Why all engineers should embrace the chance to be STEM ambassadors

STEMAirbus engineer Rhys Phillips explains why and how all engineers should consider becoming STEM ambassadors

In 2009 I joined what at the time was EADS — now Airbus — in Newport. That year, a local school was looking for an engineering challenge for its science club, and a couple of other graduates and I were asked to get involved.

That led to me becoming a STEM Ambassador and over the last few years I have run countless activities in schools, given public lectures around the world, dabbled in stand-up comedy, made numerous appearances in the media, competed in outreach competitions such as Famelab, I’m an Engineer and I’m a Scientist, Get Me Out of Here, helped to design an exhibit around my research at the local science discovery centre in Cardiff, and launched a weekly science radio show on the local radio station.

STEM

Frequently I’m asked… “Rhys, why spend so much of your time doing this?” It’s a good question, and one with multiple answers.

Firstly — and I can’t emphasise enough how important a reason this is to me — it’s fun! The thrill of seeing an audience of school children’s faces light up when they realise that they too can be an engineer, the wonderful surprise of intelligent questions you weren’t expecting, or the rewarding feeling when one comes up to you at the end of a workshop to say they’ve decided they want to be a scientist now…these emotions are addictive.

The problem is, in my quest to get others to join the outreach movement, “it’s fun and feels good” usually doesn’t cut it. Engineers are busy people with demanding jobs and—just like everyone else— personal lives. Why should they find time in their busy schedule when they have “real work” to do? Why should employers let teams take time out of the office to engage with the public?

According to Engineering UK’s The State of Engineering report in 2017, the UK is suffering from an estimated 20,000 annual shortfall in engineering graduates. In addition to that, only 9 per cent of our current engineering workforce in the UK is female. These are two big problems which need big solutions. But getting out there and engaging the next generation of engineers is one way to help tackle both of these issues.

In 2015 the Institution of Engineering & Technology’s Engineer a Better World: Inspiring the Next Generation of Engineers report, found that children and their parents — who often hold huge influence over their children’s views and perceptions — have an outdated view of engineering. They associate it with traditional manufacturing industry rather than the modern technology economy. Neither children nor their parents realise what a career in engineering could mean for them.

It’s vital that we get out there and help open their eyes. We also need more female engineering role models so that young girls — and again, their parents — can see that STEM is something for them, even though they aren’t a man! It sounds almost daft that we need to put those messages out there, but all the evidence shows that’s it’s needed.

Now, this is all well and good and altruistic, but what’s in it for the engineer? As a result of my own outreach work, my communication skills have vastly improved; I can now give succinct and entertaining presentations to deliver my messages across. My confidence has increased. It’s helped substantially increase my professional network. My profile has significantly increased in terms of visibility both inside the company and externally. I’ve had the opportunity to take part in events, speak at conferences and travel around the world. Within my company, my skills have won me an invite to chair a panel session at the annual strategy conference; giving me visibility of a part of the company I never deal with. All direct results of doing outreach work.

So, if you’re still wondering how engineers and employers can afford time for outreach, try asking a different question… How can we afford not to?

“But Rhys, there aren’t any opportunities for me to get involved.” “But Rhys, my work isn’t interesting to others.” “But Rhys, my work is so complicated, there’s no way I could explain it to children.” Excuses, excuses – I’ve heard them all before. And I don’t buy any of them.

Einstein reportedly said, “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself” – and I think this is true. If you truly understand your field, you can whittle it down to the basics that any audience can digest and find interesting.

As for opportunities: A good starting place is to sign up as a STEM Ambassador or take part in online engagement such as I’m an Engineer, Get me out of here. Most Professional Engineering Institutions also run a whole load of outreach activities too.
So, what are you waiting for? Get out there and start a conversation about this amazing industry that we have the privilege to work in.

About the author

Rhys Phillips is a research engineer in lightning and electrostatic topics at Airbus. His team are working on new technologies for aircraft lightning strike protection and to understand the fundamental physics of electrostatic charge inside aircraft fuel systems.

Rhys has been actively involved in STEM engagement for a number of years. He has hosted a weekly science radio show since 2010, curates a science and engineering touring cabaret night and is a co-founder of Cardiff Science Festival. He has won awards for his outreach work from STEMNet, the Institute of Physics and the Worshipful Livery Company of Wales amongst others. Rhys also delivers regular science outreach activities in France through the British Council and has taken part in I’m a Scientist and I’m an Engineer