Responses to: Education Editorial, Building for floods



Dr Scott Steedman highlighted in his editorial Attracting the next generation (Ingenia 59) that we don’t get enough young people into engineering – that there are too few students studying A-level physics and maths, as well as too few graduates in the UK.

However, the situation is even worse than Dr Steedman suggests. The graduates that we are getting through include fewer with a ‘feel for stuff’ – that subconscious feel for what works in the physical world, and what doesn’t. There are many with abilities in computer modelling and design that are impressive but virtual world skills are not enough for most engineering work.

When I interview people to join my company and my R&D group, I look for people with a practical turn. I don’t hire anyone who hasn’t got this. The problem is, I keep finding good people who don’t have that engineering feel. I am not the only one: a Gatsby Charitable Foundation 2011 study also revealed a decline in undergraduates’ practical skills.

We have a ‘valley of death’, when, from age 10 or 11 until 17 or 18, young people don’t undertake much practical work. Younger kids engage in making and playing with real things from wooden bricks to Lego Technic and Meccano. And then at university, we have some great teaching labs and project work. But for those years in between, to their great loss, youngsters don’t take up things that would show them the basics of physics and engineering.

For some reason, schools, parents, peers and media seem to form an unholy alliance that discourages the overwhelming majority of young people from doing anything practical. Students who have little hands-on experience are much less likely to choose a physics and maths A-level course and to choose engineering as a career, as a recent Royal Society report Vision for Science and Mathematics Education pointed out.

And the valley of death just got deeper! A recent change in the school curriculum has enormously reduced the importance of practical work at A level. A-level practicals will now be separated from the qualification itself, recorded as a separate pass or fail. This means that many schools will give up on most A-level practical work and this will downgrade hands-on school science as a whole. To crown it all, I have seen a paralysing lack of confidence in hands-on science work among primary school teachers. Only a few teachers feel that they can do it.

We must act to counter this trend. Our efforts must run from primary up to A level. The importance of getting a feel for engineering as early as primary level is highlighted in the recent Royal Academy of Engineering report Thinking like an engineer

We all need – I am with Dr Steedman on this – to help maths and science teachers get an appreciation for engineering. I conduct lectures and demonstrations for teachers which are usually lots of fun and can really make an impression on teachers. They can positively influence their practical know-how, their motivation and confidence. We can also help out with science and engineering clubs where kids have hands-on projects. And we can all encourage sixth formers to do hands-on projects for extended project qualifications (EPQs) alongside their A levels or baccalaureates.

Engineers like Stephenson and Brunel, who had a ‘feel for stuff’, lit the torch of progress that has led us to the modern world. We must make sure that we can pass that torch on to future generations.

Professor Neil A Downie
Lead R&D Engineer at Air Products,
RAEng Visiting Professor at the
University of Surrey and author of the
Saturday Science series


In his excellent editorial in the June 2014 edition of Ingenia (Attracting the next generation), Dr Steedman rightly draws attention to two important points: the need to counter the shortfall of young people progressing to engineering careers; and the need to achieve a revolution in the attitudes of the public, young people, and the parents and teachers who influence them, towards engineering.

The Perkins Report (Review of Engineering Skills) calls for increasing engagement between engineering employers and schools in order to develop the ‘skills’ base in engineering. There is nothing new in this, of course – I well remember the National Electronics Council Link Scheme for Industry and Schools coordinated by Essex University in the 1970s. Indeed, engineering outreach initiatives in schools have been going on for a very long time. I can think of no other discipline area that has been served by so many initiatives and interventions in schools.

Has all this work been successful? Evidently not, if we are now seeking renewed activity! One area, that of school-leavers progressing to engineering higher education, is worthy of particular consideration. A Times Higher Education article earlier this year 'Subject to popular demand', looked at subject discipline ‘winners and losers’ in the post 1996-97 boom in UK HE enrolment, by considering HESA statistics that track the total number of home and overseas, full-time and part-time, postgraduate and undergraduate HE students in the 16 years to 2011-12. During this period, overall student numbers increased by 42.2% and many subjects exceeded this growth. The article reports: "As for engineering and technology … student numbers have grown by an underwhelming 21 per cent … . Even more worrying for those who fear for the UK’s engineering and technology base, of the 28,000 students this subject area has gained since 1996-97, 21,000 have been from overseas". There is clearly a problem.

One area of particular concern is that of women in engineering – currently less than 10% of the UK’s engineering workforce. HE Statistics from the EngineeringUK 2014 Report reveal that the proportion of all female applicants (all domiciles) for engineering out of all university undergraduate degrees has remained stubbornly constant at about 1% over the 10 years to 2012. This is despite the hard work and innovative interventions in schools by WISE (Women in Science and Engineering – active for 25 years) and WES (Women’s Engineering Society, with a history of some 95 years).

