Dr Scott Steedman FREng
I found the Darwin exhibition at the Natural History Museum earlier this year a moving experience. It was a series of journeys: an expedition to distant lands by a young man in his early twenties, an intellectual journey as Darwin began to realise that the evidence he had found could not be explained by conventional wisdom, and finally a journey taken by society, as people at large gradually began to take on board the deep significance of Darwin’s inescapable conclusion about the origins of life.
Exhibiting ideas in public is about being at the heart of society, exactly where the engineering profession rightly sees itself. It is reassuring to learn that the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum have seen a steady growth in the numbers of visitors over the past few years. The queues of people poring over the minutiae of Darwin’s memorabilia were absorbed in a different way to the chattering crowds at the Royal Society of Arts summer exhibition, but the message is the same. Culture change needs public acceptance and public acceptance needs an interface with the people behind it all.
The Science Museum’s Ingenious strand of exhibitions, such as the current ‘Dan Dare and the Birth of High-Tech Britain’, has taken the format one stage further, using objects and imagery to stimulate debate and to tell the human stories of invention and ingenuity. Here again, the aim is to make it easier for people to connect with the subject and ultimately to inspire a new generation. The museum is now previewing five new potential exhibitions linked to the Ingenious theme, including one on how innovation has been essential to support the world’s growing population and another on London and how the capital’s engineers were the foundation of Britain’s industrial engine and the growth of London today.
As John Armitt FREng writes in this issue, that new generation of youngsters needs clear messages and a lot of work by us to raise their awareness of engineering as a career. This year’s engineering graduates are far less likely than last year’s to find work and many are already looking in other directions. The teenagers picking their GCSE and A levels are faced with a similar dilemma.
Competition for the hearts and minds of society is tough. The numbers visiting the Science Museum are still dwarfed by the numbers visiting the British Museum and the Tate. There is plenty of evidence that while we complain about society ‘dumbing down’, in fact access to new intellectual challenges is easier than ever. Festivals, tours, exhibitions of every description compete for our attention in the arts, humanities and popular science. For engineering to have any visibility in this crowded marketplace is a huge challenge.
The Royal Academy of Engineering is increasingly active in this direction. We now distribute Ingenia to over 3,000 schools across the country. We have had a very successful engagement with schools through the London Engineering Project. We also run a programme of Public Engagement; granting Fellowships and awards to build, foster and sustain a community of engineers that are skilled and proactive in engaging with society.
This March sees the first ‘Big Bang’ fair, the first young scientists’ and engineers’ fair coordinated by the Engineering and Technology Board on behalf of the science and engineering community. Industry and the Academy, alongside the major engineering institutions, are supporting this new initiative wholeheartedly. If it succeeds, it will create a step change in the promotion of science and engineering to schools. Up to 9,000 visitors including schoolchildren and teachers are expected to attend the three day event in Westminster. It is a measure of the Chairman of the ETB, Sir Anthony Cleaver’s confidence that next year’s venue is already booked.
Amidst all the excitement of the fair, though, the real challenge is to communicate the intellectual journey that engineering brings as a key element of the process of wealth creation. We need to focus: more content, more exemplars; accessible, authoritative, independent, inspired. We have all the raw material. We have a Fellowship with vast experience and goodwill towards the Academy. 2009 is a year of great opportunity for us and the whole engineering profession. Let’s take it.
Dr Scott Steedman FREng