Monday, 01 September 2014
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Lucy Rogers, STEM communicator

Lucy Rogers is at the sharp end of inspiring and educating young people about the opportunities in the world of engineering.

Lucy Rogers stands by her principles. A mechanical engineer by training, she was recently to be found hurtling down a hill in a go-cart she’d built herself, made to look like a Roman chariot, as part of a challenge for amateur makers.

These days more involved with science communication, Rogers is an enthusiast for science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) access for all, and has a particular interest in getting girls more involved and engaged with engineering.

Rogers describes herself as having a ‘portfolio’ career. ‘Currently I’m an associate lecturer at Oxford Brookes University lecturing in foundation electronics; I also turn science into plain English for the European Space Agency, and I do various bits of space industry consultancy on a case-by-case basis. But I get involved with anything space and “Maker-y”.’ She also writes, and her book, ‘It’s ONLY rocket science: an introduction in plain English’, aims to reach everyone with an interest in space science, ‘from the mildly curious to the wildly enthusiastic’.

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As a student of Singularity University, Lucy tried a spacesuit for size

But her public engagement work is close to her heart. A prolific user of Twitter to publicise science engagement events and topics, Rogers believes that a major part of engineering’s problems with reaching the general public — men as well as women — lies in its inaccessibility and its reliance on complicated formulae. ‘I try to spread the net as wide as possible,’ she said. ‘In my younger days, I would have got on my high horse if anyone had suggested that anything should be aimed “just for girls” or even “just for women” — we have to reach everybody. STEM is such an important issue for everybody, there’s no part of their lives it doesn’t touch and everybody should be able to get involved.’

Like many people within STEM, Rogers is concerned that people see engineers as the person who fixes the train. ‘I get a lot of “oh, you’re a mechanical engineer, can you fix my car?” There’s a very fixed idea of what an engineer is and what an engineer can do, and that’s what I’m trying to break down. If I can be a role model for other women and girls then that’s great, but I was the kind of girl who preferred the explosions over the childcare courses. That kind of girl we’ve already got — it’s the others we need to reach.’

Rogers herself didn’t experience many barriers when aiming for a STEM career. ‘I went to a girls’ school where nobody told us that physics was a “boys’ subject”, so quite a few of us did it — although most of them went on to be medics,’ she said. ‘Social and particularly parental pressure play a big role [in girls’ STEM study and career choices]; if you say you’re going to be a medic then everyone knows what that is, they have an idea that they’re well paid and well respected. When you say engineer, one person might think trains, another person might think car mechanic, a third might think professional engineer; they’ll all probably think badly paid!’

‘It’s ironic that if you enjoy making things, then becoming a professional engineer might not be the best career choice to make

Although, she added, medicine is far more of a practical profession than engineering in many cases. ‘When you study medicine, you get your hands dirty very quickly and it remains hands-on; surgeons use their hands, no matter how senior they are. But if you’re an engineer and you’re good with your hands, you’ll probably be promoted out of it into a managerial role that isn’t hands-on to the work itself. It’s ironic that if you enjoy making things, then becoming a professional engineer might not be the best career choice to make.’

The key to changing minds and holding interest is to be goal-oriented, Rogers believes. This means describing career choices in terms of what people want to do rather than just as a vague ‘engineering’ catch-all.  This focuses the attention on engineering as a problem-solving discipline that can address many issues, some of them as interesting to girls
as to boys. ‘Those girls that are interested in the childcare courses might look more favourably on engineering if it’s addressed in terms of the global issues and humanitarian issues that can be solved by engineering.’ That approach could attract a lot of talented people who currently don’t even consider STEM, because it’s being sold as something that addresses goals that don’t interest them.

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Lucy’s goal for this project was to get to the bottom of the hill as fast as possible without falling out

This, she said, means that it’s important for engineers to say what they actually do and what the goal is. ‘Somebody might say that they want to help make sure that everyone in the world has a safe water supply, or that everyone in a refugee camp has access to a clean, functioning toilet — these are things that engineering addresses. I’ve been working with Oxfam recently on its design for a toilet for use in the first two weeks after a refugee camp is established, when you can have a thousand people under stress from fleeing a natural disaster or a war zone — they need loos! And we need engineers to design them! There are so many types of engineer that just saying “I’m an engineer” or “I want to be an engineer” is actually unhelpful. Talking about your goals, and how engineering helps to meet them, is much more useful at getting people engaged, involved, and opening up varied careers.’

‘Talking about your goals, and how engineering helps to meet them, is much more useful at getting people engaged, involved, and opening up varied careers

Rogers’ activity with the ‘Maker’ community demonstrates how she acts on this. ‘I’m working on projects that take down the barriers to things that need engineering. Say, for example, you want a dress that you can use to access Twitter. There are lots of craft-oriented women who make dresses and might be interested in this sort of thing, but the electronics is daunting: you have to learn to solder and program, and that’s scary, you have to learn 10 other things before you can tackle what you actually want to do. I’m trying to make things more plug-and-play, using Arduino and Raspberry Pi and other tools like that. So we can say that yes, you have to use electronics, but we can make it easier, it’ll still be fun, and you’ll achieve your goal.’

What helps in this is that the public has become more accepting about technology. ‘Everyone has a mobile phone and they know it’s a product of engineering; 10 years ago they might have used a TV
or washing machine but that was thought of as using an appliance rather than interfacing with technology; they weren’t so obviously the products of engineering.’

It’s even seen hobbyists go the other way, into skills that aren’t so associated with engineering. ‘We had one guy working with us who’s a keen cyclist and he’s made a jacket with a display on the back that’s connected to his speedo, so it shows how fast he’s going in big numbers on his back and stops cars trying to overtake him when he’s in a 30mph zone and doing 28, for example. But he had to learn to sew — so it’s more about learning the skills you need to create the product you want.’ If this goal-oriented approach can convince people to learn skills, could it also help direct girls into engineering schools and onwards to STEM careers?

For more information go to Lucy’s website or follow her on Twitter at @DrLucyRogers

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Education and career

1995: Graduated from Lancaster University with mechanical engineering degree

1991–98: Graduate trainee, Rolls-Royce Industrial Power Group

1998–2001: Research manager CounterFire Limited

2000: Became chartered engineer — IMechE

2001: Awarded PhD in bubbles from Lancaster University (for work done at CounterFire on fire-fighting equipment)

2005: Became fellow of Royal Astronomical Society

2008: Author of It’s ONLY Rocket Science, an Introduction in Plain English

2011: Completed Singularity University Graduate Studies Program — using exponential technologies to solve global problems

2011: Became fellow of IMechE

2012: Founded Makertorium Ltd, specialising in making ‘gadgets and gizmos’


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