Looking also at just UK-domiciled student applicants to engineering of both genders, the EngineeringUK report statistics shows that this proportion has remained roughly constant at 3.5% of all applicants for the 10-year period.

In other words, the plain fact is that outreach activities in schools have had no significant sustained effect in increasing the proportion of students studying engineering degrees. No wonder, I suppose, given that there are some 21,500 primary schools and 4,000 secondary schools in the UK, with 4.8M and 3.7M student learners respectively. The resource needed for effective and sustained outreach engagement at this scale is simply overwhelming. Yet we continue to reinvent the approach. As Einstein is credited with saying, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”

(Underlining the problem, Ofqual recently consulted on a proposal to remove engineering qualifications at GCSE and Advanced Level, low take-up being a contributory factor.)

So what can be done? Here I turn to the second point from Dr Steedman’s Editorial – effectively the public perception of engineering. We not only need to bring the true nature and range of engineering activities to the public’s attention, but we need to correct misunderstanding and confusion which reigns, and which we in the engineering community have seemed content to accept. The following points come to mind.

While the public regularly interact with professionals such as doctors, dentists, vets, lawyers and accountants, their exposure to people bearing the title ‘engineer’ is mainly restricted to those who service domestic products, or motor cars, or install broadband, and so on – blue-collar workers who are often regarded as ‘fixing things’. These are better described as engineering workers, or mechanics, or servicemen, or at best technicians, but so often are described by the media as engineers. Thus there is little if any exposure of the public to the world of the professional engineer. This is a problem regularly articulated over many years (for example the 2009 National Grid report Engineering Our Future: Inspiring and attracting tomorrow’s engineers, and more recently the ERA Foundation report Changing Perceptions: Opening people’s eyes to engineering launched at the Royal Academy earlier this year). That the recent TV series in the Crossrail project used the term ‘engineer’ as a descriptor for all those involved in the project, be they manual workers or professional engineers muddies anyone’s idea of what a career or a degree in engineering might be about.

We do not use the descriptor ‘Professional Engineer’ (not available for legal reasons that we seem not prepared to challenge), but instead indulge in such titles as ‘Registered Engineer’, ‘Chartered Engineer’ or ‘Incorporated Engineer’, confusing to the public.

We have allowed the word ‘technology’ to displace ‘engineering’ in many areas, the phrase ‘science and technology’ so often being used without reference to engineering; yet seldom is technology and its relationship to engineering explained. If ‘technology’ is as important as its use suggests, would we not expect to see more university degree courses in the subject (in fact there are over ten times more engineering than technology courses on the Engineering Council accredited course website)?

The acronym STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths), dreary in its ubiquity, seems now to be used as a catchall for science, and is never unpicked to explain the differences in its components. Here there is considerable confusion. Deeply embedded in the psyche of most media reporters is an assumption that engineering is science, or is a subset of science; as a result, many engineering activities and achievements are attributed to science and scientists. There appears little understanding by the media that science is about understanding the world, about analysis of natural phenomena to produce models of behaviour that are then used to predict other behaviours (the ‘scientific method’). Engineering, on the other hand, is about synthesis, about creativity, invention, and innovation. Engineers create things, and in so doing engage with areas of science, maths, design, problem solving, quality, finance, business, management, environment, law, health and safety, ethics, and so on. So engineering is no more a subset of science than it is a subset of maths; neither is engineering simply applied science (or applied maths), but a much wider discipline (the US National Academy of Engineering found that linking engineering to science and maths was a disincentive to young people’s engagement).

In short, improving the public perception of engineering is not just about explaining what is engineering, and what engineers do (at all levels); it is also about resolving the confusion that we have allowed to be perpetrated without challenge or correction. We need a major initiative to rebrand engineering so that the young people, parents, those in Whitehall and Westminster, Teachers, the media – indeed our society in general is aware of the major part that engineers play in all aspects of our lives, and in meeting the challenges of the future. Then, I suggest, we should have no problem in encouraging our best young people into a subject of such challenge and importance.

In the Royal Academy of Engineering Summer Newsletter 2014, the President, Sir John Parker, says “My instinct now is that we need to become much better at coordinating and amplifying the messages that young people receive”, To start, we could do a lot worse than look at the US National Academy of Engineering work (Changing the conversation and Messaging for Engineering). They, too, have many of the problems that we experience.

Professor Kel Fidler CEng HonFIET FREng
Professor Emeritus and formerly Vice-Chancellor,
University of Northumbria and immediate past
Chairman of the Engineering Council


Dr Scott Steedman’s valuable editorial on the challenge of attracting subsequent generations to engineering ( Ingenia 59) has prompted further interesting correspondence from Professors Downie and Fidler on the issue of young people getting both a feel for, and understanding of, what our exciting profession offers. While I am completely unqualified to comment on any of the underlying educational theory, or philosophy, of the issues raised, I thought Ingenia readers might be interested in a successful initiative that the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) has been running for a number of years. At RIAT, the RAF Charitable Trust funds a significant investment in a Techno Zone exhibit which seeks to stimulate the interest of the younger visitors (ages 5 to 18) that attend the Air Tattoo in engineering and technology.

