent gives Belmont Academy pupils a winning insight into possible futures in the industry

A plane airdrops a platform of supplies and equipment. The parachute is deployed, an airbag is on the bottom, but the landing is not always successful.

"Design and demonstrate a method of preventing the load from toppling on impact with the ground." This was the brief given to five sixth-year students from Belmont Academy, Ayr, as their task for the Engineering Education Scheme run by the charity Engineering Development Trust. BAE Systems Regional Aircraft was the mentoring company for their project, which won the EES trophy, and the pupils recently visited them to show their work and receive their awards.

EDT encourages young people into careers in science, engineering and technology. It runs work- related learning programmes for 12 to 21-year- olds, which set companies, universities, schools and students on to real projects.

The Engineering Education Scheme, aimed at S5-6, is run over six months. Teams work on a project devised by their partner company and attend research and development workshops, as well as working with technicians and engineers. At the end, they attend a celebration and assessment day, where each team displays its findings to assessors and guests.

Technical studies teacher Tom Reid co-ordinated the Belmont project. "I chose students who had studied maths, physics, engineering and technical studies and shown an aptitude for all four," he says.

"We met once a week for an hour during lunch for six months. They (also) had several visits to BAE Systems, and Mike West and Carren Malcolm came to the school a few times to help and give advice."

There was support too from air-drop specialist Davie Thompson at BAE Systems, who had worked for many years in the RAF. He gave a talk on airdrops early in the project.

Glasgow College of Nautical Studies gave support with the manufacturing. "We had a two-day seminar and stayed over in Glasgow," says Mr Reid. "But I felt I could do much of the manufacturing myself. I had access to all the workshop equipment they had. With most schools, it was the science department who were involved and they don't have the resources we have."

Once or twice, they lost hope, says Mr Reid - but this was because they were busy with other things in school: "Carren and Mike's visits helped and visits from Andy Byrne, the co-ordinator. It all came together in the end."

Stabilising rods, fluid jet stabilisers, and a larger base and airbag were some of the solutions they considered, investigating the pros and cons of each. The design had to be reusable, not require complex tools and be capable of landing on different surfaces.

Carren Malcolm, design engineer and project mentor, agrees it went well. "They didn't need that much help," she says. "My role was more to do with the briefing and as a point of contact. We gave them some feedback on the ideas, what we liked and which ones were promising. The standard was fantastic, and we really saw them improve as they went on. Today was the best presentation yet."

Kevin Mitchell, 18, saw the project as a way of "fattening out" his CV. "I am very academic, so there aren't many extra-curricular activities on it. I jumped at the chance of getting involved," he says.

"It was challenging because we knew we had the potential and ability to do it. It was whether we could do it, given the time constraints. We have all accepted university offers, so are more laid-back compared to fifth-year teams in other schools - we had to up our game a bit. But BAE were very good partners."

Kevin has been accepted to study astrophysics at Glasgow University, but still gained a lot from the project. "It has helped me expand my horizons, to know that physics can be used in engineering," he says.

"The fact that I could perhaps end up here again is nice to know."

Greg Murphy, 17, is described by some as the project's big success story. He has been accepted on the EDT's Year in Industry scheme and will spend a year gaining experience before going on to university.

"I have been interested in engineering since I was young," he says. "This has been an opportunity to get in there and to associate with BAE. It has helped me focus and firmed my decision to do engineering. The whole thing has been a great experience."

Duncan McSporran, director of EDT, has been working on the scheme long enough to know it works. "It gives young people confidence," he says. "They have to be mature. They have to talk to people. The key is getting more kids interested in engineering.

"The good thing about this project is that it allows them to look at the solutions, the alternatives and the right and wrong way. These young people are the future captains of industry."

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