Creativity is key to attracting the next generation of engineers

Prof. Tim Ibell FREng FIStructE, chair of the 2018 Structural Awards judging panel, explains why creativity should be central to efforts in attracting youngsters to become engineers

The 2018 Structural Awards shortlist has just been announced. Being the annual highlight in the Institution of Structural Engineers’ calendar, these accolades celebrate the extraordinary talent and skill of the Institution’s membership across the world.

The awards embrace all professions and trades involved in the creation of our built environment, and they let all know how world-leading structural engineering can be transformative to the success of all sorts of projects, from the smallest to the largest. Society is the real winner.

The Structural Awards cover 13 categories, from Tall and Slender to Long Span, and from Innovation in Construction to Heritage. The primary criterion in the choice of the winner and short list in each category is structural engineering excellence. What this means in reality is that the panel seeks out evidence for innovative approaches to structural engineering which have enhanced the overall design, thereby adding great value to the project.

Shortlisted in the long span category: Reflector supporting structural system of the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST)

Best Value and Sustainability are additional categories which reward structural engineering which has driven these particular criteria successfully. The Supreme Award recognises the project which epitomises international structural engineering excellence, without which the project simply would not have been viable. Supreme Awards over the years ooze structural engineering mastery, and have included such icons as The (First) Severn Crossing and the London Velodrome.

But probably the most important aspect of the Structural Awards is that they inspire the next generation of structural engineering students to believe in doing things better than ever before. The awards shout out that structural engineering is fun and creative. This message is so critically important as we seek out and attract talent amongst school children who are considering careers in engineering. Engineering is synonymous with creativity. The Structural Awards demonstrate this emphatically. This is why they are so important right across the world.

This is The Year of Engineering and, just like The Structural Awards, it is also a celebration within our profession, a showcase for all associated with our profession, and an inspiration for the next generation of engineers. The parallels are wonderful.

The thing which always strikes me about the winners of the various categories in The Structural Awards is that imagination, brilliant ideas and creativity lie at the heart of these projects. While technical depth is simply a given amongst all members of the Institution of Structural Engineers, the core attribute of winners of The Structural Awards lies in their ability to have wonderful ideas which lead to extraordinary outcomes. This is the essence of great engineering.

Shortlisted for structures in extreme conditions: The Stability Frame, Hywind Scotland

As an educator myself, I am convinced that one of the most sought-after attributes of all engineers, namely creativity, should be central to our attraction of youngsters to become engineers. Engineering is far, far broader than STEM. We should be shouting about the reality of our profession’s creative heart to make a very necessary step change in the recruitment of our students, by letting all youngsters know that great engineers know to ask the right questions, and usually these questions begin with ‘Why?’. Engineers are thinkers, doers, makers and artists. The greatest of engineers are both divergent and convergent thinkers. The Structural Awards help so deeply in ensuring that this message is conveyed as far as possible. Without this message, our profession will not attract the wonderful calibre of talent which is waiting to have better ideas than ever before.

Our profession talks about the skills gap. One of the biggest gaps we have is in not publicly aiming for a 50-50 gender balance in the recruitment of engineering students to our universities. The message seems clear to me. If you are interested in everything at school, including STEM, humanities and the arts, then become an engineer. You have the perfect make up if you have breadth of outlook, technical ability and emotional intelligence to want to do good for the world.

The Structural Awards show time and time again that STEM is not enough, alone, to ensure great success. It seems to me that it is time for all universities to take heed of this message, and to embrace a new era of recruitment of broad-minded, creative engineering students who may well go on to win a Structural Award in future.

Prof. Tim Ibell FREng FIStructE, chair of the 2018 Structural Awards judging panel