RIAT Techno Zone

Our view has always been that a capable air force requires a nation rich in aerospace capability, to stay at the top of its game. The Techno Zone includes a variety of stands, on which around 30 exhibitors provide technology exhibits created with ‘have a go’ in mind, designed to stimulate the young mind in STEM subjects. We estimate some 40,000 of our overall attendance of 140,000 people at the Air Tattoo visited the Techno Zone. Among our many exhibitors were Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems, Airbus and QinetiQ, as well as universities, colleges and the professions. Exhibits ranged from the relatively simple, such as the use of water pressure to propel rockets in a race, to the more advanced, such as the chance to use virtual reality fighter pilot helmets.

I had the pleasure of accompanying His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales around the exhibits, at which he met and spoke to a number of the exhibitors and many young visitors. I can report that there was no shortage of enthusiasm from the youngsters of all ages for this opportunity to get involved in some of the fundamentals of engineering. Indeed, one post-event feedback card included a mother’s frustration that “having paid to take her young son to an air show, it proved difficult to get him out of the Techno Zone to watch the flying display”!

My sense is, therefore, that the more of this type of events that industry, the education community, government, the profession and charities can help deliver, the more we will be able to make inroads into the challenging issue outlined in the editorial and follow-on correspondence. In this respect, I commend the drive from Sir John Parker and the Academy and the active support from Sir Peter Luff MP and the Royal Family to draw attention to the challenge and encourage the many practical steps that are being taken. Our experience at the Royal Air Force Charitable Trust is that investing in events such as the RIAT Techno Zone is extremely worthwhile. Should any readers wish to contribute an exhibit to next year’s RIAT Techno Zone or help with sponsorship, do let me know.

Sir Kevin Leeson KCB CBE FREng CEng FIET
President Royal International Air Tattoo
and Chairman RAF Charitable Trust


The Ingenia 59 Opinion piece The future management of flood risk talked of the 2013/14 floods, demonstrating the UK's suspectibility to flooding. Today, the policy for flood protection has shifted towards flood risk management on the basis that we cannot defend against all flooding eventualities - indeed, the costs would be prohibitive for many locations.

Building for floods

A new riverside house in Marlow has been designed as a floating home, with a waterproof concrete hull, that sits in a wet dock excavated into the ground. The whole house is buoyed by the floodwater and held in place between four guideposts with the excavation creating additional flood storage.

The new approach to managing risk has yet to trickle down to town and city design; in many cases, we still rely on flood defences as the only solution. Yet it is possible to design flood-resilient buildings, neighbourhoods and cities, it just needs a shift in design approach and mind-set. It requires understanding that flooding eventualities - indeed, the costs would be prohibitive for many locations.

Climate and flows modelling can predict the levels, depths, velocity and extent of floods and help form an understanding of how these impact on development. Computer simulations can be used to plan towns and cities around natural flow paths to allow space for water and increase the capacity of the built environment to cope with flooding.

In the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs-funded Long-term Initiatives for Flood Risk Environments project and the TSB-funded Climate Adaptive Neighborhoods project, our company found that not only could space for water be provided within development but that it could also provide other benefits such as amenity space, building and environment cooling, increased habitat and space to provide onsite renewable energy.

Through masterplanning in Hackbridge, Littlehampton, Norwich, Paris and Nijmegen, we have consistently found that well-designed and considered development in flood-risk areas can not only reduce flood risk to surrounding areas but also deliver more sustainable developments.

With each masterplan created, areas of land have been given multiple functions so that parks, squares and play areas serve the community every day, but in times of flooding can be called upon to provide flood storage. The costs of these are no more than traditional squares or village greens - forward thinking is all that is required. In Littlehampton, a new development will create a tidal lagoon which, in combination with coastal defences, will protect more than 100 homes and businesses.

There also many opportunities through actual building design to reduce flood risk. These include elevating properties, designing for flood resilience and resistance, and building amphibious and floating homes. The amphibious house (pictured) in Marlow, which is nearing completion, has been designed to cope with 2.5m of flood water.

We need to bring water to the forefront of planning and design. In the same way that solar orientation is fundamental to low-energy design, it should be a catalyst, not an afterthought. We must stop relying solely on flood defences, which if they fail or are overtopped can be devastating. We need to learn to live with water, understanding the effects and managing the consequences. If we made space for water in all new developments, we would actually start to reduce flood risk across the country.

Robert Barker
Director, Baca architects

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