C2I 2022: Young Innovator runner-up

Our Young Innovator runner-up this year is a project from GE Foundation and Connectr, which aims to inspire and diversify the next generation of engineers

Project: Next Engineers

GE Foundation and Connectr

The General Electric (GE) Foundation created Next Engineers with a fairly simple goal in mind: to ‘inspire, motivate and develop the next generation of curious minds’.

Launched in 2021, the programme spans four global locations – Cincinnati and Greenville in the US, Johannesburg in South Africa, and Staffordshire in the UK. Its sole intention is to increase the diversity of young people entering engineering, promoting the importance of engineers and challenging the norms of a historically white male-dominated industry.

Over the five years of the programme, it expects to reach more than 14,000 students and encourage young people to generate ideas, get hands-on with models and prototypes, test out new designs and meet real engineers – ‘bringing the subject of engineering to life’.
Its focus is on students aged 13 to 18 from underrepresented backgrounds, aiming to prove that engineering can be a career possibility for anyone. With this in mind, Next Engineers awards funding and scholarships to students to help them to pursue engineering degrees or apprenticeships.

“Developing engineers from diverse backgrounds can bring the varied thinking and unique perspectives that are needed to address the world’s most pressing challenges - from clean energy to quality healthcare,” the team stated in their C2I awards entry.
“Further to this, the Next Engineers programme wants to encourage those young people who have a passion for engineering, or show an aptitude for it, to fulfil their dream, no matter where they come from, their circumstances, or how much exposure they have had to engineering in the past."

A key focus of the programme is to introduce the students to engineering role models from diverse backgrounds. GE Foundation partnered with Connectr, a mentoring software provider with expertise in engaging, inspiring and retaining people of all backgrounds. Connectr also works with Staffordshire Careers Hub to coordinate the engagement of schools across Staffordshire and promote the Next Engineers project, through outreach to students via school presentations and activity sessions as well as leaflets and brochures.
GE has three renewable energy sites in Staffordshire, with more than 360 engineers across the three sites, an ideal ‘engineering hub’ to host the UK part of its Next Engineers programme.

Three programmes are available to students. Engineering Discovery is for students aged 13-14 (Year 9) and is designed to increase awareness of engineering as a viable career through multiple short, one-hour exploratory experiences, with hands-on activities connecting students to real engineers. Sessions are delivered in the classroom and the community.

Engineering Camp, for students aged 14-15 (Year 10) aims to develop engineering identities through a week-long immersive camp experience, with opportunities for students to visit and see working engineering facilities, complete design challenges to solve real-world problems, and interact with professional engineers and business leaders.

Finally, Engineering Academy for students aged 15-18 (Years 11-13) is a three-year programme designed to guide students toward pursuing an engineering career path – to encourage them to ‘learn, think and act like engineers’. It provides 80 hours per year of out-of-school coaching and involves longer challenges, a final year project, career coaching and further education readiness workshops. Students accepted onto engineering apprenticeships or degrees will also receive a funding contribution from GE Foundation.
As part of Next Engineers, students can take part in hypothetical engineering scenarios such as designing a system to safely dispose of ‘toxic popcorn’ that threatens to destroy a city, building ‘mousetrap cars’ and understanding the importance of buoyancy through the submersion of fizzy drinks.

With a strong collaborative aspect to the project, Connectr’s role was described as crucial to the programme’s success, with duties ranging from managing the onboarding and engagement of students once signed up to the programme, through to participants’ wellbeing and mental health.

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The first year of the programme is described by GE Foundation as a ‘major success story’. Its first year achievements include more than 2,000 students from 11 Staffordshire schools completing Engineering Discovery sessions, with 50 per cent of students identifying as female.

Over 200 people applied for the Engineering Experience, from 27 different Staffordshire schools, and 15 per cent of these were from a diverse ethnic background.

Of the Engineering Academy students, 30 per cent also identified as female with 24 per cent being from diverse ethnic groups.
Almost all (99 per cent) of the Engineering Academy students were retained throughout the first year, and 82 per cent of the students are now considering an Engineering degree or apprenticeship.

Alan White, leader of Staffordshire County Council, said: “Next Engineers provides Staffordshire students with vital engineering experiences and opportunities that they may not have had exposure to without the support of this programme.
“The investment that GE Stafford is making to ensure we have engineers for the future of our world is outstanding. I encourage all schools to get involved because Next Engineers supports the development of our students’ soft skills too, and this is an important part of their career readiness journeys.”