A long engagement

Senior reporter

The X Factor, music festivals, knitting. Three things most people wouldn’t usually associate with engineering. Yet these are just some of the ideas behind the Royal Academy of Engineering’s latest round of public engagement events.

Twenty projects have each received between £3,000 and £30,000 under the RAE’s Ingeniousscheme to fund creative events that promote engineering and demonstrate its importance in society.

Alongside more traditional days out like the Cheltenham Science Festival, it’s a chance for some innovative thinking, to speak to young (and old) people who wouldn’t necessarily engage with engineering in their everyday lives and show them how it’s actually a vital part of things they’re already interested in.

Blood on the floor is a CSI-style forensic science event where members of the public, particularly girls, are invited to solve a ‘crime’ using lasers, GPS-based exploration, manipulation of complex robots, and DNA analysis.

For music lovers, there’s Guerilla Science, which aims to engage people at music festivals by using live and interactive demonstrations to dispel negative perceptions of science and engineering.

I’m an engineer – get me out of here! follows the TV talent show formula, asking school students to talk to engineers about their projects and decide which should receive money to continue further engagement work.

The Continuous Loop Projecttargets an even more unlikely group – knitters at Vintage and Steam Engine Fairs – and aims to get them to think more about structural engineering by highlighting the similarities between the two practices.

At this point there are bound to be some raised eyebrows out there. How will subjecting professional engineers to a popularity contest encourage young people to take their work more seriously?

Are those who go to knitting events really going to be bothered by a talk about wire tension? Doesn’t all this dumb down engineering at a time when we need higher levels of skill than ever?

I have to admit some initial scepticism myself at reading Guerilla Science’s idea for Glastonbury Festival this year: stripping down drunken revellers after midnight, fitting them with biohazard suits and encouraging them to spill their ‘dirty secrets’. (This one’s actually part of the Wellcome Trust’s Dirt Season, rather than an engineering-related event.)

There’s also a bigger point to all of this, says Dr Lesley Paterson, the RAE’s head of public engagement. ‘The main aim is to create a community of engineers that is active in public engagement. There’s a really active community in the science world and Ingenious is trying to do the same for engineers, academic or in industry.

‘Some people are naturals at [public engagement] but there’s an awful lot of really talented engineers who are really good at communicating but need some support or a platform.’

Judging how successful public engagement events like these are must be a difficult process, and it it doesn’t sound easy for these projects to win funding. The RAE has an extensive application process for Ingeniousinvolving written submissions, panel review and evaluation and feedback days.

But another of the aims of the scheme is just to try out new things to see what works. The Continuous Loop Project works on the basis that knitting groups tend to be very sociable and adding an engineer to the mix will naturally steer the conversation towards their profession. Plus working out how to knit a replica of the Clifton Suspension Bridge (one of the ideas they’re considering) is bound to tax the brain.

Knit one, purl one, don’t drop a stitch

Even if all the ideas aren’t completely successful there’s still plenty that science communicators can learn from the, says Paterson. ‘We don’t look at things in isolation. We want a balanced portfolio of dead certainties and innovative projects.’

Given the constant debates over the issue of promoting engineering to young people, politicians and the general public, getting engineers out into all levels of society and giving then a forum or platform to talk about their work seems like a solid idea, whatever that environment is. After all, innovation and searching for new solutions is what engineering is all about.