Thursday, 21 August 2014
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A long engagement

The X Factor, music festivals, knitting. Three things most people wouldn’t usually associate with engineering. Yet these are just some of the ideas behind the Royal Academy of Engineering’s latest round of public engagement events.

Twenty projects have each received between £3,000 and £30,000 under the RAE’s Ingeniousscheme to fund creative events that promote engineering and demonstrate its importance in society.

Alongside more traditional days out like the Cheltenham Science Festival, it’s a chance for some innovative thinking, to speak to young (and old) people who wouldn’t necessarily engage with engineering in their everyday lives and show them how it’s actually a vital part of things they’re already interested in.

Blood on the floor is a CSI-style forensic science event where members of the public, particularly girls, are invited to solve a ‘crime’ using lasers, GPS-based exploration, manipulation of complex robots, and DNA analysis.

For music lovers, there’s Guerilla Science, which aims to engage people at music festivals by using live and interactive demonstrations to dispel negative perceptions of science and engineering.

I’m an engineer – get me out of here! follows the TV talent show formula, asking school students to talk to engineers about their projects and decide which should receive money to continue further engagement work.

The Continuous Loop Projecttargets an even more unlikely group – knitters at Vintage and Steam Engine Fairs – and aims to get them to think more about structural engineering by highlighting the similarities between the two practices.

At this point there are bound to be some raised eyebrows out there. How will subjecting professional engineers to a popularity contest encourage young people to take their work more seriously?

Are those who go to knitting events really going to be bothered by a talk about wire tension? Doesn’t all this dumb down engineering at a time when we need higher levels of skill than ever?

I have to admit some initial scepticism myself at reading Guerilla Science’s idea for Glastonbury Festival this year: stripping down drunken revellers after midnight, fitting them with biohazard suits and encouraging them to spill their ‘dirty secrets’. (This one’s actually part of the Wellcome Trust’s Dirt Season, rather than an engineering-related event.)

There’s also a bigger point to all of this, says Dr Lesley Paterson, the RAE’s head of public engagement. ‘The main aim is to create a community of engineers that is active in public engagement. There’s a really active community in the science world and Ingenious is trying to do the same for engineers, academic or in industry.

‘Some people are naturals at [public engagement] but there’s an awful lot of really talented engineers who are really good at communicating but need some support or a platform.’

Judging how successful public engagement events like these are must be a difficult process, and it it doesn’t sound easy for these projects to win funding. The RAE has an extensive application process for Ingeniousinvolving written submissions, panel review and evaluation and feedback days.

But another of the aims of the scheme is just to try out new things to see what works. The Continuous Loop Project works on the basis that knitting groups tend to be very sociable and adding an engineer to the mix will naturally steer the conversation towards their profession. Plus working out how to knit a replica of the Clifton Suspension Bridge (one of the ideas they’re considering) is bound to tax the brain.

clifton

Knit one, purl one, don’t drop a stitch

Even if all the ideas aren’t completely successful there’s still plenty that science communicators can learn from the, says Paterson. ‘We don’t look at things in isolation. We want a balanced portfolio of dead certainties and innovative projects.’

Given the constant debates over the issue of promoting engineering to young people, politicians and the general public, getting engineers out into all levels of society and giving then a forum or platform to talk about their work seems like a solid idea, whatever that environment is. After all, innovation and searching for new solutions is what engineering is all about.


Readers' comments (6)

  • Suggestion that the addition of an engineer to a group of knitters will make them focus on engineering presupposes that there aren't already engineers in the group.

    As for making a model of the CLifton suspension bridge - a quick look at any anigurumi website will show that this, if anything, is quite straighforward and rather lacking in ambition.

    Other than that, lovely idea

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  • Name the richest Engineer and how much he's worth.
    Name a millionaire scientist.

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  • It is difficult not to be a little bit skeptical about these and other forms of public engagement around engineering, although I recognize that the intentions of the organisations involved are good and that inspiring audiences by creating platforms for talented engineers is positive PR.

    However I think we should be a bit more critical about what public engagement actually means. As the article states there are ‘constant debates’ over promoting engineering to young people (as well as the endless debates about recognition, pay, education and investment). I think that we should realize that ‘engagement’ actually needs to be a two way thing – it needs to be more than, amongst other things, attempting to get the public interested through the ‘tyranny’ of ‘relevance’ to their other interests, through either presentation style, being cool or just high-lighting how everyday things work in their everyday lives. We are all members of the public and don’t respond well to being patronized (“particularly girls”!) no matter how excitingly it is packaged.

    Perhaps we need to actually challenge the public (and politicians, interest groups and most importantly ourselves) head on and in a lively way in a few controversial areas; nuclear power, sustainability (is it all good- discuss), the good things about the car, aircraft and speed and transport in general. By challenging the public, our selves (indivdually and as a profession) and various other interest groups we can properly and meaningfully engage with all of society in a way that is two way. Surely the way to be ‘recognised’ is to put our heads above the parapet on a few controversial engineering related subjects and gain respect and a few bruises- even if some people disagree – rather than carrying on looking like the old fashioned and well meaning uncle who has some entertaining stories from the war in the style of Frank-Barnes-Whittle-Wallis.

    If anyone is interested in discussing further how we can go about doing this then please get in contact –

    Paul Reeves
    Cambridge

    paulreeves2002@msn.com

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  • What the earlier Anonymous said, since I'm also an engineer who knits.

    There are several books with instructions for knitting abstract mathematical shapes. A Klein bottle is easy compared to a well-fit glove.

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  • "Name the richest Engineer and how much he's worth.
    Name a millionaire scientist"

    Not sure if James Dyson would class himself as an engineer, scientist or inventor. But the Forbes rich list values him at about $2.7 billion

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  • Paul Reeves wrote:

    "Perhaps we need to actually challenge the public (and politicians, interest groups and most importantly ourselves) head on and in a lively way in a few controversial areas; nuclear power, sustainability (is it all good- discuss), the good things about the car, aircraft and speed and transport in general. By challenging the public, our selves (indivdually and as a profession) and various other interest groups we can properly and meaningfully engage with all of society in a way that is two way. Surely the way to be ‘recognised’ is to put our heads above the parapet on a few controversial engineering related subjects and gain respect and a few bruises- even if some people disagree – rather than carrying on looking like the old fashioned and well meaning uncle who has some entertaining stories from the war in the style of Frank-Barnes-Whittle-Wallis."

    We are trying to do just that at the Cheltenham Science Festival this year. I'm involved in a session on our increasingly risky dependence on GPS (Tuesday 2.30) and another on the issues that will arise from Smart Grids and Smart Metering (Tuesday 4.30). Come along and join in the discussions.

    Martyn Thomas CBE FREng

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