The A-level students making rotor arms in the department of mechanical engineering are having a whale of a time, testing to destruction the balsa wood blades, looking for the lightest ones that go the fastest, whooping as they let off big bangs. They are at Brunel University's engineering department during five days in June, doing taster workshops in systems and mechanical engineering, in aerodynamics, engine and materials-testing laboratories, having a crack at industrial design and computers and much else, in a bid to open their eyes to the possibilities that engineering holds.
They are attending a programme of summer workshops exclusively forgirls, taking place at universities all over the country. Called Insight and run by EMTA - the National Training Organisation for Engineering Manufacture (www.emta.org.uk) - in conjunction with the SmallpieceTrust, an independent charity which promotes engineering as a career (www.shu.acsetpointdatasmallpce.htm), the idea is to get girls thinking about engineering as a serious career possibility.
Twenty years ago, the proportion of women on engineering degree courses was around 2 per cent. Today women represent 14 per cent of engineering students. If EMTA has anything to do with it, the numbers will continue to rise and rise until, in the not-too-distant future, engineering will fairly represent the female population.
Since 1979, EMTA has been working to raise the profile of engineering for young women through Insight links with secondary schools and other organisations across the country, disseminating information on the summer workshops. "Most of the girls who come on the course are doing maths and physics and are thinking of going on to do degrees in those subjects," says Angela Townsend of EMTA, herself an engineer. "Because you don't often get a chance to see what engineers do, we offer them the chance to get an overview and try their hand at some experiments and activities. It's so difficult to explain the breadth of engineering otherwise."
Over five days the girls, usually around 30 of them, work in small groups at a fairly brisk pace. On the afternoon following the rotor-arm activity, they are introduced to systems engineering by being asked to make a buggy controlled by light sensors that have to follow a white line down the corridor. In between the two activities, they watch a demonstration of a smoke tunnel, simulating what happens when a plane takes off, and they go into a padded cell, more scientifically known as an anacolic environment blocking out echoes designed to research hearing defects in newborns. They participate in a display showing how much loading a single bolt will take. One brave girl sits in a hovercraft designed by Brunel students and looks rather bemused as the thing lifts and rocks back and forth.
Great fun, but does it open minds to a career in engineering? For Percelynn Madzinga, a 17-year-old from East Finchley, London, the answer is yes. Her head was turned by the industrial design workshop she did the previous day. "I'd have never thought of design before, but seeing what's involved has made me interested. I think it would be a good idea for everyone to do these workshops before going to university, to see what engineering's like and what the possibilities are."
Petra Godwin, lecturer in mechanical engineering at Brunel, designed the course that the girls are following and defines it succinctly as "busting preconceptions about what engineering is and who engineers are".
She says: "We're trying to address the trend of girls doing very well with engineering pre-16 and even between 16 and 18 but then something goes ping! and they won't take it to degree level. Here, they see that engineering means if they're not sure what they want to do, they don't have to narrow their focus: it allows them to keep their broad interests."
If there is a problem with the course, it is that it requires AS-level students to take a week off towards the end of their first year. "It's been tricky getting them to take a week off," admits Petra Godwin. But seeing their enthusiasm and seriousness, you get the feeling that they were won over pretty quickly."
The Insight courses are heavily subsidised by industry, which means that this year students paid only pound;45. There are European courses available every year as well. Last summer, a group of 20 girls attended an all-expenses-paid course at a university near Helsinki.
* For details of Insight 2002 taking place next July, contact EMTA, tel: 0800 282167