Comment: an Ingenious mission for engineers

anthony finkelstein

As one of the UK’s biggest funders of engineering engagement activities, the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Ingenious Awards programme is playing a vital role in taking engineering to a wider audience. Ingenious panel chair Professor Anthony Finkelstein explains how the programme works and how you can get involved. 

What inspired you to be an engineer? Taking an old record player apart? Adapting some code from a magazine so you could play ‘pong’ on your Sinclair Spectrum? Fixing a bike? The craft project that unexpectedly took a technical turn? A copy of ’World Engineering Marvels‘ from the local library? Meccano? Maybe even school science lessons! Hold it in your mind as you read this.

STEM engagement in action with the Guerilla Science Fire Organ ©Richard Eaton

For me, it started at The Molecule Club, sometime in the late 60s, early 70s. The Molecule Club was, how shall I describe it, a science pantomime. It took place at the Mermaid Theatre at Puddle Dock near Blackfriars, London. In my recollection, there was a large carved and luridly coloured mermaid, a figurehead, above the theatre entrance. I was taken by my mother on a, still exciting, tube journey from my home in suburban Hendon.

I went to several different performances, each themed around different physical principles. There were bangs, songs, Heath Robinson devices, mild peril and audience participation. I think on one occasion there was a murder. There were quiz sheets to complete in the interval. I was captivated. As were the many tens of thousands of children who experienced performances over the years.

A major goal of Ingenious is to give people from a wide variety of backgrounds a real experience of engineering

I now suspect that both the theatre company and my mother had educational intent, but fortunately I was blissfully unaware of this, otherwise I might have resisted. Their stratagem was successful, I was bitten by the bug and a career in engineering has followed. This career has given me many opportunities, and much to engage me, but I would put high on that list that I now Chair the Royal Academy of Engineering Ingenious Award panel.

The Ingenious Awards support innovative public engagement to promote engineering. A major goal of Ingenious is to give people from a wide variety of backgrounds a real experience of engineering. In the STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) world, we call this science capital.

Science capital can be likened to a holdall that carries all the science-related experiences a person has be it personal experiences, through conversations or through taking part. A person who has parents employed in science will have high exposure to the sciences, and hence, that person would have high science capital. Equally, my mother taking me to the Molecule Club gave me some science capital. Indeed, whether it’s a five-minute conversation or taking part in a science workshop, each little bit of this capital adds up, and we know that people with high science capital tend to go on to work in the science field.

Beyond careers, science capital contributes to science literacy, attitudes and values. It empowers citizens and communities.

Of course, I was a little boy from the middle-class suburbs of London (and remember this is the late 60s). Ingenious aims to reach beyond this to women, still underrepresented in our profession (only 12% of UK engineers are female), and to disadvantaged and underserved groups (fewer than 8% of UK engineers are from black and minority ethnic backgrounds).

The program helps fund initiatives like SMASHFestUK, which reaches out to deprived communities

Ingenious awardees develop amazing programmes harnessing museums, theatres, festivals . . . even hijacking ferries, to make people excited about STEM and engaged with its possibilities. Across the UK they get involved with cities and with local communities to reach out and present engineering in new contexts. Activities include space camps, construction projects, interactive problem solving and experimentation. Engineering is mixed in with music making, model building and community action. Many of the programmes use local schools and colleges, enriching the curriculum and supporting teachers with high value resources.

I would be misrepresenting Ingenious if I focused only on the ’audience’. Though many of the awardees are professional science communicators or organisations, most of the content is delivered by practising engineers and engineering students. Indeed, Ingenious is the only UK grant scheme specifically aimed at building capacity and enabling more engineers to do public engagement. Their enthusiasm accounts for the high degree of success enjoyed by the programme. They gain skills and networks, but this is a small part of the return. Public engagement is enormous fun. To see a small child’s eyes light up; or, to see an adult about to turn away and suddenly start back, startled by a demonstration of some unanticipated physical effect. Each reignites the recollected pleasure of our early engagement or reminds us not to take things for granted.

Ask yourself if your organisation, dependent upon engineering talent, is doing enough to prime the pipeline that feeds its future

So, I have an ask, of course. First, if you see an Ingenious event in your local area, make a point of going. Take some children… daughters would be good. Second, sign up to participate in delivering Ingenious content. I absolutely guarantee you will enjoy it. Third, persuade your employer and work colleagues to participate. Ask yourself if your organisation, dependent upon engineering talent, is doing enough to prime the pipeline that feeds its future. Finally, having primed your energy and enthusiasm as well as built your skills, you could apply for an award yourself.

In opening, I asked you to hold your engineering inspiration in mind, now I want you to take a little piece of it and share it. A legacy of the Molecule Club and the mission of the Ingenious Awards.

Professor Anthony Finkelstein CBE FREng DSc
Chair, Royal Academy of Engineering Ingenious Awards Panel

Click here for more information and to apply for an Ingenious grant